Friday, October 14, 2011

Soul Food and Soul Searching (Love and Discipline)

An appetizer at Per Se Restaurant, New York

Last night was supper club with the amazing and amazingly lovely women who meet once a month at rotating houses to enjoy each others' company and each others' food.  Several of us carpooled, as the house is some distance away, and the conversation in the car as we made our way to the house on the Sound, caused me to feel as if I had been transported to heaven for a few hours: it was rich and soul-filling, and ranged from food to cooking technique to philosophy to politics to family dynamics to the pleasures of sex in a long-term marriage.  I knew the evening was going to be magical, if only because of the conversation in the car.  As we arrived, the lights across the water were twinkling through the big glass doors, and Everything was beautiful. I just wanted to stop and breathe in the pleasure.  From the moment we walked in the door, the atmosphere was one of an autumnal harvest celebration: deep burnt red leather sofas, huge natural rock hearth, gorgeous colors. The hostess has an artistic soul, I am coming to understand a little, and her house and table echoed all the richness of the season, which complemented perfectly the deeply appealing food: it said welcome in every aspect. It was a rich evening, with a progression of immensely appealing food (braised short ribs and gorgonzola polenta and mixed herb gremolata with shaved brussel sprouts and shallot saute) and served as a good metaphor for the richness of the conversation, which was broad ranging and full of Wisdom.  The evening wound to a beautiful close with a sublime dessert: a tartlett each, which one of the women had fashioned, made with apples, a young chevre (goat cheese), artisanally produced dark honey and puff pastry: not too sweet and very light, it was fantastic. 

One of the conversations we enjoyed as the evening waned was about how to raise a son to be a good husband and a gentleman, which, of course, appeals to me greatly as I am rather old-world (surely you hadn't guessed!), and have this hope for my own boy. Time will tell!  As several of the women have college-aged sons now (I had children late in life, so my son is a younger 12), it was wonderful to hear their perspectives and gain the benefit of their wisdom about what best contributes to the making of a good man. Their answer? Hands down, it was the example set by the father in the way in which he treats the mother, the boy's experience of love in its fullest sense in the family (such that he doesn't go looking for it in the wrong places and takes his time), and the mother as the son's first true love, setting the bar for all the womanly virtues to which her son might strive to deserve in a woman of his own: gentleness, grace, the humility of true strength, warmth, hospitality, the nobility of service and sacrifice, the sensuous approach to life that brings pleasure and makes art of life for her family, the caring and nurturing of those beloved which holds them to the standard of Love.  Art.

What is this Love to which they might aspire? It is to be blessed: to be disciplined and nurtured in what it means to be meek, to have the teachable spirit that is necessary to inherit the earth, if not the wind; to be poor in spirit and rich in faith;  to mourn and know the opening of the heart;  to hunger and thirst after justice; to be a lover of the peace that is Shalom, wholeness; to live the Beatitudes as a way of being, pure in heart.  This is love: the discipline that speaks far more powerfully than the word, because it is Word, Logos, Truth Alive in our experience of reality that points to a much greater Reality. Our hostess last evening was such a woman, and her art was abundant and apparent, yet she is strong and steely, as feminine as a woman could be, yet full of Otherworldly strength.  A woman richly jeweled in this way, as our hostess surely was last night, is a prize beyond measure, to which her son will strive to measure up.  For in a good man, a woman like this can only cause him to want to be a better one.  Bottom line, though, having said all of this, the collective wisdom of the women with older sons was clear:  it is a man who teaches a boy to be a man by the way he treats a woman. It is a woman who teaches a boy what he should seek in a woman and the kind of man he needs to be to attract such a jewel. 

This set me to thinking about love in general, and its power to open hearts, and how its power might be manifest in boys who might not have the benefit of this kind of homelife.  One of the women at the dinner described how her son's school feeds and houses families with nothing to eat and nowhere to lay their heads, and the way in which the kids are involved in cooking the meals.  This, too, caused me to wonder about the work of some philosophers and theologians I have been reading of late, who argue that to know any kind of love truly, however flawed it is in worldly terms, is to glimpse heaven in a way few other things provide, though the glimpse is shrouded.  So I have been wondering how it is that love is glimpsed from the perspective of a young boy who lives a life more like hell than heaven. My son has recently expanded his exposure and is interacting with kids from different walks of life much more frequently and regularly than he has in the past. It has made for some very searching conversations at the dinner hour. The principal of his school is a man on a mission, a real leader dedicated to creating true opportunity for the students in his care, and his knowledge and highly disciplined care for each of the several hundred students under his watch is prodigious and legendary already, though he has only just been asked to ply his magic on this school. It is my son's first foray into a large public middle school, having attended private school until now, and likely to again in high school. He wanted to engage a broader cross section of kids, to meet some "normal" kids, and his parents thought that these three years would be an opportunity for him to do so, and to gain from the experience a perspective which he has not yet had in his rather gilded life up to now.  We spent a lot of time with the principal this summer, understanding the school and his approach, and decided to let him attend.  He is a big boy, tall and strong, and able to look out for himself rather well all of a sudden, and we set some academic goals for him to keep his perspective focused, which thus far he has largely met as he is highly motivated to stay.

What has surprised us is the empathy our son has acquired for the plight of kids whose home life can only be said to be hideous, and it has caused him to reflect upon what kind of young man he is becoming and of what stuff he is really made.  He asked me the other night how a kid growing up with no love could come to know Love, and this set me to thinking about the true work of Love in a world broken, and tortured, yet beautiful.  He has described how he sees so much beauty in the hearts of some kids who have such a hard shell by necessity, and how it is that Love Himself gets to kids whom Santa appears to have forgotten. Big Stuff for a sixth grader, but it is time. For Love, there is all the time under Heaven.  I asked the principal about this and his answer was that the school is his mission field, and Love needs to be practical and focused and engaged, highly disciplined. On any given day you can find this man in the lunchroom or the breakfast service, living out his faith in Love, sleeves rolled up, talking with the kids.  He is often outside after lunch, playing ball with the kids.  He seems to know the math scores of my son's latest test as well as the essay a young girl without much family support has just submitted. Art that would cause a practiced eye to stop and stare lines the wall of the school, and the talent apparent is as staggering as the bar is high and the subject matter telling. All this is an example of a quiet and highly disciplined grace the strength of which is profoundly active in the world. Art. What you do for the least of these you do for me, Jesus said.  He is there with the stranger at the door, the child in the night: Love Manifest.  A good man, a principal, asking a boy about his math test.

The hour was very late when I finally arrived home, well near midnight, after what has been a week of late nights and early mornings. But it had been such a lovely time that I couldn't go directly to bed. So I poured myself a little cognac, and sat down by the fire in the library to read the Dining section of The New York Times, having saved it from the day before.  The article I had wanted to read was about Per Se, the East Coast offshoot,or urban interpretation of the French Laundry in Napa, the art of Thomas Keller, a chef I have long admired and from whom I have learned much. When first I encountered him, I was a little put off by his approach to food, which seemed more laboratory than love, and his obsessive precision impacted me in much the same way as Lance Armstrong's scientific approach to cycling discouraged the French. Where was the love? Where was cooking with the senses?  I feared it seemed more like a chemistry experiment, if not highly pretentious. But I have changed my mind.  The glorious gardens next to the Yountville restaurant are a symbol of all that is well with life, and the highly disciplined approach Chef Keller takes to food has allowed his dishes to reach a kind of sublimity that the New York Times Writer argues "would make a fine argument for the metaphor of transubstantiation." There is little doubt the food is highly sensuous. In discipline, is art unleashed? It is given freedom, that allows the Love to flow.

I thought of that principal at my sons school and his disciplined approach to the kids, which speaks only of Love. He is on to something, in much the same way that chef Keller is.  Love without discipline is squishy and not the stuff of Heaven, however much it may breathe the same air.  Cooking without technique is a similar fallacy of affection. Love is Sensious and Steely, Engaged and Lofty. Love is tied to the ground and telling of what can be. Surely Love is as much discipline as art. Or, said another way, it is the discipline acquired that frees the art.

Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot.

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