For too long, curly parsley has been maligned as the harbinger of fusty, bad cooking, the stuff of laughable ’70s cookbooks where burnt orange and lime green reigned and rings of pineapple with a maraschino cherry bullseye counted as salad.
But look closer. When a sprig of curly parsley is on the plate, there’s often something great right next to it.
One theory about the history of the curly parsley garnish is that its use came into vogue around the turn of the century when window displays featuring food were prominent. White space was filled in with greenery and parsley, the use of which eventually translated to the restaurant plate, too. It was so widely used that ungarnished plates ultimately looked unattractive to most Americans.
Plus, there’s that lore about it being a great breath freshener, but have you ever seen anyone chew on a sprig of parsley who wasn’t a cartoon? Anyway, God makes Altoids now.
While curly parsley has mostly gone the way of the carved tomato flower in modern dining, it’s likely that a little green on the plate will retain a steady place in the culinaryscape, regardless of where trend takes us.
About a decade ago, it was completely customary for pro chefs to keep a little ramekin of chopped flat leaf parsley in their mise en place. Nobody thought anything about showering every plate in bright green confetti, both for a little color and perhaps a blast of vigor on the tongue. Then, I worked in one kitchen where I didn’t notice any. I asked if I should chop some. The chef said he didn’t garnish his plates with parsley. “We shouldn’t put it there just because people are used to seeing it there. We should think about our cooking more like they do in Japan, where everything that’s on the plate is there for a reason.”
Too bad he didn’t know what he was talking about.
A little green does have a reason, even in Japan. You’ve seen plastic baran or haran on your sushi platter so many times that you probably don’t even realize it’s there, pushing it aside as you unwrap your chopsticks as mindlessly as you’d drop a sprig of parsley to the side of your plate. Originally, that inch of green plastic grass would have been actual bamboo leaves, which served to keep sushi fresher and more easily preserved. With refrigeration, the leaves dropped away, but not the custom. A little color on the plate is an essential part of food presentation in Japan, as anywhere. In fact, color balance is one of the five basic principles of good cooking in Japan, where harmony in eating is prevalent.
The very first time I worked a restaurant line, I was woefully green and in way over my head. As I frantically put up a plate of food, I grabbed a sprig of cilantro out of my prep and threw it on the plate. Better. I banged the bell to notify the server that the plates were ready.
“What is this piece of cilantro doing on this plate?” She sneered. She knew I was new, and planned on putting me through my paces. “A garnish should be something that’s also in the food,” she explained, as though I was three feet tall and three years old.
Maybe. I still thought it looked better with the cilantro. She dropped the sprig on the pass and retrieved the plates, sauntering into the dining room minus the garnish.
A sprig of curly parsley might be just as useful or non-useful as a superfluous sprig of cilantro. But I still like it. It’s familiar and friendly. It doesn’t seek to challenge you or sneer at you like that snotty waitress. It just wants you to like your food, to like what it looks like and tastes like, and the cook who put it there probably just wants to clock out on time so he can go drink a beer or kiss his kids goodnight. In other words, the sprig of curly parsley is the workaday garnish of the food world. It’s there because it’s always been there. Because it belongs there. It’s the ultimate touchstone of classic American cookery.
When you see a sprig of curly parsley on a plate, there’s usually nothing else on the plate that doesn’t need to be there. No squeeze bottle zig zags, no spoon swoosh of puree, no sticky-icky sauces that were deemed necessary because the chef has a brand new Vitamix he can’t keep his mitts off of.
Look down at a plate garnished with a sprig of curly parsley, and what’s bound to be found there is a lobster tail, with nothing else but a pot of drawn butter. Or a nicely charred steak. Maybe a potato. Chicken marsala, deviled eggs, possibly a plate of pasta at a restaurant that has an Italian last name on the awning because the family has owned the place for 52 years.
A sprig of curly parsley means that in the overly changeable world of culinary fuckery, some things will always remain the same. Those things are usually inherently good: classic things that, even if you have the entire compendium of Modernist Cuisine on your shelves, you’d have a hard time passing over. Elemental, classically decadent, crave-it-down-into-your-bones things.
“Well,” you might argue, “if they’re so great, shouldn’t they be able to stand on their own merit?” Well, isn’t a fabulous gift even better when it’s wrapped up in a pretty bow? You’ll toss that aside too, eventually, but isn’t it glorious that you get to behold it and anticipate for a few seconds before indulging in the main event?
Of course, it could just as easily be argued that curly parsley has no place on today's restaurant plates, that we're far beyond the era of the carved tomato flower. But someone else will have to make that argument. I'll be over here with my surf, turf, and sprig of parsley.