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Authors: Daniel Duane

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Czarnecki led me to an outdoor table set for a truffle lunch with a few other foragers, opening bottles of Willamette Valley Chardonnay and serving big plates of fettuccine Alfredo not with a few truffle specks, nor even with a judicious shaving on top, but with a sizable midplate mound of multiple whole Oregon white truffles piled up like potatoes. Thinking this a gift from the gods, I dug in, eating an entire white truffle in a single bite. I ate perhaps eight ounces by the time we climbed into cars to go foraging, and I did notice the odd truffle burp—less like garlic burps than, say, gasoline burps. But this is what I mean about monomania running me off course: determined to enjoy myself, or at least to believe that I was enjoying myself, I kept my nausea quiet as we followed a crack forager, his blind wife, and their dog into a forest everybody called the Left Nut Patch because some guy named Carl had once threatened to cut off some other guy's left nut if he ever caught the guy foraging truffles there. A filthy pair of forest dwellers appeared, and I felt a momentary fear that we'd found Carl himself. But it turned out to be two hippie meth-heads, pale and sallow, dressed in dark, damp cotton and truffle hunting for the spare change. The man wore work boots, but the woman walked barefoot.

A friend of Czarnecki's, a man named Charlie, called this woman the Girl of the Forest. He considered her mystically gifted at the finding of buried truffles.

“What's your secret?” I asked her.

“She won't tell you her secret,” Charlie said.

“It's feel,” said the Girl of the Forest.

Her man, admiring, said, “Sifting her duff is a waste of time.”

They walked off.

I soon gathered a general conviction that our own forager's blind wife had the same mystical gift, so I followed her meandering path among the trees. Suddenly she stopped and said, “Hey, do you smell that?”

“Oh, I do! I do!”

“They must be right here!”

I smelled it, too, among the dominant cedar-and-pine aromas: an unmistakably fruity musk, a visceral sweetness. Moments later, Czarnecki dug the day's first, a big Oregon black, looking like a golf-ball-sized turd.

“Any special treat—fresh tomatoes or suckling pig—whose arrival you welcome can be cause for a special meal or a celebration of the season, any season,” Alice writes, in the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
. “The pungency that permeates the kitchen whenever fresh truffles arrive … is incentive enough to build an entire meal around those delectable fungi.” I so loved the sound of this, and I so dearly wanted to live in precisely the way Alice told me to live, that I fairly trembled with excitement as the truffles piled up and the foragers packed them into bags, to send home with me. I kept it in mind that night, too, when a local Oregon restaurant turned out a many-course truffle-intensive tasting menu that, despite being delicious, left me alone in my hotel bathroom, sweating truffle stink naked on the cold floor with my slimy hand rammed down my truffled throat, desperately failing to puke. I even kept it in mind back home, packing five pounds—that's right,
five pounds—
of fresh truffles into my refrigerator. Unwilling to waste even a second, with a few days yet remaining before the planned truffle potluck, I bided my time by ticking off every truffle recipe ever published in any Chez Panisse cookbook, from eggs to pizza to chicken breasts and even salads.

I kept this up when Liz's belly once again measured too small, accompanied by high blood pressure indicating the repeat onset of that potentially fatal preeclampsia. Kate sent around a perfectly sensible e-mail wondering if we ought not postpone, and yet, because I'd now officially lost my way, I responded with a plaintive plea that our show go on, and that we'd never come into such a truffle windfall again, as long as we lived. I said that we must not give up on living and loving just because a baby was about to be born. I swore to Kate, over the telephone, right from Liz's ob-gyn hospital room, that Liz and I had everything completely under control. Then I got off the phone while the anesthesiologist injected Liz with a so-called epidural—a spinal anesthetic. The doctors and nurse left and Liz's eyes rolled back and she fell unconscious and limp off the hospital bed like maybe she was dying on the spot. I caught her lifeless body myself, before she impacted the hard floor, and I screamed and two nurses came running and one told the other to grab the oxygen mask but the other replied that the oxygen hose
had no mask
, and so I screamed at her to
get a motherfucking mask

Liz had only fainted. Kate soon called to say that Rich would host the meal
tackle the main course, so that I could focus on Liz. Within an hour of this conversation, our second daughter was born: Audrey, hale and healthy despite the circumstances. I felt calm and happy about her existence, like a normal dad, but I felt also a quiet thrill about that impending meal.

Nurses moved us to a recuperation room, and Liz said of Audrey, “She's so beautiful I could die.”

“I know, baby.”

When I finally brought Hannah to meet her new sister, Liz said to Hannah, “Hey sweetie, are you okay? Do you know that
I love you and that I think your sister is
so, so
lucky to have a big sister like you to help her learn everything and that we all need to be together forever and ever?”

Hannah said, “Why her name's Audrey?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why her name's

“Ah … well, that's the weird thing about names, honey. Mommies and daddies just get to choose them, and that's the one we chose, and …”

I spoke up: “Quick question, sweetheart. About tonight …”

“It's fine.”

“Well, no, okay. See, what I was actually thinking was that you probably need to sleep a lot and I'm worried it might be hard on Hannah and maybe she and I should sleep at home and …”

“Honestly, it's fine.”

“What's fine?”

“Go to the truffle thing. It's okay.”

“I don't have to.”


“Honestly, it's not that important, I'm just saying that …”

Even at the party, I couldn't leave well enough alone. Kate and Jamie had already “truffled” two dozen high-priced farm eggs by sealing them, whole and unbroken, in a Tupperware with several raw truffles. They'd melted half a pound of butter and then slow-scrambled all those eggs with half a cup of heavy cream and, because I said that the recipe's recommended two whole truffles appeared unnecessarily stingy, given my haul, with about six of those powerfully scented musk bombs. Friends named Leslie and Clara spent a minor fortune on a hundred live crayfish, poaching them in a vast vat of the first court bouillon they'd ever seen, making a sauce from the crayfish shells and a combination of
Armagnac and white wine. Rich, meanwhile, must have mortgaged the house to buy those two whole dry-aged Prime filets of beef. Game as ever, he slit them open and stuffed them with, again, a quadruple portion of the recipe's recommended truffle allotment, along with Niçoise olives, chanterelle mushrooms, and pistachios. Caitlyn had to handle their son, Aiden, all afternoon while Rich built a suitable backyard grill to handle all that meat. And yet, despite the trouble to which everyone had gone, and despite even my own experience in Oregon—a dark secret I kept to myself—I insisted that we whip up a big batch of black-truffle ice cream, too, just because we could, and that we follow that ice cream with black-truffle whipped-cream topping for our post-meal coffee. And that's how, instead of just joining a group of friends in having fun, I pushed them all off the same cliff from which I'd tumbled myself, down toward a kind of Toxic Truffle Shock Syndrome in which too much of a good thing makes that gassy, musky truffle stink emanate for weeks from one's breath, sweat, pores, clothes, and even hair, creating a frantic yearning never again to eat a truffle as long as one lives. (Ten years later, every single one of these good people still tells me they feel a vomit-like lurch in the larynx at even the slightest smell of that distinctive truffle odor.)

If I'd read the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
more carefully back then—and if I'd learned a little more about it, instead of just pushing onward with still more menus—I might have stopped the madness. I might have recognized that I was tackling the wrong book at the wrong moment in my life, and that it was high time I started asking how cooking might support the emotional core of my family's life, instead of just offering me an outlet. Like a sprawling first novel from a grand talent, the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
carried everywhere the marks of ambition and
enthusiasm, right down to a vast bibliography thrown in for no better reason than to show off Alice's influences and to situate her in a tradition alongside, say, Brillat-Savarin, whom she doubtless loved for such finery as “Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.” Worse still, Alice expressed open approval, in an early chapter, for Marcel Rouff's classic 1924 gastronomic novel,
The Passionate Epicure
. It's a beautifully written book, widely admired for its depiction of a fictional nineteenth-century gourmand named Dodin-Bouffant, “the Napoleon of gourmets, the Beethoven of cooking, the Shakespeare of the table.” But the novel opens with the supposedly tragic death of Dodin-Bouffant's beloved home cook, a woman who has long lavished upon her lord's guests “the rarest of sensations, the most thrilling experiences; she had exalted them, blissful souls, to the highest peaks of cloudless joy … wrenched cooking away from the materialistic sphere to raise it, sovereign and absolute, to the most transcendent regions which humanity can envisage.” The book's early action, therefore, covers Dodin-Bouffant's intense grief not for a lost friend and human being, but rather for a key tool of his self-expression and self-pleasuring. Next comes the painful process of hiring a suitable replacement and, soon after, a competitive exchange of dinner parties with the “Prince of Eurasia,” from which Dodin-Bouffant emerges triumphant, having proven himself vastly more discriminating and skilled in the pleasures of the palate. The Prince strikes back by trying to hire away the new cook. Dodin-Bouffant counters by marrying her, once again not from love but in pure commitment to gastronomy. But then Dodin-Bouffant receives seduction letters from some mysterious female admirer. Existential agony, French style: reluctant to betray his wedding vows, Dodin-Bouffant loves the sound of an erotic dalliance too much to resist. So he accepts the
woman's invitation to lunch and finds her so beautiful that he tells himself he will sleep with her if her luncheon is even barely adequate. Much to his surprise, her food is in fact so masterful that he must forgo sleeping with her
for that reason
: sex would only betray his profound admiration for this woman's culinary genius.

So here's the astonishing part: the young Alice Waters, the very author of the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
, takes all this seriously. I mean that: “More than any other quality in other cooks, the one I most value is the ability to see precisely what is needed in a particular dish, dinner, or event,” she writes, citing DodinBouffant as the very epitome of this ability to discern and discriminate. “Everything in his life was tied in to gastronomic enjoyment,” she notes, describing his marvelous attention to such finer points as the “lush greenness and scent of a freshly mowed lawn” outside the dining room window, the exact number of guests required for optimal enjoyment (eight), even the precise dining-room temperature (16 degrees Centigrade). To be fair, these are perfectly appropriate considerations for a young
, and she was in fine company, vis-à-vis Rouff. Jeffrey Steingarten, writing an introduction to the edition I bought in paperback, shares Alice's inclination toward taking Rouff's book at face value—in Steingarten's case, by reading it as earnest argument for the redemption of classical gastronomy from accusations of gluttony. Rouff's covert purpose, as Steingarten sees it, is to build a case that gastronomy is in fact a fine art on par with art, literature, and music. Not that Steingarten is entirely convinced, insisting that three conditions must be met, if we are to accept this redefinition of fine dining: “the sense of taste must be put on a par with our other senses; it must be capable of the same subtle manipulation as all the others; and the entire enterprise of gastronomy must be seen to possess a meaning, an emotional and
moral content.” Convinced on points one and two, Steingarten confesses to uncertainty on number three. But in asking myself now where I come down on the same questions, I realize that I cannot personally read
The Passionate Epicure
as anything but a sly send-up of an utterly debased and decadent set of values—celebrating, as it does, a fat, rich, vain, arrogant, childless, loveless glutton without an earthly interest beyond the satisfactions of his own palate.

I'm open to the idea that this is just me—that I'm revealing some Anglo-American Puritanical streak that makes me ill-suited to the very highest of gastronomical heights. But it hardly matters: the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
had been written in a spirit of uncritical surrender to epicurean pleasure, not least because such a spirit animated the Chez Panisse kitchen itself, in those years. Alice had written the book, after all, not as a straightforward manual to the restaurant's fine-dining cuisine but as a document of its formative, experimental phase, beginning shortly after she came onto my own family's radar as that cute little teacher down at Berkeley Montessori. She'd been living nearby, with the director of the Pacific Film Archive, already populating her locally famous dinner parties with culture heroes like Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard, Susan Sontag, Abbie Hoffman, and Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panthers. Then Alice got herself fired from the massive responsibility of making morning snack for me and the other toddlers by wearing see-through blouses too many days in a row. (Alice herself told me this, years later, still tickled by her own audacity.) And so she pursued her other great passion, opening Chez Panisse in 1971 and watching it bloom fast into a success. Jeremiah Tower, the dominant head chef of that period, and the author of
California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked)
at the American Culinary Revolution
, describes sous-chefs sucking nitrous in the kitchen, a prep cook named Willy Bishop painting “watercolors of guys jerking off and cum flying all over the place,” and culinary frivolity like a Salvador Dalí dinner, immortalized in the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
, featuring “
l'entre-plat drogué et sodomisé
,” leg of lamb “drugged and sodomized” with Madeira, brandy, and tangerine juice injected through a syringe. This Bishop character claimed later to have slept with both Tower and Alice, though not at the same time. In
The United States of Arugula
, David Kamp writes that so many cocaine dealers became Chez Panisse regulars that Greil Marcus, a Chez Panisse investor and, more to the point, rock-and-roll critic, couldn't stand eating there anymore. Tower and Bishop both got hooked on blow, and Bishop graduated to a novel opium-delivery method: “You stick it up your ass,” he later said to Kamp. “Just a quarter of a gram, a little ball, and you bypass the alimentary canal—you don't get nauseous, you just absorb it.” Bishop lost his cooking job and his mind and later stabbed a guy in a bar, with his paring knife, on a night when he'd been planning to “go to a triple-X movie theater and stab myself. Not to kill myself, but to get attention.”

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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