Aristocracy cooking: Using truffles to throw away money

Ever since I quit smoking and downing the occasional bottle of NyQuil, I seem to be running low on vices. Back in the day, I used to eat Big Macs two at a time, smoke cigarettes like I was Bogie with a death wish, and guzzle booze like Lindsay Lohan on...well, on any given Thursday night. Over the last few years, I've cleaned up my act and cut out most of my nasty habits. Nowadays, I feel like I'm breaking the rules when I don't check to make sure that my whole-grain bread is free of high fructose corn syrup or my V-8 is low sodium.

I still have a few guilty pleasures, most of which revolve around food. Although I generally eat well, watch the nutritional content of my meals, and budget carefully, I still like to splurge from time to time. Mostly, however, my culinary crimes revolve around either cheap ethnic restaurants or foods that I prepare myself. To put it bluntly, I'm starting to question whether fine dining is really worth the money. Lately, it seems like many restaurants are focusing on price to the exclusion of art and quality. A prime example of this is the recent explosion of truffles.

Truffles are incredibly rare fungi that grow underground, near the roots of trees. The best ones are from Italy, where farmers and "truffle hunters" harvest them in the fall. Truffles have been eaten since at least the fourth century B.C., but I would argue that they have reached their culinary apex in current-day New York, where horking down truffles has become a high-priced status symbol. You see, in addition to being delicious, truffles are amazingly pricey; in fact, caviar is the only foodstuff that is more expensive.

Because of their delicate, pungent flavor, truffles are best served in simple foods where they can shine. Therefore, chefs have traditionally used them very sparingly, lightly shaving them over pasta or mixing them in with delicate pates. Recently, however, New York chefs have begun slathering them on any handy dish, largely as a way of making it more expensive. For example, the Waverly Inn gained a certain measure of fame for its truffle macaroni and cheese. Essentially, they make standard mac and cheese, then shave a truffle over top of it. The price for this culinary monstrosity? $85.

Lest you think that truffle disease is a minor delusion that is confined to the Waverly, it's worth checking out Totally Baked, a potato restaurant that recently unveiled the "truffle potato." Basically, it's a Yukon gold potato that is covered in truffle shavings, truffle butter, truffle oil, truffle salt, and heavy cream. Weighing in with 1,125 calories and 95.5 grams of fat, the truffle potato costs an impressive $55.

Impressive though they may be, truffle potatoes and truffle mac and cheese pale in comparison to the big granddaddy of ridiculous truffle food: Frank Tujague's Truffle Bagel. A chef at the Westin New York hotel, Tujague developed the truffle bagel as a fundraiser for Les Amis Escoffier, a scholarship fund that raises money for French culinary arts students. The bagel features white truffle cream cheese, goji berry-infused riesling jelly, and gold leaf. It costs a mere $1,000.

Let's hope the kids who get the Escoffier scholarship learn how to actually cook, not just dump truffles on top of comfort foods!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's just mad that his "truffle ramen" idea never caught fire.
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