I admit I've been bad. But it's winter, and the cold inspires it. You know what I mean -- Eating chocolates, sipping espresso, listening to Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans on that penultimate jazz album, Kind of Blue. In short, doing what I want to do. And, of course, reading whenever I can.
I'm only halfway through the mammoth compendium, Secret Ingredients, enjoying a diverse sampling of styles and culinary subjects that bring to life the culture of various times, but, so far, only three essays have stood out.
One, describes foodie Joseph Wechsberg's first foray to the famed Restaurant de la Pyramide, once considered the finest restaurant in France, run by the formidable Fernand Point. Wechsberg's piece, published in 1949, is in the style of a short story, with the climax being a grand lunch, the sort that few of us will ever be lucky enough to enjoy, but that clearly has the capacity to illuminate the sensibilities and even transform --like a work of art.
After pates, croute, and foie gras, Wechsberg is informed by M. Point: "'A good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well constructed as a good play. As it progresses, it should gain in intensity, with the wines getting older and more full-bodied.'"
Wechsberg's final take on the experience? -- "Whenever I think back to that lunch, I feel contentedly well fed; the memory of it alone seems almost enough to sustain life."
Next, I fell upon a charming essay about Julia Child. What, concerning Julia Child, does not turn out to be charmante? I really wished I'd watched her cooking shows way back when. I was distracted instead by The Galloping Gourmet's fun-loving, loopy antics as he guzzled wine and cooked.
Child was a determined perfectionist. She took 10 years to complete Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is renowned for its fine detail and precision, and she was known on her television shows for rooting as much for the success of a dish as for her audiences as she taught them how to cook. Whenever she herself failed at a recipe, or ruined a dish, she would do it over -- sometimes more than once -- all the while, instructing her viewers, "Never give up!" Her super involvement in making a recipe work, fascinated and won over fans. But it wasn't only her personality that worked for viewers, Child had character and aplomb.
Lastly, I had no idea how fascinating Euell Gibbons was, or how valuable his obsession with wild food. Writer John McPhee describes a days' long trek he took with Gibbons with intimate, almost tender detail. While accommodating to chilly temperatures and inclement weather, McPhee learns how to forage and prepare a few of nature's edibles -- such as dandelions, walnuts, and various teas -- many of which turn out to be tasty and satisfying!
McPhee's description of Gibbons is unique and masterful: "His head is a high and narrow one, with a long stretch from chin to forehead but a short distance from ear to ear, as if he had somehow successfully grown up in the space between two city buildings."
Gibbons, a Quaker, was wise, complicated and ahead of his time. His ruminations on nature became pearls on the subject: "The product I gather out here means something different to me than food from a store, but I don't feel that I have made nature stand and pay tribute. I know that when I disturb the earth to get these plants I will almost always cause more of them to grow. I don't like to eat Indian cucumbers, because I have to destroy the plants to get them. I don't want to destroy; I want to play the part I am supposed to play in relation to plants. I come to a persimmon tree and the tree is growing something sweet, so I'll eat it and scatter the seed. When I do that, I'm carrying out the role I'm supposed to be carrying out. Nature has many, many balances, and we have to find a balance that includes man. If man accepts that he has to be a part of the balance, he must reject the idea of the conquest of nature Whenever I read that phrase, 'conquest of nature,' I feel a little depressed. Man is part of the total ecology. He has a role to play, and he can't play it if he doesn't know what it is -- or if he thinks that he is conquering something."
Sad to say, McPhee's interview with Gibbons took place more than 40 years ago, and some folks have yet to realize the truth in Gibbons' words!