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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Why then the tomato ice cream with the “hamburger,” in fact eggplant and tomato?
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?
(More to Come)