Who among us can say what a bay leaf tastes like? Not me, although I dutifully throw a leaf or two into a braise whenever the recipe dictates, and to consistently mysterious effect. Kelly Conaboy, formerly of Gawker, writing at the Awl, suggests that this is not due to the bay leaf’s gustatory subtlety being beyond what my Chipotle-seared taste buds can detect (my longstanding assumption) but rather due to a Big Bay Leaf Conspiracy:
Maybe you’ve had this experience: You throw a bay leaf into a broth, and it doesn’t do anything. Then you throw the rest of the bay leaves you bought into the broth, too, because you only bought them for this, and you’ll be damned if you don’t taste a bay leaf, and they don’t do anything, either. What could be the cause of this? I’ll tell you. Bay leaves are bullshit.
What does a bay leaf taste like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf smell like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf look like? A leaf. How does a bay leaf behave? It behaves as a leaf would, if you took a leaf from the tree outside of your apartment building and put it into your soup. People say, “Boil a bay leaf in some water and then taste the water if you want to know what a bay leaf tastes like.”
Rather than making bay water—Conaboy’s “no” is a good summation of the fact that finding yourself hunched over a single bay leaf in a teacup of boiling water is an extremely quick shortcut to wondering why you are even alive on this earth—our bay leaf conspiracist asks the experts.
Chef Anna Klinger, of Park Slope’s Al Di La, said: “I like them and use quite a bit.”
Anna Klinger and I are not technically friends so I do not take this lie personally, and I appreciate the way she did not explicitly state on record that bay leaves are not bullshit. Sneaky.
Just as much as this piece is about what we want out of bay leaves, it is about what we want out of experts (direct confirmation of our personal views).
Chef Joseph Brancaccio, of Windsor Terrace’s Brancaccio’s, said: “Sorry, Kelly, they’re not bullshit. Chicken soup, rice pilaf. I watched my grandmother use them. Taste the difference by cutting one in half in your cooking. Kale, on the other hand, is bullshit.”
I love Joe’s sandwiches, but it is unsettling to find out that he would lie about bay leaves with such ease to me, a valued customer.
Chef Kate Jacoby, of Philadephia’s Vedge, said: “We definitely use bay leaves here at Vedge and at our other restaurant V Street. I’ve worked with them a little bit in pastry. Funny story, we had a person prepping a kaffir lime ice cream base, and they mistakenly used bay leaves. It was actually pretty tasty. But the bulk of our bay leaves are used in savory preparations.”
My impression of the person prepping the ice cream base: “Dunno why Kate wants this leaf in here…”
Ultimately, even though she asks Anthony Bourdain and everything, Conaboy’s dogged pursuit is futile—as futile as putting a bay leaf in your Sunday slow-cook situation and expecting anything in return.
Speak now if you know what a bay leaf tastes like.
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