"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf
11 December 2012
Posted before, but today is a special day ...
A Really Big Lunch
On our frequent American road trips, my friend Guy de la Valdene has invariably said at lunch, “These French fries are filthy,” but he always eats them anyway, and some of mine, too. Another friend, the painter Russell Chatham, likes to remind me that we pioneered the idea of ordering multiple entrees in restaurants back in the seventies-the theory being that if you order several entrees you can then avoid the terrible disappointment of having ordered the wrong thing while others at the table have inevitably ordered the right thing. The results can’t have been all that bad, since both of us are still more or less alive, though neither of us owns any spandex.
Is there an interior logic to overeating, or does gluttony, like sex, wander around in a messy void, utterly resistant to our attempts to make sense of it? Not very deep within us, the hungry heart howls, “Supersize me.” When I was a boy, in northern Michigan, feeding my grandfather’s pigs, I was amazed at their capacity. Before I was caught in the act and chided by my elders, I had empirically determined that the appetite of pigs was limitless. As I dawdled in the barnyard, the animals gazed at me as fondly as many of us do at great chefs. Life is brutishly short and we wish to eat well, and for this we must generally travel to large cities, or, better yet, to France.
Never before have the American people had their noses so deeply in one another’s business. If I announce that I and eleven other diners shared a thirty-seven-course lunch that likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon, those of a critical nature will let their minds run in tiny, aghast circles of condemnation. My response to them is that none of us twelve disciples of gourmandise wanted a new Volvo. We wanted only lunch, and since lunch lasted approximately eleven hours we saved money by not having to buy dinner. The defense rests.
Some would also think it excessive to travel all the way from Montana to Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance, in Burgundy, for lunch, but I don’t. Although there are signs of a culinary revolution in the United States, this much bandied renaissance is for people in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. When travelling across America over the past forty years, I’ve repeatedly sought extreme unction of a sort while in the midst of digestive death in the parking lots of restaurants. I’ve found it best, in these situations, to get some distance-to drive for a while, pull over, take a walk, fall to my knees, and pray for better food in the future.
I suspect that it’s inappropriate to strand myself on a high horse when it comes to what people eat. We have proved ourselves inept fools on so many mortal fronts-from our utter disregard of the natural world to our notions of ethnic virtue to the hellish marriage of politics and war-that perhaps we should be allowed to pick at garbage like happy crows. When I was growing up in the Calvinist Midwest, the assumption that we eat to live, not live to eat, was part of the Gospels. (With the exception, of course, of holiday feasts. Certain women were famous for their pie-making abilities, while certain men, like my father, were admired for being able to barbecue two hundred chickens at once for a church picnic.) I recall that working in the fields for ten hours a day required an ample breakfast and three big sandwiches for lunch. At the time, I don’t think I believed I was all that different from the other farm animals.
It’s a long road from a childhood in rural Michigan to being the sort of man who gets invited to a thirty-seven-course lunch. But, above all, a gourmand is one who is able to keep eating when no longer hungry, and a gourmand without a rich sense of the comic is a pathetic piggy, indeed. Once, at Taillevent, in Paris (a restaurant that is always referred to as a “temple of gastronomy”), I had the uncomfortable sense that I was in a funeral parlor. I heard no laughter except from my own table. And when I wanted a taste of Calvados as an entremets the waiter actually told me that I’d have to be patient until after the cheese course, an hour distant. Luckily, an intemperate French count who was at my table told the waiter to bring my Calvados immediately or he would slap his face; at those prices, you don’t want to be schooled. Haute cuisine has rules for those who love rules. Those rules have, for the most part, driven me into the arms of bistros. If I were given the dreary six months to live, I’d head at once to Lyons and make my way from bistro to bistro in a big stroller pushed by a vegetarian.
The thirty-seven-course lunch, which was held on November 17th of last year, was based on recipes by the great cooks and food writers of the past (among them Le Marechal de Richelieu, Nicolas de Bonnefons, Pierre de Lune, Massialot, La Varenne, Marin, Grimod de La Reyniere, Brillat-Savarin, Mercier, La Chapelle, Menon, and Careme), and drawn from seventeen cookbooks published between 1654 and 1823. It was food with a precise and determinable history. My host for the lunch was Gerard Oberle, a man of unquestionable genius, whom I had met a decade earlier at a wine-and-book festival near Saumur, on the Loire. I don’t recall seeing any books at the three-day party, where I was a wine judge, along with Alain Robbe-Grillet and Gerard Depardieu. (None of us was particularly startled when we were told that the wines had been “pre-judged” and were there for decoration only.) Early one morning, I discovered Oberle eating a sturdy platter of charcuterie on the patio of the chateau where we were staying. It took me a number of years to uncover all the aspects of his character-as if I were peeling the laminae from a giant Bermuda onion (which Gerard somewhat physically resembles, but then so does the Buddha). Gerard is a book collector and a dealer in illuminated manuscripts, a musicologist with a weekly program on Radio France, a novelist and an essayist, an “expert of experts” dealing with insurance fraud (assessing the actual value of private libraries destroyed by fire), a countertenor who once sang Purcell’s “Come Ye Sons of Art” while woodcock hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a student of the history of French food who has produced a couple of what he calls “two-kilo” bibliographies on the subject, a wine and salami scholar, a former officer in a society for the protection of the integrity of fromages de tete (headcheese), a culinary eccentric, and a grand cook. Once, in Cancale, on the Brittany coast, where we were eating the rare and enormous seventy-year-old oysters known as pieds de cheval (horse’s feet), he remarked, “These would be difficult to eat in a car.”
Soon after I met Gerard, I visited his manor, in Burgundy, where he prepared a particularly interesting dish of ancient origin-a torte of fifty baby pigs’ noses. “Really a simple dish,” he said. As he explained it, you soak the pigs’ noses overnight in clear water, then simmer them for about two hours in red wine, herbs, and garlic. Later, you add potatoes and bake the dish with the upturned noses forming a delightful mosaic on the surface. Such dishes are usually only for the extremely curious or those with an agricultural background. I recall both of my grandmothers boiling pigs’ heads with herbs and onions to make a headcheese, for which the especially toothsome cheek, tongue, and neck meat was extracted, covered with the cooking liquid, and gelatinized in a glass dish.
By the time I met Gerard, I had already been exposed to excesses of every sort, including those of the film industry, and I had known a number of big eaters, myself included. But I had never met a truly refined big eater. Not long afterward, Gerard threw a dinner with fifty courses. Why? Because it was his fiftieth birthday. Why else? When I first read the menu, it seemed incomprehensible to me, though there was an interior logic-the meal was designed after one described in Petronius’ Satyricon.
This is not to say that Gerard concentrates on the arcane and the frivolous. In my dozen or so visits to his home, I’ve experienced many French standards, in versions better than any I’d had before. You know you are not in a restaurant when you enter Gerard’s kitchen and notice a wooden bowl with a kilo of black truffles waiting to be added to your all-time favorite dish, poulet demi-deuil, or “chicken in half-mourning.” The dead fowl has been honored by so many truffle slices, slid under its skin, that it appears to be wearing black (not to mention the large truffle stuffed in the bird’s cavity, to comfort its inner chicken). When I said, “Gerard, you shouldn’t have,” he replied, “I’m a bachelor. I have no heirs.”
Over the years, on my visits to France, Guy de la Valdene, Gerard, and I had discussed the possibilities for a “theme” meal, and we had read the menus of several that Gerard had already given. At a certain point, it began to seem entirely reasonable to plan a lunch that began with twenty-four courses and then urged itself upward. And no restaurant was more logical a location than L’Esperance, in the village of Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, a scant hour and a half from Gerard’s home, in the Morvan. Of all the great chefs in France, Marc Meneau, a very tall man who looms above his employees as did de Gaulle above his citizenry, is one of the least aggressive, apparently devoid of any interest in becoming a public figure. His restaurant, long a required destination for gourmands, is pure country French, elegantly set in a grand garden, with nothing whatsoever in its decor to intimidate the customer. (And it would soon regain the third Michelin star that it had lost in 1999.)
Gerard had known Meneau for years, and with Guy and me safely at home in the United States he proceeded to plan the feast, using his improbable library as the source. Having once sat in on an after-lunch confab on the “vrai ancien coq au vin” (reduce seven litres of Merlot down to one, whisk in the rooster blood, etc.), I can only imagine the countless hours of discussion that ensued between Gerard and Meneau.
When the morning of the event finally arrived, I wasn’t particularly hungry. This didn’t alarm me-many professional athletes before a big game feel that they would prefer to spend the day with their Tinkertoys or in the arms of Lucrezia Borgia. I had already been off my diet for two weeks, touring the French countryside with Guy and Peter Lewis, a Seattle restaurateur. Everywhere we went, we ate the best food available, with the excuse, not totally accurate, that we’d worked hard, saved our pennies, and had it coming. (The novelist Tom McGuane once noted that in the course of thirty-five years of correspondence between us I had lost a total of eighteen hundred pounds-so I was really “getting down there.”)
The day dawned cool and misty. There was a certain anxiety in the air at the manor, with Gerard watching to make sure that I didn’t partake of the breakfast that I thought I needed. All I wanted was a simple slab of the game pate from the evening before, but when I tried to sneak into the kitchen from the outside pantry door he was there in front of the fridge like a three-hundred-pound albino cat.
I’ve always felt that there is no lovelier village in France than Vezelay, and no lovelier religious building than its cathedral on the hill, the Madeleine of Vezelay. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve lit candles in that church in prayer for troubled friends, and it has always worked. At least, they’re all still showing vital signs. But I had no time to run up the steep hill and light a candle for my own digestion. The twelve of us sat down at noon. To my left was the vintner Didier Dagueneau, whose exquisite Pouilly-Fume we had been drinking since our initial Krug Grande Cuvee. The first time I met Didier, I was startled by his appearance, which is that of a Minnesotan pulp cutter. During the winter downtime at his vineyard, in Pouilly, he travels far north, toward the Arctic, to run the dozens of sled dogs that he owns and whose racket irritates his neighbors. To my right was Gilles Brezol, Gerard’s business partner and a man of sophisticated intelligence, who taught French for a year in Alabama and Nevada during the civil-rights upheaval. I’ve had dozens of meals with Gilles, who eats as much as I do but remains irritatingly slender. In fact, in this group of mostly book collectors and journalists sworn to secrecy no one was technically obese. Although the lunch had originally been planned for eleven, a twelfth guest, a beautifully tailored, elderly French gentleman, unknown to all of us, had been invited by Meneau, in accordance with the superstitious notion that any large group should include a stranger, who might very well be an angel in disguise.
Meneau came out of the kitchen; his only advice was “Courage” (or “coo-rahj,” as my phrase book likes to say). We began with a girlish delicacy-a clear soup made from poultry, diced vegetables, and crayfish-followed by tartines of foie gras, truffles, and lard. The next soup was a velvety cream of squab with cucumbers, served with cock-crest fritters. Then there was a soothing crayfish bisque, and I began to wonder how long we would be pursuing the soup motif.
But, oddly, I felt squeamish about the first of the hors d’oeuvres-oysters and cream of Camembert on toast, which proved to be the only course I couldn’t eat. (We all have our own food phobias, and a mixture of pungent cheese and oysters makes my little tummy recoil.) Next came a chilled jellied loaf of poultry on sorrel cream, followed by a private joke on me-fresh Baltic herring with mayonnaise. (According to my late mother, I was wild about herring from the age of two. Her family was Swedish, and the fish was a staple.) I loved the tart of calf’s brains with shelled peas but was not terribly fond of the omelette with sea urchin, a dish that Louis XV liked to prepare for himself-though it was certainly better than the cottage cheese with ketchup that Richard Nixon favored as a snack. (There is a well-founded rumor that George W. Bush nibbles on bologna with marshmallow bonbons.) A filet of sole with champagne sauce accompanied by monkfish livers was wonderful, as was the roasted pike spiked with parsley. I did pause to consider whether all of these hors d’oeuvres might dampen my appetite for the main courses. The wine steward noted my unrest, and a quick goblet of Montrachet tickled my enthusiasm upward. There were only two pure-blood Americans at the table, Peter Lewis and I, and we had agreed not to shame our own holy empire.
We headed into the “second service” without an appropriate break-say, a five-mile march through the mountains and an eight-hour nap. The courses, naturally, became more substantial. First came an oven-glazed brill served with fennel cream, anchovies, and roasted currants, then a stew of suckling pig that had been slow-cooked in a red-wine sauce thickened with its own blood, onions, and bacon. I leaped forward from this into a warm terrine of hare with preserved plums, and a poached eel with chicken wing tips and testicles in a pool of tarragon butter. But I only picked at my glazed partridge breasts, which were followed by a savory of eggs poached in Chimay ale, and then a mille-feuille of puff pastry sandwiched with sardines and leeks.
Now it was halftime, though there were no prancing cheerleaders. The menu advised us to “languish” in the salon and nibble on ravioli with carrots and cumin and thick slices of “Noirs eggs of puff pastry with squab hearts.” Instead, I went outside, where the grass was wet and my feet seemed to sink in even farther than usual. In the walled herb garden, I began to reflect that this kind of eating might not be a wise choice in the late autumn of my life. Perhaps I should fax the menu to my cardiologist in the States before proceeding? I soon realized that this was one of the ten million insincere impulses I’ve had in my life. I began to walk faster for a dozen yards and almost jumped a creek, but then thought better of it.
The “third service” loaded even bigger guns, or so it seemed, with its concentration on denser, heavier specialties that tried the patience of my long-fled appetite. From Massialot, we were offered a “light” stew of veal breast in a puree of ham and oysters in a pastry-covered casserole, and a not-so-light gratin of beef cheeks. La Varenne’s gray squab was boned, stuffed with sweetbreads, squab livers, and scallions, and spit-roasted. It was the Prince des Dombes who said, “Nothing arouses me but taste” (“Je ne me pique que de gout”). He would have been a disappointing match for a vigorous girl. You can imagine her hanging a rope ladder from her tower bedroom for knights-errant-or, better yet, woodchoppers and stable hands-to climb, while the Prince aroused himself in the kitchen. From his files, we had wild duck with black olives and orange zest, a buisson (bush) of crayfish with little slabs of grilled goose liver, a terrine of the tips of calves’ ears, hare cooked in port wine inside a calf’s bladder, crispy breaded asparagus, a sponge cake with fruit preserves, and cucumbers stewed in wine.
It was consoling to begin winding down with a swirl of turnips in sweetened wine, radishes preserved in vinegar, a warm salad with almonds, cream of grilled pistachios, meringues, macaroons, and chocolate cigarettes. These were simple warmups to the medley of desserts served to us in the salon: a rosette of almond milk with almonds; a soft cheese of fresh cream with quince jelly; rice whipped with sweetened egg whites and lemon peel; a grand ring-shaped cake, a savarin, flamed with Old Havana rum and served with preserved pineapple; little molds of various ice creams; and a “towering structure of every fruit imaginable in every manner imaginable.”
Sad to say, my notes from the meal are blurred and smeared by the cooked exudates of flora and fauna and the wines that rained down on us as if from the world’s best garden sprinkler. Reading through the veil of grease, I see that my favorites among the wines served were Chablis Les Clos, Montrachet 1989, Volnay-Champans 1969, Chateau Latour 1989, and Cote Rotie. Of course, any fool would love these great wines as he felt his wallet vaporize.
There. Time to do dishes. As Diderot said of a lunch at the fabulously wealthy Baron of Holbach’s home, “After lunch, one takes a little walk, or one digests, if it’s even possible.” Night had long since fallen, and I reflected that lunch had taken the same amount of time as a Varig flight from New York to Sao Paulo.
In the salon, my fellow-diners were yawning rather than gasping or sobbing. Was this another example of the banality of evil: a grievous sin committed-in this case, gluttony-and no one squirming with guilt? I have noticed that Frenchmen are far less susceptible to heart disease, in part because they don’t seem to experience the stress of self-doubt or regret. My mother, a Swedish Lutheran, liked to ask her five children, “What have you accomplished today?” If I’d told her, “I have eaten thirty-seven courses and drunk thirteen wines,” I would have been cast into outer darkness. But then this was the Iron Mom, who also said, with a tiny smile, in reference to my life’s work, “You’ve made quite a living out of your fibs.”
At midnight, while sipping a paltry brandy from the nineteen-twenties and smoking a Havana Churchill, I reflected that this was not the time to ponder eternal values. I was sitting next to Gerard, who was cherubically discussing the historical subtleties of certain courses. In a way, we were forensic anthropologists, doing arduous historical field work. How could we possibly understand the present without knowing what certain of our ancestors had consumed? Marc Meneau, his lovely wife, Francoise, and thirty-nine members of his staff had led us on a sombre and all-consuming journey into the past.
At dawn or a few hours thereafter, I felt relieved, on stepping out of the bathtub, that I hadn’t fallen on a hard surface and broken open like an overly mature muskmelon.
No question looms larger on a daily basis for many of us than “What’s for lunch?” and, when that has been resolved, “What’s for dinner?” There have been mutterings that the whole food thing has gone too far in America, but I think not. Good food is a benign weapon against the sodden way we live.
By the time I reached Paris the next afternoon and took a three-hour stroll, I was feeling a little peckish. I’d heard that certain quarrels had already arisen over our lunch, and I felt lucky that my capacity for the French language was limited to understanding only the gist of conversations-sort of the way the average American comprehends our government. On the phone, the natives were restless to the point of “scandal,” and from the tornado of rumors (everyone knows that men, not women, are the masters of gossip) I learned that many had found both the food and the service disappointing, the lack of “theatre” sad. (As for myself, I couldn’t make a judgment. I once helped to cook a whole steer and a barrel of corn for a picnic in Michigan and have eaten many ten-course dinners, but our French lunch had left those occasions in the numbered dust.) The most interesting rumor I heard was that the tab for the lunch had been picked up by a Louisiana billionaire, who couldn’t attend because a pelican had been sucked into an engine of his Gulfstream. This detail was so extraordinary that it seemed likely to be true.
That last evening in Paris, before my flight and the tonic Chicago-style hot dog that awaited me at O’Hare, Peter and I dined at Thoumieux, my old standby restaurant, near the Invalides. We had a simple Gigondas, and I ordered two vegetable courses, then relented at the last moment and added a duck confit. Long flights are physically exhausting, and good nutrition lays the foundation of life. On Air France, I was sunk in profound thought, or so I felt at the time. Like sex, bathing, sleeping, and drinking, the effects of food don’t last. The patterns are repeated but finite. Life is a near-death experience, and our devious minds will do anything to make it interesting.
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