By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005
LOS ANGELES -- It's the holiday season, and so for the festive yuletide table, hosts in the know are considering the noble metals this year. The latest food trend: edible gold and silver.
You can eat your bling. With gold selling for more than $500 an ounce, that's conspicuous consumption.
Understandably, you have questions. Though well documented in the chronicles of medieval feasting ritual (along with the consumption of tiny songbirds and rotten fruits), eating precious metals is a new concept for many a modern merrymaker.
Here are some answers.
Q: Can I eat my wedding ring?
Sold through Internet catalogues, high-end culinary outfitters and select gift stores, edible gold and silver come in sprinkles, petals and leaves. The silver is allegedly pure. The gold is 23 karats (almost pure and very soft and malleable; jewelry and wedding rings are typically made of 14 to 18 karats; the gold is mixed with other metals to give it strength).
Q: Does edible silver taste like Reynolds Wrap?
Edible gold and silver are tasteless. The shavings are served in and on chocolates, cocktails, coffees, pastries, soups, salads and even entrees, like riso oro e zafferano , a gold and saffron risotto. Some chefs like to swaddle a whole chicken with gold leaf -- and eat with relish both foil and fowl. Silver is also big on finger foods. When one thinks of sushi, one can now think metallic shavings on raw mackerel. There is a gourmet who enjoys gilding lobsters, and why not? The celebrity chef Jeffrey Jake of the Lodge at Pebble Beach has created entire menus using gold and silver flecked on the high-end items like abalone, foie gras and truffles for those posh jet-setters who have seen all, done all. "Diners," Jake says, "are expecting more wow now than ever."
At the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the bartender may rim a moistened glass lip with pure silver flake. At Spago in Beverly Hills, they'll gold-dust a flute of sparkling wine. At Libation, a hip new bar on New York's Lower East Side, owner Dennis Keane serves up goblets of "The Ultimate Libation," with 10 Cane rum, Grand Marnier liqueur, Veuve Clicquot champagne, passion fruit nectar and 23-karat gold powder. "They're skeptical at first," says Keane. "Then they drink it right down." Of course they do. The drink costs $16.
You are likely wondering, gosh, I really want to gobble gold -- but will it make me fat?
Lynn Neuberg, whose family company, Easy Leaf Products, began selling edible metals to the retail consumer market last year, assures us that gold and silver may be rich but that in their pure form are flavorless, odorless and calorie-free.
At her home in the hills of Los Angeles overlooking the Getty Museum, Neuberg laid out samples of her wares in her spacious kitchen. There were precious metals dusted on cappuccinos and parfaits -- and a whole gold leaf floating on the top of a martini, like the most lovely gift wrap around the yummy goodness of chilled vodka. In fact, it was such a gilded martini that gave Neuberg the idea of selling edible gold to ordinary consumers. She and her husband were partying in Santa Fe a few years back and throwing gold leaf on their drinks at a bar (her husband inherited the family business that imports and sells gold leaf for architectural and artistic use). "Everybody was just amazed and wanted to try it," she recalls. Professional pastry chefs and confectioners have been using gold petals for some time, but Neuberg quickly realized that foodies might want the flecks and petals for home use.
When one nibbles a bit of Neuberg's edible gold or silver, for an instant, the mind preps the body for the shock of biting down on metal. But instead, the silver and gold melt in the mouth. It is not at all crunchy. It is undetectable on the palate. According to Neuberg, who imports her edible gold and silver from a facility in Italy, the metals are "totally inert."
"They just disappear."
"They just pass though."
We construct, briefly, a mental image. Just passing through? Gold passing through the stomach, intestine, colon, to its ultimate, final . . . output?
And so it, you know, would be visible?
"You'd have to eat a box," Neuberg says. "Boxes and boxes."
Nobody does that. That would be insane. So. Invisible? Neuberg wrinkles her nose, like enough already. "It's tested by the Italian FDA," she assures. "It's approved for use in Europe and for importation to America." She points to a seal in Italian on one of the boxes.
When The Washington Post calls the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, spokesman Michael Herndon puts us on the phone with an "FDA expert" in the food safety agency who says that edible gold and silver "has not gone through pre-market safety evaluations" at the FDA. "We haven't evaluated its use," the expert says. Why? Because no one has sought pre-market approval.
So consumers should or shouldn't eat the stuff? The FDA expert is not saying. It has not been studied by the FDA expert. The expert has examined no data. It is not a priority. The FDA is very busy. It is a gray area. It is inert.
"I expect it to go right through the body," agrees the expert, who will speak only on the condition of anonymity because the agency has not taken a position on edible metals. He adds, though, "It is an expensive way to throw away gold." (This government secrecy about ingestible metals may be a trend; when we called over to the press officer at the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, we got this e-mailed response: "I am so sorry, but I couldn't find one of our scientists to speak on the general topic of digestion of inert substances.") Anyway, Neuberg explains that eating gold is not the culinary equivalent of lighting a Cohiba Robusto with a $100 bill (even though her products recently were included in an issue of -- we're not making this up -- Rich Guy magazine). Rather the culinary metals are about "showing respect" and "honoring guests."
According to her promotional materials, the practice dates from the Middle Ages and was quite common in Renaissance Italy. Did you know that Galeazzo Visconti served an entire calf wrapped in a thin layer of gold at the wedding of his daughter Violante in 1386? They were serving ostrich meat covered in gold in Venice in 1561. Gilded foods were so ubiquitous in Padua in the 16th century that authorities suggested serving no more than two courses in gold per feast.
Martha Bayless, an English professor and director of the medieval studies program at the University of Oregon (who is teaching a course titled "The Medieval Feast in Theory and Practice"), says Neuberg is correct. In fact, Middle Age strivers viewed their holiday food fests as a "mini-paradise" of peace and abundance, a temporary reprieve from a world of uncertainty, hunger and war. The medieval fable about the Land of Cockayne is in part a food fetish fantasy -- about a place where cooked geese fly over rivers of wine.
And yes, gold was employed, Bayless says, to dress up the food and create a sense of awe and bounty. "It is valuable and light and attractive and shiny," Bayless says. For the rich who hosted the feasts, to celebrate weddings or coronations, the use of gold "shows how much you can provide." The feasts, which could exceed 40 courses, were designed to overwhelm. That was the point.
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
Though he is not really studied by economists much anymore, Thorstein Veblen might have been onto something in his 1899 treatise "The Theory of the Leisure Class," in which he coined the term "conspicuous consumption," his idea that consumers would spend freely, even wastefully, to display status items. One of his examples was the use of silver eating utensils. Veblen would likely consider edible gold right up there, says Ori Heffetz, an economics professor at Cornell University who did his own studies that found that as income increases, the wealthy spend not just more money but more money on items of highest visibility.
Jake, the chef at Pebble Beach, says that supper-time gold and silver are undeniably used for visual effect, as it adds no flavor, no texture. "It's conspicuous consumption for sure," he says. "But you first eat with your eyes and it is a beautiful product." And he suspects it will find its way onto more plates -- the rosemary sprig of the new millennium -- as more wealthy diners crave ever more exotic, more expensive fare to satisfy their jaded palates.
For some, there is something very fat-catty, very obvious, very Caligulan about feasting on gold. "It seems to me the ultimate act of arrogance," says Dave Wampler, founder of the Simple Living Network, a Web community that helps people shed stuff. "I've never heard of such a thing. It is just the height of stupidity, what a waste -- and this show of incredible lack of respect for the planet and the species who share it."
Bonnie Brooling, an associate food buyer for Sur La Table, the nationwide culinary and kitchen outlet, which sells Neuberg's wares, says, "We've done very well with it in both stores and through our catalogues." She concedes that eating gold "for some people may be a little over the top," and in that case, "silver may be more approachable." If consumers are into real festive fun, they may buy it and "some people may say it's not for me."
Another consumable metal purveyor, Tobias Freccia, founder of EdibleGold.com, says the price points for these products are actually rather down-market. "Our strategy is to bring it into the home-use market," he says. He envisions not $75 gold martinis but a sprinkle of silver at Starbucks. A book of 500 gold leaves may cost $495, but a 100mg shaker of the precious metals sells for $19.95. "The idea is this is a product that the wealthy can have," he says, "but you can have it, too."