In cookbooks, is 'rustic' a codeword for 'ugly'?

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No less an authority than Humpty Dumpty said that words mean exactly what he chooses them to mean, but one word in a new book title got me wondering.The question began when I judged a contest of fancy French fruit tarts earlier this month, where one chef scored low on presentation, but super-high on flavor. The chef, Becky Selengut, said later that her tart had been ugly. “Rustic,” I protested. Rustic, she replied, was just a code word meaning ugly.

It wasn’t long after that I saw Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson’s new book, “Rustic Fruit Desserts,” an appetizing paean to the cobblers, crumbles, and other delights that can be coaxed from ripe seasonal fruits. Book titles are usually calibrated so precisely, with such an eye for sales and audience, I had to ask the authors what they thought about the possibility of a code word lurking in theirs. “Ugly Fruit Desserts,” after all, would hardly have the same lure.

Schreiber responded with the story of a well-known chef named Brad Ogden. “I helped him open his first independent restaurant in Larkspur, Ca, called the Lark Creek Inn, in 1989. The restaurant was a homespun return to dumplings, short ribs, Cobb salad, buttermilk fried chicken, apple pie, etc.,” Schreiber wrote in an e-mail. “

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Brad used to say, “Rustic, babes, rustic,” when conveying how (he) wanted items to look. To Schreiber, it just means simple, approachable.

Richardson added more: “Rustic translates, in my mind, to something that doesn’t require lots of fussing, from its preparation to its position on the plate. To some this might be 'ugly' but to me the beauty lies in the true flavors verses its appearance.  We have all had too many pretty cakes that taste of cardboard.”

True, that. The recipes from Rustic Fruit Desserts leave me awash in the pleasures of crisps and crumbles and slumps, practically running to the farmers market to see what ingredients to use at their most juicy peak.

And the tart contest? The winner did have both elegant beauty and taste. But in my personal scorebook, Selengut’s Montmorency cherry tart, was the only one I’ve been thinking of since, thinking of the taste, wishing I had the recipe. She now refers to the tart as “fugtastic” (fantastic+ugly). Maybe there’s a book in that word too.

Rebekah Denn writes at www.eatallaboutit.com.

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