The best answer I can come up with is this: parsley sprigs are there to fill a perceived absence — of color or volume — on the plate. Parsley is, of course, not the only garnish around but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. Given how few green vegetables, historically, have graced restaurant plates, parsley almost seems like a stand-in, as though it were there to say, “We know we should serve something green. Will this do?”
Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish. Diners rarely ate them and there were those untrusting souls who suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.
While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties. Around 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic entrees. In the more judicious words of a restaurant handbook,“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.”
Try to contain your excitement as you gaze upon the bountifully garnished sirloin shown above.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008