The phrase about which I write is "L'air fragile." "Elle a l'air fragile," the French might say, for example, of a young woman.
I find this especially true of cooking. It has been many decades since I first learned the grammar of cooking, since French chefs in various restaurants yelled at me for my technique and my habits. And after a time, one wonders why all the fuss? It seems quite simple, really. And then. Yes, and Then. I remember eating at a restaurant in Crissier, near Geneva, whose chef, the wonderful Fredy Giardet (one of my culinary heroes), cooked a simple salmon dish. That food was a revelation to my young eyes, and a lesson for my young heart. I realized that to cook simply is an art of very great measure, and to coax the best from one's food is far more complex, far more difficult than I had imagined. It is the work of a lifetime. It requires the narrow way. The way of the easy yoke. It requires "L'air fragile." And it is the most difficult thing in the world.
The great chef Alice Waters tells a story of serving a perfectly ripe melon in her restaurant as a entree, or starter. The guests were disappointed. They wanted something dressed up, perhaps not realizing that there is a long-respected and lauded art in France associated with a perfectly ripe melon.
One of my favorite chefs of the current milieu is Naomi Pomeroy. Her book, "Taste and Technique" is a masterpiece of this philosophy, and her food ethos and aesthetic are endlessly appealing.
If you want to begin to cook really well, start at the beginning. Take time with your technique and don't presume. Instead, approach cooking with "L'air fragile," much as she does, treating the ingredients like the gift they are, respecting them, learning what each can teach you, and working on each element of preparation to understand the nuance. Be like a child. To that heart, is open the kingdom of God.
Tonight, at Table, I am going to serve a "Confetti Salad," which seems a celebration of all things summer, and serve it with grilled salmon. This dish is a lesson in treating each of the glorious ingredients as works of art, and combining them to create a symphony. Richard Olney liked this metaphor of the complexity of conceiving a larger symphony--a simple menu, and transforming each element into an uncomplicated statement that will surprise or soothe a gifted palate, drawing from various elements to form a new harmony. If you want to try it, click on this link for the recipe and see for yourself if you can achieve harmony.
That old and beautiful Shaker hymn, "Tis a Gift to be Simple, Tis a Gift to be Free" is a reflection of what Dante begins to understand as he raises his head to the hilltop beyond. My father used to tell me that our 30 mile day hikes were lessons in perspective, and as I have become older, I have learned that this is true. He also, often, told me to look up. Sometimes we are so consumed with the pounding of our own feet we forget to look up. Now I am wondering if he was thinking about Dante when he said both things. It wouldn't surprise me.
"I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight ahead on every road.
And then only did terror start subsiding in my heart’s lake, which rose to heights of fear that night I spent in deepest desperation." (Canto I)
In looking up, in focusing his eyes on the hilltop, our friend and fellow pilgrim Dante begins to have acquired a little perspective, and this perspective is an antidote to his fear. Looking up is also the antidote to escaping the chains of our own egos. We are not simply "incurvatus in se", to quote Augustine, or "turned in on ourselves." Look up, yes. But how to become free? Stay tuned. We've only just begun to walk. And not yet to climb.
Leave a comment if you like, dear Reader. I'd love to hear your thoughts.