Summer 2001

Ingestion / A Personal Gastronomic Alphabet: Part III


Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.


Quiche. A regional dish (Lorraine) has become for some a symbol, albeit naïve, of a national cuisine (French), to be appropriated in a variety of forms as a sort of fancy fast food (USA), finally to be transmogrified into a term of derision (akin to the more indigenously American “milk-toast”). Cuisine as etymologically provocative and unstable; etymology as author.


Ratatouille. When asked to do a two-minute radio spot for France Culture, speaking on a favorite word, I offered the following: “Ratatouille! Ratatouille! Ratatouille! This was the first word I heard of the French language. My uncle from Toronto—who is not at all Francophone—used to pronounce it often, as a sort of exclamation, as the summit of nonsense. You can imagine how surprised I was when, years later, I found out what it is! The first time I went to Nice, I found a postcard with a picture and recipe, which I mailed to him—he was flabbergasted! Ratatouille!” What I didn’t know, and what I was told afterwards, was that my uncle’s seemingly innocent utterances were actually part of a particularly obscene nonsense ditty.


Steak. Instrument of derision and humiliation. But unlike ketchup, this is usually proclaimed by great French chefs who, when asked what food they enjoy when traveling in the US, almost always mention steak. This is most certainly a left-handed compliment, as if to say that the material is fine, but the cooking of no interest.


Technical. It has become somewhat common among food critics to speak of a “technical chef” or “technical cooking.” This is akin to speaking of a “writer’s writer” or a “batter’s batter.” Occasionally derided as a sort of preciosity, it is a double-edged compliment, as if to indicate extraordinary talent, all the while apologizing for the explicitly hierarchical value judgment. In fact, to be “technical” seems to mean, in most cases, to be able to manage certain desirable feats: roasting the skin of the duck crispy; powdering the orange peel perfectly; frying the herbs crystalline; working the liaison of the sauce just right; choosing the appropriate flower to add to the salad. It also may mean perfecting a dish of the utmost simplicity, or creating a harmony of stupendous complexity. Technical cooking is often recognizable by a successful play of physical contrasts: hot/cold, raw/cooked, crispy/creamy, and so forth. As we all know, it is often more difficult to get the texture than the flavor right. In fact, “technicality” may well be the best definition of haute cuisine.


Unbelievable. In an Alsatian restaurant that is best left unnamed, I recently ordered what promised to be a terrific dish: Foie gras poêlé en croûte de pain d’épices, fruits de minute, relevé au vinaigre balsamique (sauteed foie gras in a gingerbread crust with cooked fruit and balsamic vinegar). The conception was convincing, a classic combination within the nouvelle cuisine: Instead of adding sweetness to the foie gras by matching it with a glass of sauternes or barsac, cooked fruit is used, while the spiciness of the bread adds complexity and the vinegar cuts the sweetness. Well, in this case the fruit was in the form of caramelized strawberries! My only comment can be to quote a chef from the early years of the nouvelle cuisine, who wished to criticize its excesses and absurdities: “Some chefs think that all you have to do to create nouvelle cuisine is to sodomize a duck with a banana!” Indeed, it seems that the above chef is of that school. (Furthermore, during the same meal, I ordered a dish of sandre a fish of the perch family, with vegetables, intrigued by the announcement of a cucurbitaceae, and expecting some sort of pumpkin. Instead, I was appalled to find two slices of melon amidst the vegetables. When I questioned (with the expression of some incredulity) the waiter, he explained that in using melon, the chef was seeking effects of texture, not flavor. Well, he didn’t even succeed in that effect!


Verticality. The last major American innovation in decorative technique was that of the vertical presentation of foodstuffs. Said to have begun in the 1980s in New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill as a means of making salads more attractive (at a time that health consciousness had raised the salad to previously unheard-of gastronomic heights), verticality soon dominated food presentation. It is here—and not with the innocent and eminently useful contemporaneous technique of dusting—that the decorative becomes detrimental to the culinary (as was the case for centuries, regarding the extravagant yet all but inedible pièces montées that were the decorative norm). For to raise the main dish, whether fish, fowl, or meat, off the heated plate is to hasten its cooling. At a somewhat earlier point of culinary history, sauces began to be placed directly on the plate either under or alongside the food, rather than on top; the logic of this move, as that of dusting spices on the plate, seems to respond to the desire to permit a precise dosage of sauce on each bite, as well as offering the added advantage that the isolation of the sauce protects certain desirable textures, as well as augmenting the sheer visual beauty, of many foodstuffs. It would seem, therefore, that on the practical level, those oversize plates (which, perceived as an empty figure of style, annoy so many) might well be used to keep everything hot by providing sufficient room for contact, all the while leaving sufficient horizontal space for decorative purposes. Both verticality and horizontality have their uses, aesthetic and practical; as in all design, a high point is where the practical and the aesthetic merge. (This rational use is evidenced by the vast influence of Japanese serving techniques upon European and American haute cuisine.) Even in cuisine, there is a certain advantage to form following function.

But this is not necessarily to say that the function in question might not be symbolic. Consider the Japanese makunouchi lunchbox, brilliantly analyzed by Kenji Ekuan in The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox (MIT Press, 1998). This approximately one-foot square, black lacquered box, divided into four equal compartments, is a veritable microcosm, a mandala signifying the principles of all-inclusive accumulation and non-hierarchical multiplicity. Its form is an abstraction of the Chinese character for the rice paddy (rice being the staple of the Japanese diet), and it is also emblematic of the form of the basic Japanese house. Each makunouchi lunchbox contains seasonal foods from the sea, the mountains, and the plains; boiled, fried, sautéed; sweet, sour, spicy—there is no apparent order of eating. Here, verticality is as essential as a vision of Mount Fuji, or the fall of a cherry blossom.


White is the background color of modernism. As so much recent revisionist art history has recently explained, the role of white walls in museums played a huge ideological role in the presentation of 20th-century art. White is also the foundational color of modern cuisine: white walls, white tablecloths, white napkins, white dishes, white sauces, white smocks, white toques, white chefs...


What appears to be the most difficult letter to deal with is, in fact, often the simplest, given its richness as a lexical element. In this context, I would choose the following meanings of “x”: an unknown quantity; hybridity; error. These three definitions would seem to cover a major part of what may be termed creativity, culinary and otherwise, at this turn of the century.


Yquem. For many, Château d’Yquem (the most famous and most appallingly expensive sauternes) is the quintessence of perfection and complexity. Michel Serres, in Les cinq sens articulates the depth structure of this wine’s taste: wild rose, lilac, clematis, early summer fruit, peach, pear, apple, grape, walnut, hazelnut, fern, truffle, humus, resin; rare fragrances, minerals, silex, flint; animal odors, musk, amber, wet fur, love sweat; etherial undertones of acetone; aromatics like mint, geranium; ambrosias, jasmine, vanilla, linden; balms such as benzoin, daisy, camphor; empyreumas like coffee, tobacco. Even so, this description falls short of the wine’s stupendously intricate, indeed labyrinthine, taste. In fact, d’Yquem is a monster of perfection, a hybrid ontological intermingling of the three kingdoms (animal, vegetable, mineral), connecting heaven and earth (meteorologically and botanically) in a gustatory intricacy so profound that it ultimately defies description. As long as a single fulcrum for quality exists, a qualitative culinary discourse remains possible.


Zizanie. In French, this word denotes a sort of wild rice. It is also a term for confusion: Semer la zizanie means to sow discord. A wonderfully resonating word; a fine, if provisional, end for a gastronomic alphabet.

Allen S. Weiss teaches at the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies departments at New York University. He is the author of numerous books, including Phantasmic Radio. Weiss is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

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