Last month, three girlfriends and I attended a dinner featuring dishes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. The event, a labor of love co-hosted by Chef Shaun Heaslet of Harmons Bangerter Crossing Cooking School and Sheral Schowe of Wasatch Academy of Wine, paired five courses with five wines, each thoughtfully selected to highlight the terroir surrounding Keller’s renowned California restaurant.
At the dinner, I met a cowboy – not my first, but the most memorable thus far: a cattle rancher wearing a plaid shirt with pearly snap buttons, a worn brown leather belt, and faded Wranglers. He introduced himself as Spence and I told him my name in turn. He looked to be in his fifties, with tanned, wrinkled skin from years of working under the sun. We shook hands. It didn’t take long before he asked where I was from, to which I gave my usual response: “Everywhere.” His smile faltered, so I elaborated. “I grew up in Coney Island, but my dad and grandpa lived out West, so I spent most of my summers here… I’ve also lived in Arizona and Florida and…” Spence nodded, waited a beat, and said, “And that was what you hoped you wouldn’t have to tell me, right?”
Shortly before his death, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his manifesto, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s essays and anecdotes explore taste and the senses, the elements of a proper culinary experience, and our responsibilities as diners. “The pleasures of the table are for every man,” he writes, “of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest.”
Every man and woman, I might add, with essays titled “Portrait of a Pretty Gourmand” (in “full-battle dress,” her eyes shining and gestures “full of grace”) and “Women Are Gourmandes.” I discovered long ago that I fall into his category of “predestined gourmand,” which is fortunate because he also classifies writers as those who benefit the most from good eating. My friends and I were there that night to eat well. It’s safe to say that we four lean toward indulging our sensual impulses, as was evidenced when we all fell wildly in lust with the evening’s tomato sorbet, and struggled bodily to refrain from licking our plates. Spence tried not to laugh.
Spence charmed me by the first course. He turned to our group and asked, “Which one of you’s in charge here?” Casey raised two fingers and assumed the role of lead provocateur among the sixteen guests seated at the long, low-lit table. Spence did his best to keep pace, regaling us with decidedly non-PC jokes (about Mormons, minorities, and the blind, to name a few). His wife, Cindy, rolled her eyes; I suspect she’d heard the jokes a few times before, but the rest of us cackled. Casey tried valiantly to suppress repeated fits of giggles. By the third course, we were swapping pictures of the animals we love. He and Cindy showed us their pack of small dogs. “This one had one eye and was in bad shape when we got it,” he said, pointing to a brown toy poodle on his phone. “Rescue cost me $1200 bucks.” He grunted and mumbled, “Sweetest damn dog in the world.” Spence warned that he was hard of hearing, yet chuckled when we mimicked his “I can’t hear you” gestures. Cindy egged us on.
At the start of each course, Sheral provided her own stories and experiences with the wine she’d chosen, giving us a relatable sense of the geography and environment in which the grapes grow and are harvested, and sharing the provenance of the wines and winemakers themselves. We sniffed and swirled our glasses, pausing to observe the flavor of each wine and noting with pleasant shock and delight the changes evinced by our senses of smell and taste working in tandem.
Perhaps because we were so immersed in each sip, so intently focused on each sumptuous bite, I started to feel a little uneasy thinking about other meals I’ve eaten. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast, but could I draw a mental image of it? What did it smell like? How did the first bite taste? Was it as good as the last bite? Sheral’s sonorous voice drew me back into the moment, but my inner Brillat-Savarin clucked, Exactement. “In eating,” he writes, “we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our instinctive realization that by the act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.” I resolved to pay closer attention to that which sustains me.
Though Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, his written legacy was central to the formation of the food writing and gastronomic world we know 190 years later. He posited, among many other things, that the company one keeps at a meal is as important as what is eaten; that hospitality and conviviality are essential and serve as direct aids to good digestion. Granted, his social circle – and the time required to dine as he did – differs greatly from what most of us recognize as the norm today.
It can be a struggle in this day and age to sit through a long meal, but it’s worth the fight. In the company of strangers brought together by passion and chance, removed from the expectation of cleaning up, we talked, drank, and ate for three hours. Who wanted to leave? We intoxicated ourselves with the spirit of joy.
We arrived to the dinner as strangers, but left with a feeling of satiation and heightened intimacy, which, I think, resides at the heart of any good dining experience. At the evening’s reluctant end, I heard a soft whistle behind me. Spence stood nearby, gazing at Casey with something like awe. “Man, you are tall!” he declared, smacking his leg and whistling again. He added, more to himself than to her: “And so pretty.” I am not sure if Casey heard his comment. I smiled inside and out. Spence tapped my arm and tipped his hat. “Y’all stay out of trouble, now.” We promised we’d see him again soon, but couldn’t speak for trouble.
© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley