Artists and Feeders

Years ago when I first got interested in cooking, food was for eating. No one thought about food as art. I had five siblings all of whom shared my enthusiasm for food and our breakfasts and dinners were at home.

Each morning at the breakfast table when my father finished reading the morning newspaper (there was an evening one too), I would ask him to pass the sports section to me. Even before reading about the Orioles, I would look at the back page of that section because below the fold was a half page of classified ads.

From time to time, perhaps every few months I would see the announcement that I looked for and with great enthusiasm would tell everyone at the breakfast table that the House of Welsh would be holding its dollar night. That meant we could drive downtown into a seedy warehouse neighborhood “under the viaduct” where all eight of us sat at a big round table.   After being served a desultory iceberg lettuce salad with a pink wedge of tomato and some carrot strips, we eat a T-bone steak, a baked potato, and an indifferent green vegetable for one dollar per person.

That was dining out in the Fifties and I liked it. I wouldn’t expect it to be the same now.   Food is far more interesting than a monthly steak and baked potato. We appreciate the foods of our and other cultures. We have a great variety from which to choose.

But more and more these days, it seems to me the food world can be divided into artists, those who love to sculpt and paint with food and get a deep gratification from creation and artistry, and feeders, often traditionalists, those who focus on flavor and love to see their customers enjoy (as opposed to appreciate) what they prepare.

It’s one thing for “the artists” to be so prominent in America. I understand that. We, after all, are a young country without long food traditions and rarely have had self-confidence about our cuisines. So creation and innovation are high values.

But one reason I always look forward to being in France is that I have always admired French rootedness, the regional traditions of the country. Alsatian food means cabbage and pork and Provencal food means tomatoes and olives.

The French know what they are about.

I had my first French food in 1964. I flew to Paris to visit a woman whom I scarcely knew and who later became my wife; and she chose for my first French dinner a restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement on the rue Monsieur le Prince, Chez Maître Paul.

It was food from Jura Mountains and Franche Comté and we ate poulet a la crème, a little green salad, and apple tart. My love affair with French food began that evening and it’s never waned.

I’ve just returned from ten days in southwest France and in Corsica. Ten days is a short time and I have no right to pass judgment. In this little visit I was able to find the kind of food in France that I love so much. But it has become more difficult; and the food that can be found more easily is not anything I like very much.

I expected in the southwest, even in summer, that I would see foie gras and cassoulet, boiled meats, sweetbread, prunes. I hoped for a lot of “peasant food,” chicken livers, kidneys, and sausages. They were there but the cuisine most prominent in the restaurants was high art.

My journey began in Bordeaux, a spectacular city.

Bordeaux

I had been urged by those who know something to go to Le Pavillion au Boulevard and that is where I went for my first dinner. I was immediately sorry I had done so. I should have known better.The dining room was beautiful and the food was too.

But I didn’t see the point of smoked fois gras and of combining peas, mango, and olives as an accompaniment to sea bass.

fois gras

And why deconstruct a classic combination of foie gras and Sauternes, diluting the wine to a foam and a gelee. Indeed, I didn’t want all those little pillows, foams, dusts, granules, and gelees.

All that invention seemed so fatiguing and I left the restaurant in the rain disheartened, determined to avoid modern food if I could do so.I managed to do that for next two meals. Lunch the next day was at a street stand and consisted of one dozen assorted Atlantic oysters, bread and butter, and a glass of Entre-Deux-Mers.

Dinner that evening at Chez Dupont was perfect.

Chez dupont

But I fell off the wagon again in Condom, a town I had to visit as it was at La Table des Cordeliers that Jean Louis Palladin won the two Michelin stars that brought him to Washington as our greatest chef. I am not sure what Jean Louis would think of the food there now – in this simple, stunning room.

Condom

The bread wasn’t good and the service a bit ragged but the big disappointment for me was – again – the modernity of the food. The tomato tart, beautiful and delicious – but why the basil ice cream?

Tomato tart

Why then the tomato ice cream with the “hamburger,” in fact eggplant and tomato?

%22Hamburger%22It seemed so contrived — ice cream in all three courses.

Fifty-one years after my first tastes of French food, I am unreconciled to what restaurant dining seems to be becoming there – those painted plates, carefully contrived arrangements of tiny vegetables with carefully shaped rectangles of meat or fish draped over.

Sauces reduced to unrewarding smears and diluted foams. Gelatinized morsels and powders. Dishes deconstructed into parts that are meant to be parts of a construct. Combinations of flavors whose great virtue is their improbability.

I am a bread-baker and therefore a traditionalist and I know that I am less enamored of innovation than many others. I know “you eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth.”

But which kind of eating do you prefer?

Modern                Cassoulet

(More to Come)

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7 thoughts on “Artists and Feeders

  1. That sounds like diners have now become the subjects of various bizarre “food” experiments. My dream is to find a reasonably-affordable place serving real Roman food like we ate while living there in the early ’70s. If it ain’t broke…

  2. This is an excellent piece. You have very beautifully captured something that few talk about.

    I am with you.

    There are those individuals, however, who can do both.

    I do still think that your delicious food would look and taste even better on a china plate. Not everything, but several items.

    It sounds like a wonderful trip. I loved Corsica.

    Your photos look beautiful on the wall.

    marjorie

  3. There are very few “artists” and it is said that there are only one or two in a generation of chefs — talking about the Michelin stars here. These contrived meals that you had are by those restaurateurs who feel compelled by “fashion” to cook outside of their passion and expertise. I think we search for authenticity and cooking with love. Love is evident in the food. It is unfortunate that even one meal is wasted with such short time in a place where there are fond memories at table. Firstly, do those people who made those recommendations know your taste? Secondly, one must look up the menues to verify if it is a restaurant of interest. You are searching for food at it’s essence cooked from heart and hearth, non?

    As for what I prefer — food that is real; a warm and inviting dining experience filled with good chat, laughter and wonder-full wine. I am less inclined to dining as theatre. Whether fancy or rustic it must be very good.

    Janet

  4. I can only read and appreciate Mark on mediterranean and France.

    But dollar night at Welch’s brought out mine memories: Sunday night at Horn and Hardart in Philadelphia during the War and right after it. My family was kosher so it was no meat. Mashed potatoes, no gravy, harvard beets, rolls and butter topped off with chocolate milk, custard pie and chocolate ice cream. I think it was 55 cents.

  5. France seems to me to have lost its way in the world of food. It now leads in Europe for what we know as Industrial Agriculture. It is the leader in the development of Hypermarkets, not just in Europe, but in the world. These things destroy the fabric of rural life, and without that fabric, those little cozy places, and good honest fare, disappear from the landscape. Twenty years ago you could even get good food at service stations on the highway. Today, everything is shrink-wrapped and shipped in.

    If you still want to eat the way nostalgia dictates, the only options are Italy and Spain, which for a variety of reasons, part of it related to the terrain (not conducive to industrial agriculture), strength of family, importance of food and dining together as the glue of the family…Even in these places, times are changing.

    France, sadly, is no longer a great place to eat. If you want to eat good, old-fashioned French food, nowadays you need to cook it yourself.

  6. One thing I noticed also about modern versus traditional food are the names or identities. In your last photo, anyone can probably guess that the one on the right is most likely some hearty meat stew but I couldn’t tell what the dish on the left might be. Traditional food are easier to identify like the classics, cassoulet, beef bourguignon, steak frites, paella, risotto, etc. Modern food names seem to be all over the place and this is perhaps because there are so many components of the dish. Or chefs want to emphasize the ingredients that make the dish great or wonderful? Today, cassoulet and others are considered to be classic dishes. Fifty years from now, how would that generation refer to dishes today or in the past? The cassoulet I bet will still be a classic but what about the “asparagus braised in pig’s bladder with potato and black truffle” or the “sunflower braised with green tomato and sunflower sprouts”?

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