Could it be that we, as sophisticated New York foodies, are really just a just a bunch of babies stuck in Freud’s infamous oral phase? Mr. Psychology himself proposed that if a nursing child’s appetite was thwarted during any psychosexual stage, that anxiety could manifest in adulthood as a neurosis. Thus, an infantile oral fixation would spiral into an adult obsession with oral stimulation. While I often apply this theory to smokers and nail biters, perhaps everyone really just wants balls in their mouth. Why? It seems that spherical sustenance has been popping up all over town.
Lately, I’ve noticed an odd food phenomenon in the Big Apple. What started as a meatball craze, with folks flocking to the Lower East Side’s The Meatball Shop, has turned into a full-on gastronomical drift towards all things orbicular. My hypothesis began to take its circular shape whilst dining at bi-level West Village haunt, bobo recently, where my meal consisted of devilled eggs, crab cakes and gnocchi. Circinate coincidence? Last season’s Top Chef finalist and executive chef at Plein Sud located in the Smyth hotel, Ed Cotton said, “I can tell you that a sphere has a very pleasant and very nice visual look to it in general. So when you apply that shape and incorporate some food with it, it gives you a very clean sleek look to it.” Cotton clearly thinks it’s a visual phenomenon, but a trend nonetheless. He continues, “Other shapes are cool but squares can be boring. If someone walks over offering you a risotto square its just not the same as a risotto ball where people are more excited about it.”
Being that summer is abounding, it was only apt that I take my theory out East (okay fine, I used my latest journalistic assignment to go to the beach!) to investigate the orbed food trend with executive chef Joseph Rago of popular Fire Island restaurant, Island Mermaid. “I think circular foods are best when they are very natural looking (for example, look at the shape of eggs).”
“Diners are looking to have a fun experience, something that can surprise and excite them,” Rago continues. “While it is a trend, I think that it is best not deconstructed but rather used in its natural state like cheesecake pops or crab balls. Also, the convenience of making something into small balls and be able to market the way you can eat it as a quick and easy hors d’oeuvres at parties is vital.”
Rago recently added meatballs to his summer menu and claims, “people love them. It’s the familiarity of the meatballs that you can’t often find in a casual dining restaurant that make them special.” Though Rago admits, “I’m not a big fan of orbing food just for the sake of it. It doesn’t look natural. If you’re going to make a ball out of anything, the original structure should be there. Watermelon balls: good, meatloaf balls: blah.”
The creators of Dippin’ Dots may beg to differ. Tiny balls of ice cream have made their way to mass markets according to a recent article in the New York Times, which states, “While high-end chefs have lately been using liquid nitrogen to turn all kinds of food into dots, Dippin’ Dots was a pioneer, introducing its first product 23 years ago and creating a category that is now known as cryogenic ice cream… ice cream dots have traditionally been a novelty item, available primarily at entertainment venues and franchise stores… but these days, dot-style products are more widely available, thanks in part to new technology that can keep the products stable in supermarket and home freezers.”
Managing Chef and Partner Ralph Scamardella from Midtown’s Lavo is fully aboard the balled bites trend. For him, it’s all about the oral (nod to Freud). He says, “there’s a tremendous amount of mouth feel, when you eat little balls like round ravioli or coquettes. It’s also spoon-friendly—lot’s of sauce with small balls of food is a pure delight.
“Most chefs like to play around,” Scarmedella continues. “There are two schools of thought when it comes to this. One school is the chef who deconstructs everything and uses chemical food additives like Lecithin (a generic term to designate any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances occurring in animal and plant tissues, and in egg yolk, composed of phosphoric acid, choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, triglycerides, and phospholipids). The other school (myself included) goes for the all natural—a lot of flavor derived from nature. Round food is fun, but I like to do it organically.”
Ben Sargent, star of the hit Food Network television show Hook, Line, and Dinner put it best for me. He’s says, “I’ve always had a round food fetish. I like it. From the dumpling to the wonton—anything with a pouch is good. I think it’s a pop in the mouth experience. Whenever you have something round, like a pork bun, a dumpling, a meatball or even a Cadbury Egg, you get an explosion. That’s half the experience.”
These days, when it comes to cuisine, the circle of life will wind up on your plate. So, if you are stuck in Freud’s oral phase, skip the smoking and go right for the latest trend in culinary geometrics.