Simple by design


One of these things is not like the others.

Last week I attended a holiday party held by a local publication. This biannual event is always characterized by classy live music and an atmosphere of big-city sophistication found so rarely in the south-central Indiana college town where I live that it always seems to verge on the surreal.

Another defining feature of the event is the elaborate presentation of food. A central table holds crudités, charcuterie and fish. On this occasion the fish were two strapping salmon (discreetly shorn of their heads and tails) festooned with cucumber-slice scales. The muscular fish were artfully arranged side by side to evoke their movement while swimming. (Nothing says “eat me” like a headless corpse positioned so as to suggest its once-lithe motion.)

This pair were joined by a regiment of jumbo prawns hanging from the edge of a silver tureen, as though hitching a ride on a passing ocean vessel. Or perhaps they were meant to evoke a still from a synchronized swimming performance.

Arranged around this table of plenty were servers at designated stations offering roasted meat, stuffed duck and vegetables. I headed for the vegetables, at least the ones I could spot — namely, the mashed potato station, which had sweet potatoes and white potatoes, some plain and others with garlic — comfort food at its most comforting. The entry end of the station was set up with the dishware into which your choice of mash would be spooned: cocktail glasses. Now, I’m no snob when it comes to dishes; I’ve eaten my fair share of meals out of cardboard boxes, melamine bowls bought at thrift stores and even, in a pinch, off roughsawn boards. But the prospect of mashed potatoes in a cocktail glass when regular ceramic plates are available strikes me as no less distasteful than a headless salmon swimming coldly across a serving board in a cloak of cucumber.

These glasses were clearly intended to make a statement. You may be eating the most common dish in Midwestern cuisine, they seemed to suggest, but in this establishment, you’re going to do so with Style. Or perhaps they were meant to be ironic. (Then again, we are in Indiana, so probably not.) Either way, I couldn’t handle the pretension. So I went over to the main serving table and got a good old-fashioned hors d’oeuvre plate.

A stern woman was standing behind the potatoes; there seemed to be a problem with one of the tureens, and she was trying to fix it. Feeling slightly abashed at violating protocol, I explained that I’d rather eat potatoes off a plate, because I found the cocktail glasses affected — perfect for a sidecar or martini (full disclosure: I have never had a sidecar), and even fine for zabaglione or sorbet. But mashed potatoes? I meant my comment to be received as a gesture of solidarity with the server.

Well, no such luck. She looked pointedly at my name tag. (This is one of those events where you get a name tag at the entrance, so other guests know who you are and which business you work for.) “Design?” she sniffed. “You’re in design? And you find the idea of eating potatoes out of a cocktail glass just ‘too too … ‘?” She trailed off, allowing me to complete the sentence.

Taken aback, I looked at her name tag. And realized that I had just unwittingly offended the director of catering.

The word “design” appears in my business name because when I started the business in 1995, I wanted to make clear that the thinking and intentionality implied by the word “design” were central to the kind of work I wanted to do. In other words, I wanted to design, as well as build; I wasn’t setting out to operate a mill like the one at a then-flourishing lumberyard, where you could take your sketch for a toilet seat and see it made three-dimensional in burly walnut, or hand over your drawing for a pair of corn hole boards to coordinate with your FratBoy Blind Date Horror game. This interest in maximizing my agency in an enterprise where I am working not for myself, but for clients, on every job, is not synonymous with a sense of obligation to demonstrate my chops by adopting the latest sparkling novelty or trend. To the contrary.

–Nancy R. Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Note: The mashed potatoes in the picture above were not from the party but made at home from yellow potatoes, and I have the greatest respect for the late Esther Williams.

27 responses to “Simple by design

  1. Shame on you. You upset one of the ‘chosen’.
    We, the not ‘chosen’, should not be seen or heard for We no nothing. 🙂

    • I think she was in a bind because there was something wrong with one of the potato tureens. I’m sure that this did not help her mood. I would have kept my mouth shut if I’d had any inkling that I was going to offend her. I suffer from foot in mouth disease.

  2. Sidecars are yummy. And you don’t have to use expensive brandy. I buy 1.75L jugs of Raynal VSOP for $30. De Kuyper or Hiram Walker triple sec are both fine but use the 60 proof, not 30 proof. And always fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Making the sugar rim is easier if you wet the rim with lemon juice instead of water.

  3. Who else but you could make a funny story out of eating mashed potatoes out of a glass.

    Hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Glad to see you are still writing for Pop wood.

    Megan’s departure kind of took me by surprise, but i wish her the best.



    • I can think of a few people who would make a funny story out of eating mashed potatoes from a cocktail glass (one of them is Megan). Here’s wishing you, too (and also “you two”) all the best this holiday season.

  4. “Charcouterie”…..admit it….you threw that in for Christopher Schwarz’s benefit ,,,,didn’t you?

  5. The mashed potatoes in a Martini Glass just sounds like a pain in the **s, but I don’t understand the difficulty in the knowledge that the meats we eat come from once living animals…heads and tails on or off? Who cares?! Its Salmon! Bon Appetit :),

    • There is no difficulty in understanding that, just a certain uneasiness with the over-the-top presentation.

    • Now if they were doing it properly, with maximum historical design, they should have replaced the salmon heads with the pickled upper parts of some other animal, perhaps a suckling pig (it really should be a small monkey but I don’t think they pickle well and more people would have run off screaming or barfing). There is even a proper Museum term for these concoctions – Melusines (fake mermaids), or in Medieval terms – a Subtlety. The sort of dish that was made for Royal feasts and similar events, along with wine fountains.

      • Oh my goodness! Thank you — not just for enhancing my culinary awareness (and that of anyone else who may read your comment) with this gem of historical information, but for reminding me, specifically, how provincial and conservative my views on this topic have become. The establishment in question puts on an annual Madrigal Feast, where I expect the fare is more historically nuanced. The holiday party I attended had no such theme. But pickled monkeys? HELP! No Melusines or Subtleties for me.

  6. Interesting story. Sounds like the definition of “take the work seriously, not yourself.”

  7. Ms. Hiller, you are definitely my kind of human being. 🙂

  8. Bravo! Down with pretension… time bring your battleaxe and be done with it all!

  9. In fancy-pants Philadelphia restaurants, mashed potatoes are “classy” when they’re served in tiny portions.

    Sad, but true.

  10. Potatoes in a cocktail glass… I never would have imagined that. Perfect match for a wooden bowl, though!

  11. Are you supposed to drink/slurp the potatoes out of the glass? A large diameter milkshake straw would be a good idea along with a bacon, cheddar cheese and sour cream martini for the other hand.

  12. There is a whole forum for folks who find similar absurdities. I suspect you would enjoy a quick visit..

  13. Never mind the taters, Mater. Was this Ball State, Muncie,In. Blunders in a social setting should be excused. I do enjoy your blogs.

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