Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Food II

I did not have a food-aware childhood. My mother was a widow supporting three kids on a nurse’s salary, and she lacked the time, the money, and perhaps the imagination to get past hot dogs and sauerkraut, Spam and baked beans, or a dish we called goulash: she would brown a pound of hamburger, sprinkle flour onto it until the grease was absorbed, then add some water from the pot where she had boiled a couple of cut-up potatoes. She heated and stirred the meat, flour, and water until a gravy formed, dumped in the potatoes and a package of frozen peas, added a little salt, some thyme, and some oregano, and it was dinner.

My food awareness changed in my early adolescence when my mother remarried. My new stepfather was a doctor, and though my mother worked for a while as his nurse receptionist, eventually she was free to think about furnishing fancy houses and entertaining guests. My stepfather liked to cook and encouraged my mother to try interesting recipes. Also we often traveled on vacation to foody towns like San Francisco and New Orleans, always eating in good restaurants. My tastes, very unschooled at first, gradually began to widen. During a whole year my restaurant meal choice was a shrimp cocktail followed by whatever sort of skewered beef the place featured. Eventually I would discover the sauces, and I can still remember my astonishment at the dish Brennan’s called Eggs Hussarde, with its brown and hearty marchand de vin sauce and its delicate hollandaise. My parents registered my pleasure and steered me toward other sauces: mornay and other varieties of béchamel with fresh fish (another novelty to my Arizona-bred palate), beef and chasseur sauce, with its minced mushrooms, shallots, and parsley. When I discovered béarnaise, that became my choice at every restaurant that served it, with whatever they wanted to put it on.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Job's Dilemma

I've read some commentary on the Book of Job, the latest being Cynthia Ozick's "The Impious Impatience of Job," and it seems to me no one quite gets at the peculiar conflict in Job's mind. He is perfectly aware that his faith and his desire for justice create a dilemma for him. He never stops believing in God and never looks anywhere else for justice. The God he believes in is not the Christian God of mercy; Job's God is the Author of Justice. He embodies justice, and to believe in him means to believe in a being who is all-just. But justice is precisely what Job is not getting from God. To question God's justice in this case is to rock his faith. Yet he is not denying his faith by questioning God; when Job asks the question...demands an answer from God...he becomes a hero of faith, because he knows he doesn't have a chance in this encounter. He knows this and yet he never stops believing.
He is also perfectly aware that the question he raises has no rightful place of hearing. When you have a dispute with your neighbor, both of you go before a judge. When you have a dispute with a judge, you go before a higher judge. God is the highest judge. If you have a dispute with him, to whom do the two of you go for a hearing? Job admits this is a problem.
That voice from the whirlwind is no surprise to Job. He knows he is going to be flattened. And God bullies him. What he says translates to either "Power trumps or creates justice. My rules" or "Power means I don't have to answer questions. You wouldn't understand anyway." Who wins this encounter? On the one hand, Job gets God to court and makes him testify. On the other hand, he doesn't get an answer. But if God were to admit what happened to Job wasn't what he deserved, but some cockamamy test, would Job's faith in a just God be confirmed? I'm not sure. In any case, Job's faith comes out of the encounter intact. And, of course, he gets his stuff back. But still that same wife, who wanted him to "curse God and die."

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Savory Science

Sitting in the grill room of the Savoy Hotel in July, 1990, with a plate of salmon with sorrel sauce before me, I indulged in a peculiar fantasy. I imagined the sous-chef who prepared the sauce moving from the veal stock pot to the stove, adding the pureed sorrel and some cream just as he had been taught by the sous-chef before him in the same kitchen, and back and back through successive chefs and trainers of chefs to Auguste Escoffier himself, who organized and simplified the Savoy kitchens when he went there with César Ritz in 1890. From hand to hand, sauce pan to stock pot to stove, there was a connection between my forkful of savory sauced fish and the hand of the great man himself a hundred years ago.

This conceit was not original; I stole it, with some changes, from A. J. Liebling, whose descriptions of Paris meals eaten in the thirties can still evoke the musty, pungent aroma of truffles and cause an involuntary squirt of saliva under my tongue. Leibling was also a noted writer on boxing. He begins The Sweet Science by tracing his own pugilistic lineage back to the renowned boxers of the nineteenth century such as Gentleman Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan:

It is through Jack O’Brien . . . that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons . . . . Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan . . . and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.

No more fanciful, I believe, was the connection I felt with the gastronomic past and the great chef Auguste Escoffier as I sat at the Savoy Hotel eating salmon with sorrel sauce. The veal stock itself was of course one of Escoffier’s tremendous innovations in food preparation, while the nouvelle version of the sorrel sauce made famous by the Troisgros brothers uses no veal stock. My meal was a history lesson much more pleasant than a punch on the nose.