Monday, September 26, 2011

Lunch in another high and lovely place (Grace)


It is wind-swept and rainy in my town today, and the gorgeous fall leaves are already beginning to drop. My daughter ran into the fray with her new rain boots and joyfully kicked up a storm in the pile of gold and orange accumulation, laughing with her head back, abandoned to the moment, as if all the world were hers for play. Watching her joy, I am reminded of a splendid lunch I had in Gordes, Provence, one similar autumn day some years ago.  We had wanted to go during the Vendange, or grape harvest, and we rented a little house at the foot of Mount Ventoux as a base from which to enjoy the many pleasures of the region. Partial to langorous lunches in quiet little bistros, we had gone to Gordes to enjoy the town free of the crush of tourists found there in the summer months.  Gordes is a Village Perche, a villaged perched high on a hill, with an eleventh century fortified castle in the heart of the town, constructed by the house of Simians – the lords of Gordes. It also boasts an eleventh centure church, one of the most beautiful in Provence.  While Gordes is a lovely town, and houses there a gallery from which we have purchased prints which hang on the walls of our kitchen, we went to Gordes that day in search of a restaurant where I had eaten before, and which had a lofty dining room perfect for an autumn luncheon. I still remember the delicious pumpkin soup served that day, chilled as we were by the encroaching Mistral, and glad for the relative serenity of a log fire on a big hearth and stone floors and wooden tables.  I remember, too, the beautiful wooden sideboard, which had been appointed with a great vase of fall foliage and seemed to complement the food in both form and substance. We ate pumpkin soup, as delicious as I have ever tasted, and cheese souffle served with a mesclun salad, and then an apple tart tatin for dessert, which is rare for me as I don't usually eat dessert.  All of these courses were suggested by the chef, who took our lunch in hand and sent us lovely things from his kitchen to pleasure us.  The tourist season was over, and the off season was quiet that year, and he was enjoying his performance, which was expertly orchestrated. Mainly, I remember the sense of pure joy I felt as I sat down in that lofty room, organic in feel and appearance, and put my pleasure for the next couple of hours in his capable hands.

It strikes me that this is the essence of entertaining at home, or in a restaurant for that matter: to give one's guest the sense that their pleasure for the next few hours is in capable hands and they might just relax and enjoy themselves fully.  There is a sense of letting go, of one's expectations and critiques, of one's insecurities as a guest, of one's desire to control one's experience, and even the temptation to compare and contrast so as to compete in some subtle way with the host of hostess, at least in one's mind. Yet all of these inclinations, or addictions as we might call them, take away our sense of pleasure in the evening or afternoon, not so much because of the reflection on the tightness in our souls as much as the degree to which being unable to let go prevents us from fully embracing the experience of giving over one's pleasure into someone else's capable hands. I have always thought it sad that as women became more independent and achieved great success in business or academia or politics (and I have been as much as part of this as anyone), that with these wonderful gains was often lost (tragically) the lovely experience of placing one's pleasure for the evening in the hands of the gentleman hosting the evening (or a lady, for that matter, though I am thinking also of the experience of dining alone with a gentleman, rather than a business dinner).  Very seldom in my business career in America, either, did I encounter a gentleman host confident enough to take command of an evening with such grace that even the most strident of feminists would have given way to the pleasure, as I often had in Europe. I regularly dined with industry leaders, and was always surprised, frankly, at how few had any sense of how to entertain.

There is a funny, but instructive, story along these lines you might find amusing. Once, I had dinner with the CEO of a rather large timber company in the Northwest.  I met him at a French restaurant in Portland, Oregon, where I had some acquaintance with the chef, who was French, as I had lived in a hotel nearby a few days a week for some months while running a business in that town (one of three jobs I was doing simulataneously).  As I often ate at the restaurant, and spoke fluent French, the chef would often come out to the dining room and sit with me and talk while I ate my dinner, often alone.  We became good friends over time, and he was a good mentor as well. Most often, he would simply come out and ask me a question or two about my day and then signal to the waiter that he would take care of me. What followed was an utterly delightful series of splendid evenings in his care, where he would send out French sized portions of all manner of delicious and delightful things for me to try and on which to remark.  As he began to appreciate my passion for cooking and for great food, his "menus" became more subtle and more artful, and he was a superb teacher.  As he was French, he understood implicitly that I did not wish to leave stuffed, but rather just sated, and his ability to create such variety and depth in his menus without overfilling me was an art in itself.  His sense of pace and balance was pitch perfect, and I ordered for myself only when he was absent from the restaurant. It was a wonderful luxury, and I learned how to reach back into my past and enjoy the sense of giving over control of my pleasure to someone in whose hands it was more than ably husbanded, as I had with my family in Europe.  Along with his amazing food and menus, came some fatherly chiding of me, because my schedule was beyond anything reasonable (given the three jobs I was simulatenously undertaking for the same company), and he constantly questioned how I could have the European family background I did and work with such abandon, without care for the balance and quality of my life.  I believe he felt himself my American guardian of all things European, saddened as he was that my lifestyle at the time (though I cooked with great abandon and discipline at the same time) reflected little of my heritage. My attempts to explain this to him were futile.  Perhaps they were meant to be?

Into this backdrop, I met my host for the evening.  I must say that my host was somewhat pompously impressed with his command of rudimentary French, and he considered himself something of a gourmand.  As I was young for my role, and female, which was almost unheard of at the time, he started out the evening with a highly condescending tone, advising me as to the best dishes and implying that to order this or that dish was the height of vulgarity when the true gourmand would have only these others.  I found myself very amused with his tone, but I was too old-world in training and inclination to give him any sense of this, so I suggested with as much grace and feminine charm as I could muster, that since he seemed to know the menu so well, he might order for us both.  My host was so taken aback by my suggestion given my role and the age in which we both lived and worked in America, that he looked at me stunned for a minute, and then proceeded to become even more condescending in tone, if slightly more gentle and gallant in manner.  I remember thinking that condescension is the opposite of the masterful quality I appreciated particularly in gallant men.  The waiter came out, and appreciating the situation, winked at me from behind my host, who ordered what can only be described as a series of dishes that would never be combined in France, so much were they a succession of rich indulgencies wihout reprieve.   Once my host had ordered, he was suprised that the waiter came back with two glasses of champagne compliments of the chef, and he was slightly annoyed that the very expensive bottle of wine he had ordered was delayed, as I am sure I was to be regaled with its virtues as well as the obvious discernement of my host who had ordered it.  As my host's company was at the time experiencing rather extreme financial hardship, I remember being very surprised that he would order such an expensive wine, but as I was not the host for the evening, I kept the recognition of this incongruity to myself.  I remember that he said to me that no doubt the restaurant appreciated his generous patronage, and sent the champagne to thank him.  I commented that they must be very wise restauranteurs. We began what was a long and arduous conversation concerning the issues we were meeting to discuss, and it was not long before my friend the chef came out to greet us.  He turned first to the host, and addressed him in flawless English, and asked after this dish or that he had ordered, suggesting in the most polite manner if he wished to lighten the menu slightly, to which he was given a negative answer.  Then, the chef turned to me, took my hand and blowing a kiss above it, in the French manner, called me Cherie, and proceeded to speak to me in rapid fire French, to which I responded. While I am sure my host understood little of what transpired (and it was brief), he surely recognized that we were well acquainted and had some history of rich conversation.  I will never forgot the look of complete shock on the face of my host, which in itself was priceless. Needless to say, after this, his tone became far more respectful and he showed himself capable of gallantry and gentlemanly manners without the condescension of the early minutes. The discussion, too, was eased by the graciousness he acquired

I have mused of late about the necessity of abandoning one's addictions or idols, whether they may be manifestations of pride or insecurity, or a need to control one's environment, and its relationship to Grace. To accept love (grace) is a difficult thing, because to embrace this Gift, we must open our hearts and become vulnerable. We must let go.  In many senses we must abandon what we think we want and allow God to give us what we need.  This is the greatest challenge of my own life, and one with which I struggle daily. This is the challenge of what it means to be human, for we hang on for dear life to what we want and in the process lose what it is we desperately need, and so push away the Life which awaits us.  This is what Jesus meant when he said we must lose our life to find it. My friend the chef, as well as other gracious gentleman and lady hosts in Europe and in America at the homes of close friends, has taught me through the simple gesture of hosting an evening in a restaurant or a private home, what treasures lie in surrending control to hands capable and Knowing.  One day we will understand truly the nature of pleasure, and its relationship to Joy. For now, we can glimpse its deep magic by the practice of surrender, such that the hidden riches of the kingdom are revealed.  We might just find that we become again like the child kicking for joy in the autumn leaves, open to Life.

Tomorrow, I will offer an approach to making this pumpkin soup, surely a lovely way to begin one of your first dinners of the autumn season, non?  Let me know how your cooking is coming along?  A bientot mes amis.

1 comment:

  1. How glorious it is that God delights to lavish his grace on us, feeding us so well, and in just the way we need if only we will let him :)