The pretentious table: Cheap starches get a high-priced makeover

Over the past few years, as upscale cuisine has increasingly divorced itself from anything resembling what the average person consumes, an interesting trend has emerged: modest, mainstream foods have often been co-opted by the culinary elites. This has led to a strange reversal, wherein peasant food has become, literally, fit for a king.

The upmarketing trend has been particularly obvious when it comes to starches. Basically used to provide filler and carbohydrates to a meal, starches tend to be the cheapest, most basic things on a plate. However, while all humans need to consume carbs, the super-rich demand something more than a simple cereal grain or a prosaic potato. Their carbs have to be exotic and profound, even when their origins are simple and plebian.

This became particularly clear to me recently, when a friend of mine paid $8.95 for a bowl of steel-cut oats in a diner in New York's Union Square. While her oatmeal was absolutely delicious, with just the right touch of brown sugar, bananas and golden grapes, it was still plain old steel cut oats, the cereal of choice for burly farm laborers in the British Isles.

Then again, perhaps it is just those sorts of rural associations that are helping steel cut oats make a comeback. The chewy, rough-textured grains are certainly hardy; in fact, if they aren't cooked long enough, it becomes clear why their original adherents walked on four legs. Still, there is no doubt about their healthy properties: steel cut oats' low glycemic index means that it doesn't cause a spike in blood sugar and the fact that it isn't as gummy as the more common rolled oats adds to their delicious texture. Little wonder, then, that the renowned Silver Palate Gourmet has seen fit to release its own line of oats to compete with McCann's iconic steel-cut cereal.

Brown rice is another poverty grain that made the switch to mainstream. The preferred side dish for models and health food fanatics, un-milled was originally considered a standard grain for seriously poor people. In Asia, it is still associated with wartime rationing, although it is also a traditional dish for the old, the infirm, and those suffering from constipation.

In the US, however, brown rice carries a completely different association. Its lower glycemic index, more difficult preparation method, and extra vitamins mean that it doesn't offer quite the fattening boost of white rice, and its higher price narrow its target audience.

In a similar way, potatoes have been elevated from a mass-market food enjoyed by poor people to a delicacy for the wealthy. In the 16th century, when potatoes were brought to Europe by the Spanish, they were quickly adopted as a cheap, plentiful starch. A potato field could grow far more food than a comparably planted wheat field. Higher production meant that fewer farmers could feed more people. Some historians (including Fernand Braudel) have argued that the potato was a key step in the development of the industrial revolution.

Of course, those potatoes, like today's russets and red skins, were popular with the underclasses, as they offered a lot of food for little money. In time, however, culinary wizardry has transformed the humble tater into wonders like "roasted garlic mashed potatoes," "Lyonnaise potato galette," and other specialties, while selective breeding has produced all sorts of so-called "heirloom" varieties. With names like "Adirondack Blue," "Early Rose" and "Arran Victory," they come in a wide array of purples, pinks, and reds, and their flavors have been likened to the ambrosial food of the gods.

To be honest, they're basically just potatoes. Really, really expensive potatoes.

When it comes to increased popularity, grains in general are poised for a renaissance. Polenta, for example, is basically a boiled gruel made from corn meal. A cousin of the more proletarian grits, it has benefited from its association with Mario Batali, who seems to fetishize it. At the end of the day, however, it's basically gruel.

The same could be said, really, of couscous, millet, and bulghur. Although couscous experienced a brief burst of popularity on the gourmet food front, it was undermined by its lack of a powerful advocate. Bereft of a Batali, it joined its coarse-grained breathren in the health-food wasteland, alongside carob chips and keffir. Still, all three are healthy, reasonably inexpensive, and offer some exciting dietary options. For that matter, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) is a tasty grain that is relatively cheap and very high in protein.

Besides, if you adopt them now, you'll be able to tell your friends that you were eating quinoa, millet, and bulghur back before they were popular!
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