On tasting

She had me going at “Enjoy the hunger.” I was at Chapters the other day on a decidedly fruitful mission to find the cookbook I eyed last Sunday and put down for more thought. In addition to acquiring Dessert, perusing food writing that actually contained more words within the binding than “food porn” photographs or listless recipes pegged names of iconic chefs upon the corkboard of my brain as I skimmed their biographies.

It was Julia Child who gave us this strange instruction in the preface of Laura Shapiro’s account of the French-cooking American. This idea of enjoying hunger surfaced at dinner, by which all meals had been prepared by my sister or mother this week (in other words, I take for granted the suppers by which my hands have not prepared.) What an odd suggestion: to enjoy the thing you are trying to relieve; perhaps prolong the gnawing and grumbling that begins in the belly but eventually works up an appetite on your whole demeanour if left unattended too long.

I was also reading about James Beard, the hailed father of American cookery who put taste back in eating after WWII dampened even the American appetite. His legacy was built on the insistence for simplicity and integrity in cooking. Frills need not mask what was good and honest underneath the garnish, and experience came before performance in the kitchen. In a way, I was connecting Julia Child’s appreciation of a basic longing to Jim Beard’s reverence for unadulterated, fresh standards. But in the kitchen stadiums of culinary experimentation and innovative gourmandise, is it possible to have a satisfying minimalism?

When we gorge ourselves, it’s easy to commodify the things we eat — even demand it from fine lines and tall orders of choice and immediacy which centre around our preferance. I think what Julia Child and James Beard may be alluding to, is a coming back to taste. Beard was known for his incredible taste memory, commenting on executive chef Albert Stockli’s dish and being able to deliver the same remark upon eating it a second time days or weeks later, not knowing whether his suggestion had been taken up by Stockli (he hadn’t.) Or, the deep-fried jasmine flowers and salad of raw blossoms he remembers in the floral aroma of a Japanese monastary meal.

I wish that I could remember everything I’ve ever eaten. But an archival memory is not required to appreciate food at its basic qualities. For another piece, I’ve been talking with people involved in slow food initiatives in Toronto: those who look locally, grow tomatoes like houseplants, and know the name of their lettuce supplier. Paul DeCampo, co-founder of Slow Food Toronto says it succintly: follow good taste! If we’re looking for fresh taste, we’ll be led to fresh ingredients in its nearest location. When Joseph Baum designed the Four Seasons restaurant, which became emblematic of American dining, he used the same optimals of region and season, the menu literally being guided by the things which grew in winter, spring, summer, and fall.

I don’t think appreciating taste has to be fancy either. Just find out which apple it is you like the best by tasting each of them (I recommend going to the Fairview Mall parking lot which has become a farmer’s market on Tuesdays and Fridays, finding a vendor with apples, consider the colour and size of the varieties and pick three different kinds that first appeal to you. Doesn’t matter if they’re supposed to be for baking or eating — just try them as they are!) Or, make dinner on the weekend with someone you like (even if the both of you are terribly new in the kitchen, at least you’ll have the meal to remember it by!) And don’t just eat; savour and taste.

Source: Julia Child by Laura Shapiro, James Beard, An American Icon: the Later Years by Jay Jacobs, and interview with Paul DeCampo.

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