Thursday, July 21, 2005

Le Mot Juste

I am no stranger to the rant. You can either take my word on that statement, or I could provide you references, but there are at least a few people floating around the Internet who will tell you that I have very strong opinions about a number of issues and that I'm not afraid to express them. You could also look down a few posts, but you won't get a true appreciation of what I'm like when I'm really worked up about something.

But I do my best to avoid that sort of post. One of the reasons that I post so much about food is because it's the passion of mine that's most easy to express in predominantly positive terms. This is in no way a reflection of any Pollyannish attitude on my part. I am certainly aware of the less pleasant aspects of life, having lived through a few (but not so many, really) of them myself. But I find that there is no shortage of coverage of negative subject matter on the Internet these days, and while I often enjoy reading the rants of others, ultimately, I feel that if your main purpose in blogging is to decry either the general idiocy that you perceive or the angst in your own life, then you're shooting fish in a barrel. And not a barrel of water with fish swimming around in it. A barrel loaded with salted or pickled fish with no empty spaces in between. (I almost wish I hadn't typed that last sentence because it puts me in mind of a particularly troubling scene from the film version of The Tin Drum, which is the most disturbing film I've seen. The scene involves eating fish from a barrel as part of a particularly horrifying and slow means of suicide. If you ever have the chance to see it in a theater, you should go, because it's a great movie, but try not to catch it when you're having a bad day or fish for dinner.) What I mean to say is that it's easy to entertain people by attacking either something/someone else or yourself; I think it's a good deal more difficult to write well when you have nothing to excoriate.

So I was a bit stern with myself earlier today when I went searching for a list I'd seen of food-related things that everyone should do before he or she dies and found that it was called "The top 50 things every foodie should do" and started to whinge about the term "foodie." I was thinking how I really didn't want to be called a foodie. Fortunately (or perhaps not), once I started to get into the list, I realized that I must not be one since I don't have much interest in most of the things that it says I (or perhaps my foodie doppelganger) must do.

There is, certainly, nothing wrong with being a foodie, the slight inelegance of the word notwithstanding. It's just that it requires both a considerable level of attention to fashion and a very large disposable income, neither of which I will ever possess. And, truthfully, if I were to win a few hundred million dollars in the lottery (decidedly unlikely in that I don't play the lottery), I would probably still not spend two thousand of those dollars on a single bottle of wine or a fistful of caviar. I have no problem with people who do spend so much on those items, but the sticker shock would mar my enjoyment, even if there were no budgetary constraints. (I think that if I somehow ended up with a $2,000 of wine gratis, I would have to donate it charity, or give it to someone who really would enjoy it.) Anyway, the foodie list was chock full of ways to spend money, but sadly short on culinary accomplishments. The fifty items did not, for example, include making feuilletage. I am, of course, going on supposition here, but I am nonetheless certain that I get a great deal more pleasure from the knowledge that I can make puff pastry than I would get from having made love in a vineyard. The person quoted in the article claims to want to make love (or perhaps even to have made love: there's room for interpretation) in each of the five premier cru Bordeau vineyards. I cannot help but think of that as a novel and noble ambition; at the same time, I don't think I'd enjoy myself.

Anyway, the existence of foodies certainly benefits me. Their ever changing tastes cause the continual introduction of new and different foodstuffs and preparations that spread beyond the foodie community, and I am free to sample, ignore, or adopt these phenomena, sometimes working them into my permanent repertoire and calling on them long after they have gone out of fashion.

But if I'm not a foodie, what am I? I am unarguably a gourmand; I suspect that many readers would be at least amazed and perhaps appalled by the amount of food that I can (and do) put away on a regular basis. But that doesn't tell the whole story. "Gourmand" carries both the meanings of enjoyment of fine food and excessive appetite, but it misses, I think, my interest in food history, and the fact that I'm a damned good cook.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You have heard this exact same rumination countless times, but with different particulars. And the upshot is almost exactly the same. At the end, the person writing or speaking decides that he will eschew labels and launches into a stirring rendition of "I Am What I Am!" (I should some day like to see a musical comedy send up of the Bible that includes the number "I Am That I Am," but I will likely regret having said so if Bradford is still reading my blog. He will doubtless tell me that such a song has already been written and perhaps even offer to send me a .pdf of the score. Actually, "I Am That I Am" would likely be a big hit with the Unitarians, and surely Yahweh is a bass baritone, so maybe I won't regret it after all.) But I am afraid that I must disappoint. As much as it would amuse me to say "Today on a Very Special anapestic..." and talk about how I learned the valuable lesson that labels are bad and I need to just be myself, I would not be myself if I decided to just be myself.

I believe that labels are very useful things. They can be abused, certainly, and sometimes the wrong label gets applied to the wrong person, but as much as we all want to celebrate our own individuality, who has time to truly appreciate the fullness of the individuality of everyone that he meets? I don't. Let's say, for the sake of example, that you call yourself a bisexual Republican male. I would not presume to judge your moral worth nor the vastness of your experience from that label, but it would be sufficient to tell me that you and I shouldn't date, just as, presumably, my calling myself a liberal, partnered gay man should be enough to tell you the same thing. (I actually do have some bisexual Republican friends whom I consider to be fine people. Fine, totally undateable people.)

Still, having embraced the general idea of labels (which are, at the very least, tremendously useful when placed on foods in the supermarket), I have difficulty coming up with a good one for myself. I suppose I can go with "food enthusiast" as a slightly more succinct alternative to "gourmand/food intellectual/kick-ass cook," but I have a sense that it needs work. So I will continue to work on it until I get it right.

And I think that I'll also be making my own list. It is not, certainly, devoid of items that require more purchasing than food preparation chops. The one item from the Observer's list that I will hopefully cross off my own list a few weeks from now is to have a meal from an English fish & chips establishment. Mostly, though, it will probably involve things that I'm proud of having learned to cook and things that I still want to learn to cook and ingredients that I've not yet managed to find but still think that I might. Have you read To the Lighthouse? I think that I have already achieved more in the kitchen than most people ever will or want to, but there is a long way yet to go. To paraphrase Woolf, I have made it to K, and few people ever make it to K, but some very small number of people make it as far as P, and I hope to get at least to N.

I will try to post particulars of the list once I have come up with them. That could take a while, but in the interim, all suggestions are most welcome.


Anonymous lindy said...

Regarding the fish and chips: If you have a choice of fish, and many of these establishments seem to offer a choice, I have a suggestion. If you haven't had it before, try plaice. This particularly delicious fish (which is also yummy grilled) does not seem to be available in the US,(or at least in Pittsburgh) and I think it's wonderful. But perhaps you have already tried it. You are, after all, in a bigger metropolitan area than I, and near some salt water.

Other non fish and chips fishes which I have really, really liked in the UK and elsewhere, and haven't found here are bream and skate. Possibly these 2 are available in the US, I haven't looked really hard, so I'm not sure.

Beware a Fish and Chips shop side dish called "mushy peas"

3:55 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Thank you for the recommendations, lindy. I will hope to find one of those species on the menu and order it. I have not had any of them, either.

I doubt that my experience with seafood is any more extensive than yours. I am usually afraid to buy it from the supermarket. There are a couple of reliable fishmongers in the area, but they tend to stick to familiar species; in any case, my earlier inability to procure a reliable supply has inculcated a habit of insufficient fish preparation that I have been slow to overcome. Costco has excellent frozen fish, though none of it is in any way exotic, and I tend to rely on that. The Maryland wholesale seafood distribution center (that's not its exact name) is not exactly nearby, but neither is it so far that I wouldn't head over there with a cooler to find something interesting for a dinner party, and I have read that most of the merchants there will sell to the home cook provided that the home cook knows what he wants and doesn't pester them with a lot of questions, but I am insufficiently brave to attempt a visit without a guide.

I would like to think that I would eschew anything called "mushy peas" even without your excellent advice, but I am glad to have it. In the unlikely event that V. is getting on my nerves, I can tell him that it comes highly recommended. Don't worry: I'll blame it on some other blogger.

5:28 AM  

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