There’s a little phrase I learned the other day that keeps popping up in my mind: “amuse bouche.” Evidently, this is a serving of food that just teases your mouth, since it’s too small even to qualify as an appetizer.
Now, in my book, this includes every meal ever served at any expensive restaurant, but I’d usually call those pissoffabouche, or apperithieves.
At the other end of the spectrum are New Jersey diner portions, which are served on dishes the size of platters, filled to the brim and piled high with delicious extravagance. You must have the wherewithal to pace yourself, and to ask for a doggy bag before you eat yourself sick. Otherwise, you won’t be able to consume the mandatory strawberry cheese cake or carrot cake for dessert. These are served in slices big enough to leave a South Asian village sated.
Neither of these extremes is acceptable, but I’m afraid I have no answer to the questions “What’s a decent portion? How big should an appetizer be? An entree? A dessert?”
I could never have learned this at my mother’s knee. Mama grew up during the Depression, when too little food was available, and she had TB in her teens, which left her painfully thin. Add this to the fact that she lived in Havana, where plump is a synonym for pretty, and the die was cast. Mama believed no meal was adequate until it added two pounds to your backside. She served huge portions and took great offense if you didn’t eat seconds; when she met Jeff and he asked for thirds, she told me to marry him.
When we got married, I tried to match our servings to his appetite, without taking into account the fact that the man had the metabolism of a hummingbird. I had no such thing, but I ate pretty much what he did… and in time, I managed to double my weight.
Then we had kids. She was never a picky eater, God bless her, but he was a revelation. This kid could eat. A day after he was born, the nurse picked him up from my room and said, “I know him. This is that hungry kid.” He breast fed. He demanded a supplementary bottle. He cried for more. In fact, when we took him home, the doctor told me, “that’s the only baby I’ve ever seen who gained weight in the hospital.”
When he was eleven or twelve, he had a bad attack of something gastric, and wound up in the hospital again. They sent a nutritionist to meet with him.
“You know, dear,” she said, “to avoid situations like this in the future, and to bring your weight under control, you’re going to have to modify your portions. Are you willing to do that?”
“Yes,” he replied meekly.
“Your typical entree should include a cup of vegetables, half a cup of something starchy, like rice or potatoes, and four ounces of meat.” She lifted up her little hand. “That’s about the size of your hand when you make a fist.”
She didn’t take into account the size of his hands, which rival ham steaks.
“Would you be willing to try this, starting with dinner tonight?”
“Sure,” he said.
He was quite amenable… until they brought him his dinner and he lifted the cloche off the plate.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?”
I looked at him, helplessly.
“That’s the dinner you agreed to, dear.”
My sweet little boy let out a string of expletives that would have made a sailor proud, and didn’t stop until he was brought a sizeable chicken sandwich, with a salad and fries.
When my son moved out two years ago, a new phenomenon introduced itself into our lives: leftovers. Even with our big portions, it became evident that Jeff and I couldn’t eat everything I was cooking.
In time, I started cooking smaller amounts of food… and now, I’m never sure I’m making enough to put on the table.
Tonight, this brought me some consternation.
I had defrosted a pound and a half of ground beef; half what I used to cook with.
Then, I added seasoning, bread crumbs, an egg, onion, and proceeded to make meatballs.
I made eighteen or twenty, then I stared at the plate. Was this enough?
Of course it was!!! What kind of behemoths need more than ten meatballs apiece??? In fact, three would be the equivalent of a decent hamburger; even in our “two all-beef patties” society, wouldn’t five or six be enough?
I cooked all of them. Then I put pasta on our dishes, and scooped on the meatballs: five for me, seven for Jeff.
We sat down to dinner. I finished in half the time he took to eat, satisfied, but not stuffed. When he finished, I asked “Would you like more?” He replied, “no, I’m good.”
These were twice the portions we would have eaten at an expensive restaurant, and half what we would have had at a diner.
I’m not sure they’re exactly ideal portions — more experimentation is necessary — but I do believe my bouche is more than amused. It’s positively satisfied.