Tag Archives: Brillat Savarin

Eat, Memory

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Thank you for the photo, Lori!

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.

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn't for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn’t for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

*

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.

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Saucy, sexy, and undeniably smart… Thank you for making the evening a night to remember!

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Thanks Be

Dear Mary Frances,
Thank you for pioneering the genre of food writing.  Your smart prose blazed the way for thousands of writers today – most significantly, female writers –stripping stigma from a field once thought to be solely esoteric and reminding us that food offers so much more than its nutritional content.  Your writing rallies interest in the pleasures, no matter how modest, of the plate.  I have read The Art of Eating at least half a dozen times, and I always discover new meaning with each reading.  You are my idol.

Cher Jean Anthelme,
Your immortal words set the tone for each episode of Iron Chef.  What would the tone of the show have been without them?  Would Chairman Kaga have appeared so Chairman-ish?  The Iron Chefs so ennobled?  Your keen attention to the virtues of culinary enjoyment is rivaled only by your witty social commentary.  I really appreciate that level of attention.  I’ve been wondering… If I believe that wine, cheese, and bread are major food groups, does that mean I’m actually French?  Do tell, do tell.

Dear Julia,
I’m thankful that we share a common first (and nick) name.  I’ve often envied what I’ve read about your marriage to Paul.  He wrote you lyrical love poems for your birthday, for goodness sake!  Together, you created personalized valentines to share with friends each year.  You had what truly seemed like a passionate storybook relationship.  I envy that.  But I also envy – perhaps I should say admire – your robust sensuality.  You would have been so fun to party with! I would have loved to watch you at work in the kitchen.  Sometimes I pretend to be you. (My daughter, Rory, finds these reenactments hilarious.) I think of you every time I accidentally drop a piece of food.  Thank you for making it okay to use the five second rule.

Dear Laurie,
Your writing gave me the idea to host a tea party in honor of my daughter’s birthday.  As I draped beaded garlands over the lights and scattered lavender buds across the table, I thought I heard your voice calling out in singsong approval.  Thank you for writing about your daughter with warmth and affection.

Dear Calvin,
Though I think your wife, Alice, was spot on when she coined the term “food crazies,” and though chances are likely that I am one myself, I appreciate your sustained interest in all things food-related. Thank you for being a “food crazy.” Your version of the first Thanksgiving is far better than the one I learned in elementary school.  I fully support your campaign to make spaghetti carbonara the official Thanksgiving dish.

Dear Harold,
You know you’ve got real cred when chefs all over the world refer to your tome as their “McGee,” as in, “I’ve got my McGee right here!”  I thank you for your tome and your cred. You’ve helped me through many a food inquiry.  I hope you don’t find this too creepy, but I think of you as Uncle McGee.  You seem like the type of person I’d enjoy spending time with on my deck.  As the sun descends over the western mountains, I might casually turn to you and say, “So, Uncle McGee?  Tell me the story about when you wrote your book.  Did you have a grant to fund your daily expenses as you researched?”  And you might chuckle, take a sip of your Malbec, and say, “Well, it all started back in the eighties….”

Dear Jeff,
You are an enigma when you guest-judge on Iron Chef America and Top Chef.  You share the same name as one of my first “real” crushes, a sous chef named Jeff who worked at the finest dining establishment in my college town.  The state he left me in was not funny, but you are.  Thank you for giving your assistant a comically disproportionate amount of work to do and for fielding so many marriage proposals. Thank you for accidentally poisoning yourself with taro leaf and writing about it with humor.

Dear Jane,
Mushrooms, onions, butter, sour cream, and dill…  Who knew? I serve your sour cream sauce over a big bowl of rice.  The mushrooms whisper, “We are so happy,” and so am I.  Thank you for loving fungi enough to dedicate an entire book to them.

Dear Tony,
I started watching your television show before I read any of your work.  I (unfairly) assumed you had writers.  Then I read your books, and your writing bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it!  Your prose is tight!  I haven’t had the good fortune to travel the world like you, but your writing amazed me with its ability to make me ravenous.  I’ve never tried pho, and yet I feel as if I have tasted it with you on the streets of Vietnam.  In my imagination, we traipsed across the globe throughout A Cook’s Tour, loosening our belts and belching happily.  I was your Zamir.  Thank you for making me hungry.  Even though No Reservations is over, never stop being hungry for more, okay?

Cher Jean Louis,
Will you ever find me indispensable? I think the world of you and would gladly be your scribe.  Thank you for renewing the zeal of my Francophilia.

Dear Readers,
Thank you for reading my work. I’ve been busy with a new job and haven’t been in the kitchen as much as I’d like, but I really appreciate all of your continued support. I am thankful for you.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Love, Jules

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