Friday, September 9, 2011

Of Menus and Movies, and More

At the Supper Club last night, each woman spoke about how she became interested in food and how she learned to cook. This reminded me of an old story I once read in a beloved cookbook about a woman who grew up in that elegant town in  the South of France, Aix en Provence. I love Aix for its stately grandeur, its many fountains, and its tree lined avenues, which seem to suggest a promenade just by their layout. (For a wonderful characterization and contrast of Aix and of Marseilles, read Two Towns in Provence by M.F.K. Fisher.) More recently, there are some fabulous Rose wines exported to the United States from Aix, and this summer I enjoyed particularly one bearing the town's name: chilled, it's dry and crisp finish did not betray its complexity.  Similar to the discussion which we had at table last evening, the character in the story described the way in which she learned to cook. She spoke appreciatively of her father, who was a wine conoisseur of considerable gift without in any way being a wine snob.  Although at the time of her growing up, it was relatively easy to find servants, her father believed that at his own table a man should never be required to face a meal prepared by anyone other than his wife. This concept of the table as belonging to the Lord and Master of the House is an old-world concept of considerable weight, and one to which I have come to subscribe, but that is a subject for another posting.  There was at the time of her embrace of young womanhood a universal Provencal conviction that no girl had a chance for a man unless she was brilliant both in the kitchen and at table (which is not unlike advice my grandmother used to give me), to which, after the marriage ceremony might be added another accomplishment of a more intimate nature. This was believed true because of the obvious kinship between the pleasures of the table and pleasures of a more intimate sort.  However, back to the story (do I have your attention now?).  The young woman's mother dies, and she is expected, without question, to come home and cook for her father's table, during which time she describes that her gastronomic education began in earnest, despite already having been trained well in both the techniques and nuances of cooking, as well as the art of the perfectly balanced meal.

I want to discuss the approach to technique in a future blog, but I thought today, in light of the discussion at table last night, I might describe a little bit the theory behind the composition of a menu, which done best, combines elements of wit, irreverence, sophistication, sensuality and what the French call “Volupté”, for which there is no adequate English translation, except to live in sympathy and passionately with all one's senses and with the seasons and the terroir (earth).  If you have seen the movie Babette's Feast, you may remember that at the close of the movie the General, a guest at the table, describes how the dinner guests have experienced a kind of redemption through the course of the meal, such that it has become a marriage of righteousness and bliss. There are theological meanings for this, of course, but in terms of a menu and its composition, the General's speech might be understood in culinary terms to suggest that righteousness (tradition, culture, accomplished technique and cooking seasonally and locally) and bliss (sensuality, passion, earthiness) come together in a marriage such that the guests are charmed and most of all seduced.  The ladies are made to feel they are especially alluring and feminine and the gentlemen especially seduissant, and manly, such that the dinner itself, and its guests as the players in the theatre of the table, is a dance of complements. 

Because of this pas de deux, it is nearly unthinkable to host a dinner party in France without the presence of men, for whom the lives of French women are ordered and to whom are accorded a kind of deference born of the feminine “l’aire fragile,” without sacrificing either their intellect or their esprit (Spirit).  Or said another way, a woman might show deference (the highest compliment one can pay to another) to a man, drop her eyes, but in doing so she relinquishes nothing of her essence, her spirit or her mystery. She is Woman, to his Man, and in this dance of complements is unlocked a host of pleasures and amusements such that at table, however much comfort and pleasure is offered, at least some of the pleasure comes from the repartee and wit, one matched to the other, eyes fluttered, senses elevated. One of the amusing things about having trained with French chefs is that the training is often framed in terms of sensuality rather than in terms of food. One learns, above all, to cook with one’s senses, and without the necessity of a plethora of gadgets and recipes, but to taste, smell, touch, breathe, and infuse the food with one’s amour.  In this vein, French chefs often speak about menus in terms of sex. This can be a little daunting to the uninitiated, but soon one loses any sense of discomfort, and it becomes increasingly apparent that sex is the perfect metaphor for dining.  Of this, I hope you will become convinced.

A menu is a script of a dramatic performance; it builds, step by step to a crescendo. Each course must provide a happy contrast to the one preceding it; at the same time, the movement between the courses should be ascending, gradually building from light, delicate and more complex flavors through progressively richer, more full bodied and simpler flavors. (A French chef once told me that there is no art or seduction in being “taken” at the outset, however much this may have its place in some dramas, but it must be recognized, he argued, that to proceed in this manner robs the dinner guest of much of the pleasure in the process).  For a menu to sing it should have both feminine and masculine courses, and ideally one following the other. “Oh, how delightful," a cook whom I knew well, once told me, "for the sandwich to be as it was intended, strong and fragile, and each one  flirting with the last and the next, such that no one becomes bored or their palate tired!" Ahem. After one's senses have been attacked by something strong and intense, one should be soothed by something gentle and soft, in an almost tantric progression. The wines too should be flattered by and should flatter the courses they accompany while relating to one another in a similar kind of progression of building intensity (except that with wine increasing complexity seems to be the most exciting formula). The wine should help to deepen the fullness of the seduction.

If you have seen the movie Babette's Feast, in which twelve guests are seated at a sumptuous table, you have witnessed the impact of this kind of seduction.  The great chef Vatel, who orchestrated dinners and entertainments for Kings and Princes during the reign of Louis XIV, understood this completely, and if you wish for a visual of this, watch the movie of the same name, which is a feast for the eyes and the senses. The French concept of dining is first and foremost about sensual pleasure.  The goal is not to impress or to astonish, but to seduce and please. Think of it like a man being seduced by a woman. The most successful seductions are those in which much is left to the imagination to hint at the pleasures to come. Too much revealed too quickly or in too rapid a succession reduces the sense that one is putting one’s pleasure for the evening in capable and expert hands and will be charmed in the process.  To dine is to be gradually seduced, to become increasingly aware of pleasures to come, both anticipated (this is part of the fun, not unlike its metaphor) and unanticipated.  One must always retain an element of surprise; something unexpected is essential to keep it interesting. The element of surprise, however, should not cause the diner to be jolted out of his or her state of elevated and growing excitement. The guest should leave sated, but wanting more (yes, just like the other thing!). The palate should be kept fresh, teased, surprised and excited throughout the meal.  The juxtaposition of hot and cold, rough and smooth, crisp and creamy, sauced and dry should be considered. Too much repetition should be avoided (for example, if one is serving a gratin with gruyere cheese, this cheese should not be used in the cheese course, with few exceptions).

In organizing a menu, consider its presentation—the eye must be flattered as well as the palate. Cold food in particular lends itself to fanciful (tantalizing) dress.  All elements of the experience must work together in harmony to open up the senses of the diner: the flowers, beautiful linens, beautiful stemware and china can greatly enhance the experience and aid in bringing about the metamorphosis of the diner submerged in the very pleasurable act of becoming seduced.  The lush greenness and scent of a freshly mowed lawn just outside the dining room window can contribute to heightened sensual awareness; the paintings on the walls, the color of the dining table wood, the comfort of the chairs all play a role in cosseting guests.  The flowers should perfume the room in a manner harmonious to the food and wines. It is not necessary to adopt the American manner of presenting meat, starch, veg on the same plate. The plat course might simply be some lovely rare slices of venison accompanied by a beautifully cut vegetable. One food should never be allowed to overpower a meal of which it is merely a part, however important. Each has a role to play, but none is dominant. Heaped up plates are truly offensive; a heavily laden plate allows one course to dominate and the risk is that it will overwhelm the entire framework of the meal.  A very rich dessert should only be offered after the simplest of meals, unless one is fond of orgies. 

Of course, there is a bit of fun in all of this, both in the humour and in the thousands of years of Gallic sensibilities that stand behind it.  By now you will have reached the inevitable conclusion that I am possessed of strong views on the subject of dining, if not more.  As we become better acquainted, I hope you will begin to engage these views and offer some of your own.  In the meantime, happy dining, mes amis.

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