Wednesday, June 28, 2017

L'air Fragile

The French have a way of saying something that implies multiple levels of meaning. It is why the French language often can be so intimidating. At first, learning the grammar, and putting together simple phrases, one wonders why all the fuss? It seems quite simple, really. And then the hammer falls. Not unlike the American patriot and President John Adams, discovering on his first visit to Paris that the ladies at table had him for lunch, despite his French.  He hadn't realized he was on the menu.  In French conversation, one can easily find oneself swimming in these murky waters until one eventually realizes that one is well out of his or her depth. And then, perhaps, there is hope in that recognition.  It is a kind of spiritual discipline to learn French. One must lay aside one's ego for a time if any progress is to be made, and embrace the humility of not knowing. One can begin.

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.
In our post and third wave feminist-infused culture, we might too easily discount this comment as unnecessarily dismissive of women's strength, but as is often the case with the French, who are not bound by such silliness, and rarely underestimate women,  the meaning is far more profound and has far more to say about the kind of strength that endures. To possess a fragile air is a great compliment: it suggests an openness to life and its teachings, a vulnerability to love and learning and trust that we often lose as we age, so well fortressed are our hearts. If only we could see that we are all beginners.  If we had any perspective at all, we might come to realize that we are all only ever beginners, something my spiritual director used to tell me all the time.

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.
However many wonderful things one might do with a melon (and my favorite is to serve it with Beaumes de Venise muscat wine in the cavity), there is nothing as sublime as a counter-ripened melon at perfection.  But achieving this is anything but easy, though it is simple. Of course, this is not a new idea. Richard Olney, another of my culinary mentors, wrote a book about Simple Food. (All his books are worthy). In the preface, Olney concedes, after a considerable treatise on the pitfalls of categorization, that simplicity, without doubt, is a complex thing.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment