Rachel Bennett

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Scallops and the Stage

In Uncategorized on November 21, 2011 at 12:38

There are few greater pleasures than a good meal in a fine restaurant. Threadbare as that cliché may be, I was bodily reminded of it last week as The Texan and I sat before a white gazpacho at the Book Bindery. With the greatest reverence I lifted the spoon to my lips and sipped the silken liquid. It was the color of polished ivory, a quiet and unassuming hue. Yet on my tongue this soup shed its modest garb and underneath—oh how deep, how complex, how nuanced. It was creamy yet clear, without any of the cloying fattiness that characterizes many such soups. And I tasted wave upon wave: there was a fruity sweetness, the grape no doubt, and beneath it the crab’s rich, aqueous depth. In place of the common crouton there were nuggets of smoky Marcona almond, a stubby Spanish variety of nut that is currently all the rage. They are usually served warm, slick with oil, and lightly salted—very toothsome yet a trifle uninspiring after a time—so discovering Marconas in a white gazpacho was unexpected and wonderful.

My body slowed. Spoon dipping into the ivory soup again I slipped into quiet gastronomic euphoria, a state that often overwhelms me in such circumstances. The symptoms of this state are predictable: the body purrs gently, as if every pore were personally tasting the dish on its own little palate. Every atom wakens and begins humming with happiness. The mind, in contrast, sinks into a contented stupor so that you can barely hold the thread of conversation, offering nothing but monosyllabic responses and a creamy grin. This was good food.

Yet why was this food so spectacular? The most obvious answer is to salute the chef. After all, a fine restaurant must be headed by the best in culinary acuity. Surely it is his skill and creativity—his food—that make the meal. But this is not all. It has long been acknowledged that fine dining is as much theater as cuisine so we must also pay tribute to the waiter. We may sip fine wines and nibble carefully crafted morsels, but waiters are the ones who make us feel like royalty. Our gazpacho at the Book Bindery was not merely plonked down on the table with a brisk ‘bon appétit.’ The waiter arrived carrying jug and a wide, shallow bowl. In the center of the bowl the soup’s ingredients were deconstructed as a garnish and arranged into a little bird’s nest of crab, almond and pickled green grape. With a graceful swoop of his wrist, the waiter poured the soup around the garnish so that it looked as though the bird’s nest had blown into the sea and lay rocking on the waves. Ever ready to answer inane questions, replace tipsily dropped forks, and generally pamper their patrons, these waiters don’t merely deliver the food, they actively manufacture the mental perfume of the place.

Yet again, to define haute cuisine as theater—with the chef as star, servers as supporting actors, and diners as audience—only tells a partial truth. It neglects is the role of the customer. Not merely a passive audience, the diner is part of the play, or rather an active participant in unfolding ritual of the meal. Think about it. The diner books the reservation. She decides what to wear (a ritual in any circumstance and one that says much about your character’s approach to dining out). She chooses the wine, talks to the server, and tastes the food. At the end of the meal she is the one who forks over the money, reacting with gasp, sigh, or casual wave, to the size of this bill which resembles Grecian debt.

The idea of social action as performance is an old one. ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare declared.  In the same vein, mid-twentieth century anthropologists such as Victor Turner began analyzing social phenomena as one might a play, with actors taking roles and participating together in the performance. This seems a particularly apt model for looking at the dynamics of fine dining where the performative aspects of food reach soaring heights.

I have experienced this from both sides of the table. Having worked in food service I have visceral knowledge of adopting a role. Particularly in America, servers, baristas and their kin are expected to exude bonhomous contentment, as if it were their greatest delight to fulfill the customer’s every whim. Of course, ma’am, I would just love to drop what I’m doing, butter your croissant and divide it into three perfectly equal pieces for your whining brats who need to learn that someone always, always gets the smaller slice, and life is really, really unfair. Butter your own bloody croissant. Only you don’t say all that. You smile sweetly, attend graciously. Within days this costume feels like a second skin.

On the other hand, I have experienced the delicious sensation of wafting into a restaurant, relinquishing my coat to the host and settling into a few hours of luxury. This too is a role. I am not this important in the real world. But it’s more fun to play the beaming queen rather than the obsequious serf. I have also watched diners play other roles, like the man in rumpled clothes and sporting an air of casual detachment, even boredom. I do this all the time, blah blah. Or the woman who flaunts her gastronomic knowledge and attempts to one-up the waiter. ‘Chilean sea bass?’ Her left eyebrow creeps upwards and a smirk curls out from her lips, ‘are you by any chance referring to Patagonian toothfish?’ 

Perhaps, then, it is the donning of these roles—the sumptuous caress of the costume—that makes the meal. Would that gazpacho have tasted so good served in my chipped blue bowl at home, the table strewn with books, and the occasional fruit fly dallying overhead? Probably not. As Claude Levi-Strauss famously said, ‘food must be good to think about before it is good to eat.’ I prefer the thought of billowy chairs and soft lighting to fruit flies and chipped china.

This is why I have a tumultuous relationship with fine dining. On the one hand my knees quiver at the mere mention of foie gras emulsion, my tastes buds collapse in ecstasy when confronted by a masterful tiramisu.  And although I know that those thimble-sized glasses of squash-ginger cappuccino were not really ‘a gift from the chef’  but were carefully factored into the cost of the meal, I still felt a warm glow as the waiter sets them delicately on our table. Yet I am conflicted. This food is so removed from business of nourishment, of sustenance and health. It is so excessive and flashy, so ludicrously extravagant. But, oh, it feels so good.

For a moment at the Book Bindery I am caught in this antagonistic terrain. And then our main course arrives: For myself, caramelized sea scallops with chanterelle mushrooms, red kuri squash, bacon jam, and sauce Périgourdine. For The Texan, the Mishima Ranch “Flavor Curve” of beef with fork crushed fingerling potatoes, grilled king trumpet mushrooms, pearl onions, and Bordelaise vinaigrette. My fork pierces the golden brown surface and melts into the scallop. I shrug.

What queen, for the length of her reign, would question the monarchy?

Wild Thing

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2011 at 14:01

Last Sunday BBC Radio 4 aired an edition of the Food Program entitled ‘Into the Wild.’ As its name implies this episode explored the rising popularity of foraged foods. The guiding question was this: Are foraged foods a passing fad, the fashion of the moment for high chefs and the culinary elite? Or does the revival of interest in dandelions and damsons indicate a societal shift in our approach to food? Naturally the BBC focussed on Britain, but the same phenomenon is occurring this side of the Atlantic and the same questions could fruitfully be asked (so sorry, I couldn’t resist) of American food and culture.

Over the past half century, the status of the literal free lunch has undergone a profound transformation. For most of history, in most cultures, foraging for food has been a last resort, the absolute base of the gastronomic hierarchy. After all, the rich commanded the best farmland and the fattest crops. Only the most impoverished peasants could not survive on their cultivated harvest and were compelled to scour the countryside for edible shoots and leaves. Scholars studying famine have noted that in certain societies foraged foods occupy such a low social position that people will undergo significant physical hardship before resorting to gathering these wild and freely available calories. In rural WWII Britain, foraged foods brightened a mundane and highly rationed diet. Yet still they were associated with the extreme requirements of hard times.

The initial transformation of foraging, at least in the context of the modern, industrialized west, occurred in the 1970’s as part of the wider movement to embrace natural food and reject homogenized, preservative laden, denatured food. I remember this, because even in the late-eighties  when I was young, my mother remained highly enthusiastic about nut cutlet, wholewheat pasta, sucanat, and other determinedly wholesome fare. At this point, foraging was a preoccupation at the fringe of the whole food movement. Die-hard tree-hugging wheatgrass lovers, intent on revitalizing their connection to the natural world and eschewing industrial homogeneity, took to the forests and fields, picking mushrooms (of various types . . . huh, there’s another hypothesis on why foraging took off with the hippies . . .) and plucking leaves, and immersing themselves in the bosom of nature.

For several decades, foraging remained primarily a fringe activity. It is true that a broader portion of the population have long enjoyed collecting more easily identifiable and accessible foods such as nuts and berries, but for the most part wild foods remained a cranky curiosity.

Until today. The current food revolution we are undergoing differs from it’s older sibling. Like the 1970’s movement, fair trade, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, today’s revolution is concerned with environmental and social justice. Yet it has a more ambitious goal. Today the issue is not only politics but pleasure, and foraging for foods is not only a political and social statement but a gustatory one as well.

It is virtually impossible to sit down in a smart restaurant today (and it doesn’t even have to be that posh or pricy) without confronting a smattering of wild items on the menu. Pork belly drizzled with wild huckleberry jus, lamb loin topped with sea asparagus, foraged mushroom risotto. These plates are not limited to the El Bullis and French Laundrys of this world; chances are you can find something similar down the street. Of course A-list restaurants have embraced wild food with equally wild abandon. The chef at world-famous NOMA, Rene Redzepi, is perhaps the culinary king of this approach. His menu includes such enigmatic items as ‘stone crab and beach mustard‘ as well as ‘gammel dansk and wood sorrel.’ Personally I wouldn’t know beach mustard if it poked me in the eye, but I have no doubt that, paired with that old favorite stone crab, it is nothing short of knee-wobblingly divine.

The recent rise in popularity of foraged food has taken place in tandem with the Slow Food movement, and the latter’s guiding philosophy neatly explains why untamed greens and far flung roots are proliferating in restaurant kitchens, farmers markets, and cook books alike. In the original Slow Food Manifesto, founder Carlo Petrini challenges readers to ‘rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food.’ The organization aims to catalog and promote unusual foods cultivated in specific regions but the sentiment extends to the promotion of wild foods as well. It is part of a wider cultural rebellion against a food system that provides false diversity—a myriad processed products based on the cultivation fewer and fewer, increasingly industrialized species.

Personally, I hope that wild food is here to stay. Good chefs will always search for exciting ingredients and may perhaps be accused of fetishizing foraged foods, but they are also doing us a favor. By sparking curiosity in a greater breadth of ingredients they encourage us out into the woods for a reviving tussle with nettles and some much needed fresh air. And surely diversity in all forms is a good thing. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. In my experience dandelion soup has an alarming, explosive effect on the digestive system while huckleberries are like a tiny, condensed and heavenly blueberry.