John Landis Mason did not invent the mason jar so that some desperate chef could stuff it with salad or pie or crab or whatever is coming next. Maybe nachos. Mason came up with the idea for a molded glass jar with a metal lid sealed with a rubber ring to keep our country from starving to death. It was 1858. There were flies and sandstorms, and no one had refrigerators. People were lucky if they scored a block of ice in the summer. Mason developed the utilitarian jar that now carries his name so people could preserve fruits and vegetables. It was, quite literally, a lifesaver.
But over the past few years, restaurants have corrupted Mason’s humble, noble invention by jamming all sorts of dishes into it—dips and desserts, omelets. Even sushi. Menus these days seem more like Pinterest boards. They should have a sommelier who recommends what Instagram filter pairs best with, say, foie gras mousseline. My grandmother would be aghast.
When I stayed with her in Wichita Falls, she would sterilize a bunch of the jars and hand them to me to dry, while she told me about how she’d canned food her whole life because you never knew when you needed to have extra food. She raised her family during the Dust Bowl years and never forgot the nights she had to put her kids to bed hungry.
My grandmother and I filled the jars with tomatoes, greens, and okra and stacked them in her dark, creepy concrete storm shelter next to candles, salt, and sugar. It was an eerie, yet beautiful, sight; the jars almost glowed in the near-dark. I couldn’t help but visualize all 23 members of our extended family stacked on top of each other, eating pickled okra while a tornado wiped out all of West Texas.
It’s hard to picture that same image, but with jars filled instead with cheesecake and sausage omelets.
Chefs, let me level with you. If you feel the urge to trick up your food presentation this much, maybe you need to work on making the food itself better. We have plates, platters, and bowls. Why fill martini glasses with shrimp cocktails or gazpacho? Knock it off. It’s not just a matter of being too precious. I’m still not sure whether serving charcuterie on a wooden board is safe for public consumption. Are the boards sanitized before they are reused? And even if they are, is whatever they used to kill the bacteria going to seep into the $25 slice of Jamón Ibérico?
I shouldn’t have to consider these questions. No diner should. The world is already too complicated. Chefs, I beg you to keep it simple. Trim a radish into a rose or carve a flower out of a carrot. That’s cute. And it’s the kind of cute that takes some talent.