A Winter Feast

Paul Schmidt

Vol. 16, No. 1, 1990

 

And now it’s dark. He gets into a sleigh.
Behind him trails the coachman’s cry: “Away!
The frost with sparkling silver dusts
The beaver collar of his winter coat.
He drives to Talon’s restaurant; he is sure
Kavérin will be waiting for him there.
He enters, corks go pop, they pour champagne
(1811, the year the comet came).
Before them, a roast-beef ensanguine;
Truffles, that extravagance of youth
And finest flower of the French cuisine;
Strasbourg’s immortal dish, foie gras en croûte;
Soft, ripening Limburger cheese
And golden pineapples from overseas.

(Eugene Onegin, Chapter One, Canto XVI)

 

Pushkin’s hero Eugene Onegin drives off in a swirl of snow to a dinner that celebrates the birth of the nineteenth century. The celebration is late; 1819 is not the turn of the century; those twenty year would make an adolescent, at least, of anyone. This is a special moment, though, in a special age. The nineteenth century was perhaps the youngest of centuries when it was young; the eighteenth century, for instance, was born old and died older. But the nineteenth century in Europe was born in a thunderclap; it sprang to life in a fit of revolution, of turmoil, of fire and excitement; it was the work of the young. A group of very young people, all of them stimulated to a frenzy by the military exploits, the daring, the very existence of Napoleon. Napoleon, that very young man, whose height kept him a perpetual symbol of adolescence. He was the image that soared over those first decades, as he looms today over Paris on his column in the Place Vendome. He was a supreme symbol of prodigality, an emperor who distributed crowns and kingdoms to his family and friends as if they were Christmas gift baskets. But he was not alone; it was an age of prodigious adolescents: George IV, Pushkin, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Beau Brummel, Chopin, Bellini, Rossini, Mme. de Stael, Mme. Récamier. They strewed their talents lavishly in every direction, all of them spurred on to intimate the acts of the emperor himself. They were prodigious eaters and drinkers, prodigious dressers, bon vivants—they lived the good life. Dinner for them, like dress, was a symbol of luxury, a triumph; it was a sign that they had conquered. If they could not conquer like the emperor, they could at least eat like him. They assembled feasts that were fantasies: imagined feasts, literary feasts, feasts thought up as much as anything else for the description, what was important was the image evoked by the words, not the facts of the case.

But the facts of the case were stunning enough. Look at the dinner awaiting Onegin: champagne, roast beef, truffles, a Strasbourg foie gras, Limburger cheese, fresh pineapple. None of this is homegrown, especially in a Russian January. Everything is imported, taken by force from the places it comes from. The feast itself was a metaphor of conquest. Cooking and eating came to reflect the incessant heaving to and fro across frontiers and continents that marked the Naploeonic era, and the triumphant movers of that cooking, like the emperor’s armies, were French. The mark of France remains upon cooking still; the terminology of the kitchen resists translation. French cooks fed the world, and they fed it in French. Here is Louise-Eustache Udé, a French cook of the period who wrote for an English audience: “Military tactics, fortifications, music, dancing, and millinery, etc., being of foreign extraction…it must not be wondered at if in this work I have made use of original, or native expressions.”

Food was a metaphor for the age, and the age was a military one. Udé is right: military tactics and food reflected one another. It was all an enormous attempt at the table to live for a while like Napoleon, to conquer as many lands as he had by bringing their produce to the table to be devoured there like a great living map. We forget in our simplified age, the visual splendor of those tables. The last vestige of it we see today only in wedding cakes: those white towers are all that a middle-class era preserves—for marriage, that most important of middle-class occasions—of an imaginary architecture. Remember the great dream palaces we see in early nineteenth-century Beaux Arts building projects? None of them was ever built—except by pastry cooks, who covered dinner tables with edible architecture. It was the custom then to lay all the courses on the tab.e at once, so that the table itself looked like a tiny city, an entire state, an empire in miniature, and it was surrounded by the diners the way an attacking army surrounds its target. The table was besieged—the very word means to sit down around something. The more glorious the city, the greater the triumph, and those table-cities were each more glorious than the last. Carême, the greatest cook of the era, has left us a book to describe his obelisks and monuments, his triumphal arches, his hanging gardens, all built of icing and spun sugar. Cakes shaped like castles with populations and obelisks of paté rose over teeming neighborhoods of pastry crusts packed with populations of small birds and lesser beings; platters curved like the shoreline of a port town, the silver scallops and gadroons of their edges winking like the frill of an evening wave, with creamy billows full of fish and crustaceans waiting behind it to tumble in turn upon that silver shore. Long trays lined with glazed domes and molded pinnacles made broad formal avenues that led off to more relaxed suburban sections planted with flower-garden salads; there, cool groves of greenery shaded fountains of champagne. Animals and fruit from all over the world were crammed into this city-table; its treasure was an imperial prize. This was the ancien régime, the elegant older civilization, worth the storm of revolution, worth the effort of destruction, worth devouring. And night after night such cities were besieged and attacked by battalions of brilliant, clamoring young men and women. The military dash of such a dinner, the jingling hussars’ uniforms, the noise, the flames of a hundred constantly burning candles—it was all a vast piece of poetry, a metaphor. Every banquet a campaign, as every imperial campaign, until the end, had been a banquet.

Our banquets to this day recall those campaigns—some of the great classic dishes of French cooking commeorate Napoleonic victories. Chicken Marengo from the Italian campaign, Chicken Albuféra from the Iberian campaign. Defeats, of course, are not recorded. There is no Cooked Goose Waterloo. There is only that one strange dish where all the main ingredients of Pushkin’s menu are combined. Roast beef is covered with foie gras, enclosed in a pastry, and served with truffle sauce: Beef Wellington, a case of winner-take-all. (The dish is not a French invention.)

Pushkin’s dinner, though is a Russian dinner, and Napoleon never conquered Russia; Moscow burned, true, but the imperial capital St. Petersburg, that distant, frozen city, remained untouched, Untouched? No need of conquest; it had belonged to Europe from the start. The city was the creation of foreigners, of European imaginations. This is a foreign dinner, after all: not only are the ingredients imported, but the restaurant itself is French: Talon’s at no. 15 Nevsky Prospect. Talon, “the well-known restaurant owner,” Pushkin calls him; Talon, the Frenchman who had come to Petersburg in the wave of imported artists that swept through the city and created its sensual environment: Didelot the French ballet master, Rastrelli the Italian architect, Cameron the Scottish architect, John Field the Irish pianist, Fabergé the Huguenot jeweler. These were the people who provided the texture of the city, its tastes and styles, the web of sights and sounds and shapes and smells against which Pushkin moved and his verses sounded.

It was a poet, after all, who created this menu, and the menu is perfect Petersburg poetry: As the dishes were imported, so were the words used to describe them. The stanza is full of foreign words as the menu is full of foreign dishes. Roast beff (rost-bif­ in the original: an aglicism), Strasbourg, Limburger, truffles, pineapple (ananas in the original: a Gallicism)—are these dishes or words? Consider the power of words to make us salivate, to awaken sensation, memory, or even an image of something we’ve never experienced. This menu is a poem first of all, and so began with words: Pushkin imported it from all over. The English rost-bif he found in a French poem by Parny; it replaced a dish he considered for an earlier draft, a bécasse, a French woodcock that he’d found in an English poem by Byron. And the bécasse was there in the first place not because he liked woodcock but because bécasse rhymes with ananas. So this stanza is as much imported delicacy as the menu it describes, for poetry breaks down more frontiers than Napoleon could.

And yet what richness Pushkin offers us, what sensuality, what an imperial meal! Champagne, roast beef, truffles, Strasborg foie gras, Limburger cheese, fresh pineapple. All the sense are put to work in this description: the ear, in the pop and spurt of a newly-opened bottle of iced champagne; the eye, in the crimson of roast beef, the velvet blackness of truffles, the gold of a pineapple; the nose, supremely, in the Limburger, the tactile sense in various textures and temperatures—the icy chill of a glass, the tearing of hot, succulent flesh from a rib bone, the sweet wetness of a piece of pineapple. And the tastebuds, each of them subjected to an elaborate succession of triumphant, conquering food experiences. This is poetry not so much about food as about the effects of food on heightened senses, on the finely-tuned palate and the riotous sensual imagination. Words are paramount, but this is a poetry of the flesh—one that borders, perhaps, on pornography. Pushkin knew that. He knew that conquest was not only a military matter, but a sexual one, and that food was ammunition in that crucial war. As his chapter progresses, his hero Onegin becomes gradually disenchanted with the sensual excitements of the life he leads, and Pushkin lumps them all together:

…Was he in vain amid these feasts

Hale, and hearty, and without a care?

Yes. His emotions cooled early.

Society began to weary him.

Beautiful women were no longer all

His occupation: betrayals took their tool;

Friends and friendship got to be a bore.

Clearly he could not constantly wash down

Paté and beef with bottles of champagne,

Nor scatter wit and bright remarks about

When he was hung over. And even though

He was a hothead, and a touchy one,

He grew at last definitively bored

With dueling pistols, lead, and sword.

The youth of the era was at an end; the disorder of so much violence and richness in the blood was clear. Europe felt bilious and gouty, and turned to plainer local dishes: simple national stews instead of foreign delicacies. The great dinner party was over. It came to an end like the empire, in a giant crash, as if some firm maternal hand had pulled the tablecloth from the table and everything hit the floor—crystal, dishes, flowers, food, and wine—in a teeth-shattering crash and a clatter of silverware. It all went, all of it, the luxury, the extravagance, the opulence, everything: Sévres basins broke and dissolved their assemblies of strawberries, bottles of Médoc cracked their necks and rolled into corners, slapping spurts of bloody fluid and drowning the painted flowers of porcelain plates. The golden candelabra toppled and fell from their sphinx-ridden bases, while the whole debacle was reflected for a moment in the wild eye and wacky grin of an ormolu cupid, astride one sphinx with his arm thrown out, urging the mess on as if he were leading a cavalry charge to the floor. Then he slid face-first into a platter of whipped cream, and over him toppled the spun-sugar temples, the icing Arches of Triumph, the sticky garlands and the carved ice swans, all of it tumbling and smashing, bouncing and skidding across the parquet floor, a torrent of rubbish finally, full of the squish of smeared sauces and congealed grease, a great rolling, rotting mess.

It all vanished. There was nothing left on the polished wooden surface of the table but a plain white Biedemeier coffee pot, two cups of coffee, a plate of bread and butter. And a long domestic silence, broken only by the tick of a clock and a cat’s occasional purr.

 

THE MENU

Foie Gras en Croûte

Truffles

Roast Beef

Limburger

Pineapple

Champagne D’ay, 1811

FOIE GRAS

There is a dark side to food—the inside. Most of what we consider edible is the inside of something, and to get at it we have to open something up: cut it open, crack it open, rip it open, pull it out. The first step in cooking is to get things out in the open.

Of all the inside parts we eat, the richest and rarest is foie gras, fat goose liver; the effort and expense of obtaining it are legendary. it is a pleasure we pay dearly for. And yet, a curious thing—once we get the foie gras, we almost always serve it covered up again: in a pastry crust as here in Pushkin’s menu, in a terrine, or in a block of aspic. Aspic is the most revealing of these coverings, for its transparence emphasizes the innerness of the thing, encased almost in shining crystal. And only by destroying the outside can we get at the inside, ever. To serve the dish we must perform again the act by which we got the liver in the first place—cutting open the goose.

To eat foie gras en croûte we must attack it; it is a military operation. It is Brillat-Savarin who says so; he describes a party once where the diners were served “an enormous foie gras in pastry from Strasbourg, in the shape of a bastion…a real Gibraltar.” The image is compelling, and the diners proceeded to conquer the foie gras  as the British had conquered Gibraltar and taken it from Napoleon not many years before. But in Brillat-Savarin’s description that conquest is as much sexual as military. “In effect,” he continues, “all conversation ceased as if hearts were too full to go on; all attention was riveted on the skill of the carvers; and when the serving platters had been passed, I saw spread out in succession on every face the fire of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and then the perfect peace of satisfaction.”

Perfection, satisfaction—it’s true, we strive for satisfaction in love, for perfection in food: That is what every serious dinner for two is all about. But can foie gras  content us? Can perfection satisfy? That liver, after all, is a triumph of our desire for perfection in food. We do strange and unnatural things to plants and animals in our attempts to perfect them for food. Those geese in Strasbourg, for instance. The facts are known. The geese are kept in stalls, immobilized from gosling-hood, and force-fed. They are hourly crammed with corn until their livers, coping with cholesterol are swollen many times their normal size. That “fat liver” is a work of art, and its creation begins long before it even reaches the kitchen, long before it even leaves the goose. Delectable monstrosity! Delicious perversion!

We do that to the geese; do we do it to ourselves? We manipulate our bodies this was and that toward perfection, toward fat or thin mostly, back and forth, constantly. Fat yearns toward Thin, Thin strives for Fat; rarely are we content with our casings. The beautiful woman sweating off a last invisible pound in some perfumed retreat, a Greenhouse not for growing but for diminishing, or Arnold Schwarzenegger straining a last metaphysical inch onto a bicep in some clanking gym—what’s the difference? Two discontented people, we think, and in a kind of Piranesi prison of their imaginations: the steel cage and winking windows of the Greenhouse, the steel bars and mirrors of the gym—what’s the difference? Two discontented people, we think, and in a kind of Piranesi prison of their own imaginations: the steel cage and winking windows of the Greenhouse, the steel bars and mirrors of the gym—two views of the same edifice. But suppose we rethink the matter: Is it discontent that moves them to such effort? Or are they rather Platonic philosophers striving toward a perfection of pure form? Both have firmly fixed in mind an image of perfection, and both strive hungrily toward it; that it is a perfection of the flesh doesn’t negate the seriousness of their search. The search seems endless. because the flesh is endlessly imperfect, but the very impossibility of the task conveys a certain nobility upon it; we admire that, the way we admire mountain climbers. For these two, though, there is never any fixed summit waiting frozen in the sunshine. The flesh is always unstable; what we see and are pleased with in the evening’s mirror we cannot even face in the morning’s reflection. But what we see in the morning can give us a goal for the day—at least if we take the matter at all seriously, which Arnold Schwarzenegger and the lady in the Greenhouse do. For both of them the striving and the yearning go on forever, while the image of a beautiful body glows in the air above their heads, always a few inches, just a few inches out of reach.

But who knows what risks they take? Can we manipulate one part and not another? Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger himself has a foie gras, an enormous glistening liver to accompany the matchless gleaming outside. Perhaps the beautiful lady’s insides diminish as she thins her thighs: Perhaps she is left with a skinny, shriveled heart. There’s the real problem and the real question: Do we prize the inside more than the outside, or the outside more than the inside? Is the beauty of the body somehow within, like a Platonic private part, and are Arnold Schwarzenegger and the beautiful lady both striving to set free something they feel within them, to dig out their foie gras, to make an inner perfection visible to the outside world?

Well, we may manipulate inside to make it reflect out, or outside to make it reflect in, but sooner or later we must come to understand that the one is incomplete without the other: An outside with no inside is empty, and an inside with no outside is helpless. And so we surround foie gras with pastry crust, and stuff the goose it came from.

But once surrounded, once inside, the stuff becomes an object of desire. We rush to conquer the bastion, and to conquer we must cut. There’s an excitement to the act of opening up—Brillat-Savarin’s diners waiting with anticipation the way we all do when something is exposed, the way children wait for a birthday present, or the way we watch a new lover undress for the first time. Conquest we call it, and the opening can be violent. How often do children rip fiercely at the wrapping, and how often do we tear passionately at a new lover’s clothes?

Yet that violence bothers me, somehow; I have the feeling it must somehow be paid for, and it may be in a way we little expect. Consider the whole perverse procedure by which we get foie gras: Is it really possible to manipulate one part and not affect the whole? is we make the goose livers grow, what about the geese? Mightn’t they grow, too? And may there not be, somewhere in the woods back of Strasbourg, great hordes of hulking geese, twelve feet high, honking like fire engines? The goddamn birds by now may even have turned into some sort of strange mutants” Their intelligence may have grown with their livers, as if they had taken a cram course in the awful ways of the world, and they may even now be mobilizing to march upon Paris, out to destroy every three-star restaurant in their path. Revenge! Revenge for perverting Platonic philosophy! Revenge for generations of livers sent to feed the fat-mouthed middle class! There may be hissing firebrands among them, revolutionary geese hoping to bring bourgeois civilization and all its philosophies to its knees. Who knows? We have only the word of a few smiling Alsatian farm ladies that the geese die regularly and gracefully, at normal size.

Perhaps the real expense of foie gras, like the price we pay for conquest or for love, is anxiety—the nervous fear of what we may be lurking in the dark woods out back. Perfection may be within us, but satisfaction requires something form without, and must somehow be paid.

 

TRUFFLES

A truffle is a rarity, the way things that require discovery are always rare. It must be discovered quite literally: disclosed, uncovered, dug up. It shares with oysters the quality of being rock-like: of lying in silent, undisturbed darkness beneath a surface, and of having to be found out, dragged into the light, like a secret, or like meaning out of a complex event. I think it is as much as anything that makes truffles attractive to us; anything that must be uncovered—discovered—will yield up more than itself, because we seek in it, as compensation for our search, some meaning beyond the brute fact of its being. So we read a truffle as if it were a text; it means more to us than just another mushroom. It enters our existence more importantly, and lingers longer. Its scarcity, its price, its seldomness, keep it in a metaphoric part of our minds. We say truffle, we write truffle, we imagine truffle, as often as—more often than, perhaps, for most of us—we ever eat truffle. We confront, indeed, in truffle-eating, a dark and hidden behavior. Darkness, after all, is its fundamental quality, its very image, and this may be for us the dark suggestion of an old idea, dragged up from our unconscious as the truffle is dragged up to light. When it is set before us, our imaginations confront a fact: This plaything for grown-ups at their most grown-up may yet bring us in a blink to a buried part of childhood. Are we about to eat that? Is a truffle not, perhaps, earth’s excrement?

It is certainly something more than itself: The very complication of its provenance assures us of that. A truffle is snuffled out, snorted from the earth, passed from pig to peasant, from village to town, from earth to water; it is washed and polished and cooked and glazed, and sent ceremoniously to a candle-lit table. There it ends its passage from darkness to light, as a great dark eye opens from primordial sleep, and finds reflected in its shiny surface the glance of a lady in satin and diamonds—a glance intended for the gentleman two places down the table from her. And that glance is checked, perhaps, by the sweep of a napkin, and a white wave winks for an instant in the truffle’s surface, but as the napkin drops slowly lower and lower, the lady’s diamonds are revealed, reflected in the truffle’s glaze. Then in both truffle and diamond some kinship is revealed,. a cousinage of underground darkness, two lumps of stuff dug out of the earth, brought to light, cleaned and polished and taken finally to the same table, there to reflect each other: perfect darkness and perfect light. In those reflecting surfaces, what secrets may pass! And yet they pass through the diamond, refract, dissolve, and disappear: Diamonds hold nothing. But in the truffle those secrets remain. As darkness embraces all, reveals nothing, so does a truffle. It yields up only an ancient aroma, a black taste, and recalls us to the deepest parts of ourselves. Our latter-day frivolities are judged in that stern earthen eye, the feast darkness, and all the glitter of the diamond is denied. The candles on this table will soon gutter and go out, the truffle tells us, and so will we.

 

ROAST BEEF

Roast beef is a different phenomenon in different times and in different places, but it is the intractable item in any menu, and the dominant one.  All over the world it is called by its English name—it is always roast beef (or roastbeef or rostbif or rozbif). Why? Because the English invented it, we say; but the fact is, there was nothing to invent. Roast beef has nothing to do with recipes. It was originally not a matter for the kitchen at all. It is roast meat, grilled meat, a barbecue, something done out-of-doors and done since time immemorial. In a sophisticated age it is the last vestige of our aboriginal past, and to see a slice of roast beef on a Séveres plate on a candle-lit table is to see an extraordinary combination of things—the gilt and painted flowers of the porcelain glittering in the candle flame, beneath the almost raw hunk of what was once, very obviously, except for its exposure to flame, live meat.

Roast beef is a dish that comes to the table with less human meditation than anything except oysters on the half shell. And except for oysters, which we try to eat live, rare beef is the closest thing to living flesh we eat. We have eaten roast meat in European culture longer than we have eaten anything else. Boiled beef is modern compared to roast beef, and the product of a subtle technology. It takes less art to boil beef than to roast it, but the results are more certain; like most technological innovations, boiled beef is surer than roast beef, but duller. A piece of roast beef is no triumph of the kitchen. It barely belongs in the dining room. It is, rather, the triumph of the principle of conservation, of the idea of habit. Roasting was the first physical meditation of humanity upon the things we eat—again, except for opening oysters. But there it lies, still faintly bleeding, a shocking anachronism. Look closely sometime at a slice of rare roast beef—who brought that into the house, we wonder; it shrieks of savagery and the out-of-doors.

The closer the meat seems to the bleeding animal that fell beneath the arrow, the better. Grilled meat is the primal luxury: It means you have been a successful hunter and can afford to offer fresh meat to your friends. And it must be fresh, too; other forms of cookery can disguise tainted meat, but the grilling is simple: only flesh and fire. The process is always kept visible, as the fire is always visible, always a focus, always social. All cultures keep grilled meat as a separate item, and most cultures keep some kind of outdoor barbecue for special occasions. A restaurant with a grill almost always displays it. And when we ask the neighbors over, how often is it to the backyard and for grilled meat? An Indian, with his slice of bleeding buffalo, an Eskimo with his hunk of bloody seal, a caveman with his messy piece of mammoth, are all cousins to the man in the yard next door with his pile of hamburgers, his grill, and his silly apron. He never went on a hamburger hunt, but that nevertheless is the premise he celebrates.

Outdoor cooking is man’s work, too, not woman’s. In the primal division of labor, men hunted animals and women gathered plants, and that distinction holds clearly when we think of grilled meat. not much is ever done to roast beef. It is served without sauces, basted only in its own fat, and its traditional accompaniment is only the complementary food, vegetables. What had been hunted by men is eaten with what had been gathered by women. With the rare, the raw. Salad. Vegetables raw, or only cooked enough, as the meat is ideally, to make them attractive to eat. And as the meat is always basted in its own fat, so a salad is always dressed with vegetable liquids: olive oil and vinegar. There is an immense human satisfaction in this combination of opposites: roast beef and salad, when the masculine activity and the feminine come to rest, side by side, on the same plate. And there we can combine the sexes however we want. As Escoffier notes: “…many gourmets like to sop their salad in the meat juice.”

 

LIMBURGER CHEESE

Finding food is an animal problem; preserving it is a human one. To set about preserving food, one must first be aware of time—not merely the fact of it: distinguish day from night, and you can tell time—but rather the effect of time on the world. Time will transform what we eat without touching it; astonishingly, before our very eyes and under our very noses, what used to be food stops being food. At some point it dawned on a caveman, downwind from some stinking mound of mammoth, that the carcass he had been dining off for a week had gone beyond the point of dinner.

But long before that, at some odd, early moment, some thoughtful creature made a curious discovery. She stands—perhaps alone, perhaps with a creature beside her—beneath a tree whose branches are heavy with apples. She eats one. The fruit o the tree tastes “good.” But then there is a rustling in the leaves, a cloud for a moment obscures the sun, and the creature near her begins to move away; touched by a certain fear, she starts to follow him—and on an impulse she grabs four or five apples and carries them away with her. Perhaps she offers one of them to the creature near her. Perhaps she eats one o them herself as she goes. Perhaps she decides to keep the others until “later”—and it dawns on her, as she eats another one later, that it tastes “better.” Eventually, “much later,” she discovers that the last one tastes “bad.” Awful, in fact. She has attained a certain knowledge. Things ripen and then they rot, and that is a measure of time. Ripeness tastes good but rot tastes bad, and the time of the tasting makes all the difference. And from that moment of perception beneath that tree, down an endless chain of grandmothers, comes that knowledge: the idea of preserving food, or trying to make the taste of the apple last forever.

But preserving food is a complex affair: Containers must be invented and proper techniques discovered. Through centuries of trial and error, attempts were made to preserve everything, and apples are an easy matter compared, let’s say, to milk. But once we learned to herd cattle and make bowls and baskets, the problem of preserving milk inevitably arose. And so we come to cheese.

To make cheese is to preserve milk. But with cheese the idea of preservation takes a strange turn: The process reverses itself. Time, that we struggle against to preserve food, becomes suddenly beneficial, and the process of ripening is extended to extremes—aging, we call it, and like it. The desirable end of cheese-making is not to preserve youth but to encourage age, not keep freshness but to lose it, not to safeguard innocence but to ensure an enjoyable corruption. Clearly at some point in the process of corruption, or rot, we draw a line and say: That’s it, no further; nobody could eat that. But at what point? An attractive gaminess is an acquired taste—acquired with age, at that, and it may simply be that age is drawn to age, decay to decay. What we puke up at six we will gorge on at sixteen; what seems gross at sixteen may be a delicacy at sixty. What sort of progression is this?

The truest understanding of cheese is that it concerns, precisely, milk. Do we ever lose a taste for our first food? The change from mother’s milk to other goods is an awful drama of wailing and dribbling and drooling, and it may even be that the messy pain of weaning continues forever. Perhaps it involves more than the lost breast; perhaps it colors the entire world always. Milk sours, as affection sours; do we mark with cheese our disenchantment with the world? Do cheeses provide us with attractive lumps of disappointment?

More than that, I think. our progress from milk to cheese, and from cheese to stronger cheese, is a change of sexuality. A baby takes only milk, and at some point is noisily and painfully weaned away from the breast; is cheese-eating then a metaphor for the way relate to our mother’s body? Do we attempt to retrieve some other part of what was so forcibly taken from us? As we move from the taste and smell of fresh milk to the taste and smell of aged cheese, do we move from one sexuality to another, from the breast to other parts? The gamey taste and smell of ripened cheese is sexual, and provocative; the smell is maternal still, but now it is the smell of cyclical time. Time is measured constantly and inexorable in the swelling and emptying of maternal organs, and its trace is recalled, surely, in the change of milk to Limburger.

For limburger is the ultimate palatable state of pure milk. We first drink milk in all innocence; it is the taste of childhood. When we are older and wiser we eat Limburger, and that is the taste of age and decay. One is the odor of life, the other the odor of death, and in the transformation of one to the other, and in the change in our taste for one to the other, we record our body’s encounter with time. An interesting encounter, after all. All things are subject to corruption, true; but that’s no matter for despair, rather for acceptance, and even for delectation.

Ripeness is indeed all, in cheese as in ourselves, and that’s surely the reason we love Limburger.

 

PINEAPPLES

Pushkin’s meal ends with pineapple, as his poem began with it, for bananas was the first rhyme word in Pushkin’s stanza. Pineapple poetry? Why not? The pineapple has always been a sign of the high life, of good living, in Russia, all over Europe, and here in America as well: Witness the carved pineapple that crowns eighteenth-century doors, carved mirrors, and furniture.

But it has a deeper meaning, and an older one. When the bananas arrive in England, it was called pine-apple because it resembled the pinecone, and the pinecone has an ancient history. The Greeks and Romans associated the pinecone with Bacchus the wine god and the fertility rites of Dionysios, and that association has persisted. Beyond luxurious living, the pineapple is a sign of license and sexuality.

Like most tropical fruits, the pineapple provides an astonishing distinction between exterior and interior—the outside never quite prepares us for the inside, which sometimes comes as a shock. That was what fascinated Europe with the tropical fruits brought back from the distant discoveries of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. European fruits were obvious. Cherries and grapes are thin-skinned, or barely skinned at all. Whatever is inside shows through an almost transparent exterior, and colors it. in Europe the only things rough and forbidding-looking but still edible were nuts, but the inside of the nut was also hard, and small. here suddenly were new fruits, enormous ones; they were scaly, rough, and hurtful on the outside, and yet within they were all softness, paleness, and juice.

Symbol indeed of the deepest hospitality, the pineapple is an androgynous fruit. it does not deny either sex, or equivocate about sexuality, but affords an image of masculinity and femininity totally, one within the other. Think of the whole pineapple: the phallic thrust of the thing displayed erect, as it so often is, over doorways and at the tops of lavish heaps of lesser fruit; and then cut one down the middle: the yonic pattern of the thing, with its pulpy fascicules radiating from a central ovoid cone, and its sticky juice and rich, musty smell. Brought from conquered islands to European tables, and there cut up and eaten, its rough thrust reduced to a yielding wetness, the pineapple is both an image of sexual conquest and as great a military metaphor as any of the columns and arches of Carême’s imperial banquets.

But the great masters of the table, if they could, wanted it both ways. Udé’s recipe reduces his pineapple to a heap of feminine slices, and then carefully reconstructs it as a phallic pile, in a transparent tower of jelly. And in this form he makes of it, perhaps, the truest phallic symbol of all: That proud, glistening height, as we know all too well, has to often a very shaky foundation. Depending on the temperature of the occasion and the lay of the land, all that shining phallic promise can dissolve, begin to wobble, and at last topple weeping into a puddle.

 

CHAMPAGNE

They pour champagne? The perfect wine for Russia; only blizzards and snowstorms can ever chill it properly. 1811, the year the comet came? We need no year to qualify champagne, for every year is a comet year: Champagne is just a comet in a bottle. The cork goes pop, it spurts a shower of stars; the foamy moment glitters with wild excitement, the ahs and sighs of satisfaction afterward, always, as it subsides into a bed of troubles. Bravo! Open a bottle of champagne: The comet always comes.

 

 

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Masthead

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