Authors: Daniel Duane
“I love eggs.”
“He loves eggs. They're great eggs, too. They're from Soul Food Farm.” She stood a moment, staring at me, tapping a finger
on the counter. Then, with a sparkle, she said, “I'm going to have to make the Egg.”
She nodded. “And that means I'll have to make a fire.” And like that, she did: she quickly piled and lit some wood in that kitchen fireplace, the counter-height elevated one. While the wood burned down to embers, Alice opened her refrigerator and brought out a colander full of greens from her backyard garden, all picked by a gardener. She rubbed a garlic clove around the inside of a wooden salad bowl, and then she poured in a little vinegar, salt, and olive oil to whip up a dressing. When the embers were ready, Alice found a copper spoon the size of a ladle, with a two-foot handle. She rubbed olive oil inside the bowl of the spoon, then cracked an egg into it and reached the egg into the fire, setting it just over the wood embers. In moments, the egg puffed up like a soufflÃ©, and Alice pulled it back out. Then she slipped it onto a piece of grilled bread, on my plate, sprinkled on sea salt and ground on some black pepper, and set some of that salad alongside.
I have since heard that Alice cooked the Egg in the very same manner for Maira Kalman, cartoonist for the
, and also for Lesley Stahl, on
, and while that did make me feel a little less special, it was still the most delicious egg I'd ever eaten in my life, seasoned with stardust from an authentic personal hero, and she poured me a glass of Domaine de Fontsainte rosÃ©, too. I don't like to drink at lunch, but I drank anyway.
We talked as we ate, and Alice allowed conversation to roam for the first time; I told her of my rapture with
When French Women Cook
, and she said that it was among the five most influential books in her life. I mentioned Lulu next, and Alice lit up still further, happy to be on common ground, escaping the tension of our unequal relationship. The other books she'd so loved,
she said, were an Elizabeth David text, two from Richard Olney, and one I did not know,
The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth
, by Roy Andries de Groot. Alice then searched her shelves forâand could not findâa copy of de Groot. She phoned her office and asked that one be ordered for me, another for herself. But the point here is that Alice talked about all of these people; she told me about going to Annecy with Madeleine. She told me that Madeleine was very difficult, that she obsessed over book sales and felt horribly jealous about the success of others. Alice said that Olney, in particular, bothered Madeleine, and I recounted the scene in
When French Women Cook
in which Madeleine describes meeting Olney and being unimpressedâalthough this was precisely the tour in Burgundy that impressed so many other French experts. Alice talked about Julia Child, too, and knowing her, and I basked for those fleeting minutes in a sense of connection.
Alice prepared a pot of tea then, and while she waited for water to boil I took a risk: “Just out of curiosity,” I said, “what would
cook if you had fresh peas, asparagus, fava beans, and artichokes? Just as a for-example?”
What I did not tell Alice was that, only the night before, I'd found the very same ingredients in my own fridge. Having long since cooked every relevant Chez Panisse recipe, and also every relevant Lulu recipe, I'd realized I would have to improvise. Sweaty with fear, I'd begun by cooking each ingredient in the manner most common in the Chez Panisse books: for the peas and asparagus, blanching in boiling water; for the artichokes, low-temp stewing in extra-virgin olive oil; for the favas, a little of both. And then, because I'd seen recipes with similar conclusions, I'd tossed everything together, moistened them with a little chicken stock, and declared the result my first Spring Vegetable Garbure.
The question I'd asked Alice, therefore, was a testâor, rather, a covert request for the correct answer to a test I'd already given myself, the one called “What would Alice do?”
Alice, unaware that she was setting me free, outlined precisely the moves I'd made on my own.
“Voracious appetite,” Montanari tells us, has long been linked to “a physical and muscular concept of power.” In the early Middle Ages, when a tribal chief had to be the strongest and bravest man in town, he displayed this “animal-like, even bestial superiority” in part through hunting wildlife, but equally in his gorging on the kill, asserting his right to the greatest portion. Montanari argues that all this faded in the later Middle Ages, when “the nobleman was no longer
the warrior, and physical strength â¦ no longer his most important attribute.” With an increasing value placed on courtliness, according to this line of reasoning, “the sign of nobility henceforth was no longer the capacity to eat in quantity, but rather (and above all) the ability to know how to distinguish the good from the bad, and ultimately to master self-restraint and self-control.” Far from vanquishing the old order, however, this new prissiness has come simply to coexist with it in our minds, such that even in the middle of the last century you could have the infinitely discriminating A. J. Liebling refer to “the heroic age before the First World War, [when] there were men and women who ate, in addition to a whacking lunch and a glorious dinner, a voluminous
after the theater.” Jack Nicholson might have been expressing disapproval when he quipped to Jim Harrison that “only in the Midwest is overeating still considered
an act of heroism,” but he recognized the idea's persistence nonetheless. Same for Frederick Exley, in the opening pages of his magnificent novel
A Fan's Notes
, when Exley-the-narrator (as opposed to Exley-the-author; it's complicated) refers to a weekend of “nearly heroic” drinking. All of these men, I believe, express the widespread feeling that extreme gastronomic self-indulgence, however you judge it on moral terms, can indeed display certain of the attributes classically associated with heroism: bravery, daring, courage, spirit, fortitude, and boldness, say, if not quite gallantry, selflessness, or valor. It's that quality of letting go, giving free reign to one's essential nature, taking a risk and throwing off constraint; it displays the individual's willingness to do what everybody else only wishes they had the guts to try.
There's a quality of self-congratulation in this, too: no less an observer than M. F. K. Fisher, in
An Alphabet for Gourmets
, says she “cannot believe that there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point, on anything from quail
to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly.” Fisher doesn't see anything wrong with this, openly pitying, as she does, anyone “who has not permitted himself this sensual experience, if only to determine what his own private limitations are, and where, for himself alone, gourmandism ends and gluttony begins.” Having deeply enjoyed these indulgences, in whatever rare instances we've undertaken them, we carry thereafter the warm glow of having said, in essence,
Fuck it, I'm going in
, and that colors the way we look at others doing the same. As for the
word, I believe that gluttony has lost considerable power for the reason cited by Francine Prose, in her monograph
. This particular sin, she points out, doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible, nor does it hurt anybody but the glutton.
And yet, early Christian thinkers were borderline obsessed with gluttony, considering it the gateway sin toward the hard stuff like anger, envy, and lust. To explain this, Prose conjures the delightful possibility that austere living conditions at medieval monasteries were to blame: so many single men, so little food, so much pent-up rage to vent toward any poor brother prone to grabbing that one extra bread crust.
Still, even today, it's one thing to permit yourself genuine gut-busting consumption; it's quite another to make it happen. The food has to be just right, the mood and the company, just so. In my own life, for example, it took a rare and never-to-be-repeated confluence of emotional currents and controversial health hypotheses, starting with my sense that a dive into Elizabeth David and Roy Andries de Groot would qualify as a retrograde movement of the soul, a burrowing back into the cultural warmth of Mother Alice. With Fergus likewise behind meâas much as I loved his food, I felt now that even he would discourage me from replicating it slavishly in the soft California sunshineâI felt my first-ever itch to study the mainstream American male celebrity chefs. Not just Keller, either. In a single order from Amazon, I bought used copies of Eric Ripert's
Le Bernardin Cookbook
; JoÃ«l Robuchon's
The Complete Robuchon
; Mario Batali's
; Tom Colicchio's
Think Like a Chef; Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef
, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten; and, on a whim, Harold McGee's
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
. Flipping through all these books, in a kind of culinary speed dating, I couldn't decide which to embrace first. Jean-Georges offered an introduction to Asian flavors; Colicchio presented fundamental techniques in a clear, cogent fashion ideal for home practice; and
Le Bernardin Cookbook
began with a curious account of the deep love between Maguy Le Coze and her
late brother, Gilbert Le Coze, with whom she'd founded Le Bernardin. Black-and-white photographs showed the two, as children, in France, kissing romantically, open-mouthed. (“When I fuck Maguy, you cannot call it incest; it is love,” Gilbert once joked to friends, according to a 1994
New York Magazine
article about his heart-attack death at age forty-nine.) As for McGee, it was less a book to work your way through than a go-to reference for any time you couldn't figure out why an emulsion kept breaking. (“Every man I know who cooks seriously owns McGee,” writes Jane Kramer, who claims that she, personally, is “less interested in how things work than in how they taste and whether they taste perfect. And never mind the theories that would have me the victim of some late-capitalist delusion that it's possibleâindeed, my American birthrightâto put a purchase on perfection, or even of some embarrassing religion of self-improvement.”)
I still hadn't settled on a new Kitchen God when I discovered that nearly every one of these menâalong with several other famous chefs, including Michael Mina and Guy Savoyâhad restaurants in nearby Las Vegas, where fancy food had recently replaced topless girls as the blockbuster sucker-draws for casinos. I could just jump on a plane, in other words, and experience all their culinary styles at once. Then I discovered something else: because Vegas was Vegas, a foreign country where steak is the national food and where American men feel powerfully disinhibited in the opening of their wallets, several of those restaurants were in fact high-end steakhouses: Batali's Carnevino, Wolfgang Puck's Cut, Jean-Georges's Prime Steakhouse, Michael Mina's Stripsteak. Even the Michelin-starred French places, eponymous Temples of Gastronomy from JoÃ«l Robuchon and Guy Savoy, were offering wildly ambitious (and expensive) American beef, with which they never would've bothered in a different town. The world's greatest-ever
concentration of culinary talent, as far as I could tellâincluding many guys I wanted to studyâwas engaged in a steak-cookery death match. And that's what I mean about the conditions being right for extreme exploration of my gustatory limits: if I'd merely set out to sample marquee dishes in all these places, I might've eaten daintily, fancying myself a food critic. Even on a seafood mission, or a foie gras mission, the protein itself would've encouraged a certain self-control. But steaks are different, rivaled perhaps only by genuine barbecue in their power to provoke pathological behavior.
I still don't think I would've gone to the wallâto the very edge of catastropheâif not for a chance encounter with my father and two lawyer buddies of his before I left. It came about because my father fell twenty-five feet at a rock-climbing gym, landed on his ass, and blew out two vertebrae in the middle of his back. When I arrived at the hospital, my father wore a hospital gown and he lay perfectly flat and still and he suddenly looked so very old, so frail, as if in a dress rehearsal for deathâan emotional preview of how it might feel to lose him. He'd made an embarrassing mistake, he told me: tied the climbing rope into his leather pants belt instead of his harness. High up on the wall, he'd leaned back to rest on the rope and the belt ripped. I wanted to yell at him for being so reckless with
my father's life
, and yet it was so like my father, so like myself: absentminded, losing keys, leaving half-filled coffee cups everywhere. He showed me that he could wiggle his toes but that nerve damage kept him from lifting his left foot upward. He was on a lot of pain medication, and he had to spend several weeks in the hospital, to stabilize his broken back, but it turned out to be a curious blessing.
With my father strapped down and sedated, and eager for company, I finally convinced him that my cooking emerged not
from some inexplicably domesticâand therefore unmanlyâaspect to my character, but from precisely the obsessive streak that had him studying bootleg tapes of the great flamenco Diego del Gastor, who'd never left his home village and never consented to being recorded, but whom the cognoscenti recognized as the finest flamenco guitarist of all time. Knife-sharpening got us started, and I did feel my father's attention wane briefly, as if wondering what had happened to
cared about something so mundane and, worse,
so tragically practical
as a kitchen knife. But the mood improved as I moved toward the lunatic element: “I mean, now I've got like three different wet stones constantly in a pot of water, I'm reading about metallurgy and stropping techniques and I'm all into this guy who's apparently a reclusive knife-making genius, replicating the ancient Damasacus blade-smith techniques.”