Thursday, April 28, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Generally speaking, of course, perfection is an exceedingly rare experience. I've been trying to explain this to a student of mine. She finds that the more she learns about a topic that she's been closely studying for months, the less she knows. Her rooting through archives reveals, as much as anything, her inability to find the answers to her questions. Ultimately, the inquiry leads down an infinite number of paths, whereas her capacities are tragically finite, constrained by the hours set by the seniors who volunteer at a local archive, the deadline looming at the end of the semester, the energy that she has in a day.
I'm reminded, by her recognition of the impossibility of perfect knowledge, of Soren Kierkegaard. I read Kierkegaard, who disdained cafe intellectuals for their inability to focus their minds, in a small and smoky Second Cup on St. Denis in Montreal. More than anyone I'd ever read, Kierkegaard laboured under the burden of imperfection. Kierkegaard strove for a kind of position, or disposition, that recognized the impossibility of achieving perfection while simultaneously striving. But poor Kierkegaard abandoned the love of his life because he could not love her perfectly. He could not overcome his finitude.
Maybe he just didn't eat well. Because food can, somehow, sometimes, be perfect. It's not easy to explain and perhaps it's not replicable. Perhaps it can only happen when a tongue meets a morsel under peculiar and particular circumstances. A splash of wine that is balanced but assertive, the right sauce, distinctive but not domineering, and a seared, juicy, tender bite of flesh. Or perhaps an old tradition, perfected over generations and served without pretension.
I first tasted perfection in a white chocolate bar. It was summer, and my family was traveling through Europe, a formative trip for the three kids squished in the back of a red compact rental car. In Switzerland we stopped in historic and picturesque Grindelwald, and there my father and I descended the lowest portion of the Jungfrau, the "maiden" mountain of Bernese Alps. When we got to the bottom we were walking bow legged, our prevent-your-body-from-hurtling-down-the-mountain muscles having received an unprecedented (and never again replicated) workout. Somewhere along the way, in a small wooden shack, we purchased a white chocolate bar. Descending that mountain with my dad, surrounded by a majesty that I can scarcely even attempt to describe, on a day that was crisp, and cool, and sunny, that chocolate bar was just perfect.
I spent years purchasing white chocolate bars attempting to recapture the feeling before giving up. For the most part, white chocolate is just awful. But on that day, on that mountain, it was perfect.
Perhaps the lesson of the Jungfrau shares much with Kierkegaard's striving. White chocolate can be perfect in its time and place. Perfection happens when limits are not so much transcended as matched. Capacity is never boundless, but sometimes harmony is achieved.
I'm tired now, and Ilana is waiting for me to finish blogging about my youth, but I'll point to two restaurants that I think are coming pretty darned close to perfection. The chefs at each are somehow harmonizing limits with ambition, finitude with the infinite. They may not play a perfect tune on your palate, but they pretty much do so on mine. I've recently found moments of perfection at:
Chen's Shanghai in Richmond, which takes the dumpling to a higher plane.
Also, if you're ever in New York, Al di La in Brooklyn makes a tripe dish that soars above the limits of the everyday.
Disparate references, I know, but perfection is rare.
What about you, ever had a perfect bite?
Monday, April 4, 2011
This afternoon I was hungry. An 11:30 meeting, meant to be over in an hour, bled close to 1:00, which marked the start of a far from vigorous but still very enjoyable tennis match against a colleague. As that ended I was off to retrieve my daughter and a friend from their respective schools and home for a play date. In all, it was well past 3:00 when I finally wandered into my kitchen for a late lunch. I was a hungry historian.
When I’m very hungry, I feel it in my teeth. On very busy days like today, I’ll sometimes miss lunch at school. On days that are still rarer, I will also have skipped breakfast that morning, having begun work at 5:30 AM with a coffee and then failed to find time before the demands and routines of the morning for my own feeding. I usually first realize—as I’m scrambling to complete the budget justification on a grant proposal or reading aloud to myself in my office, for what feels like the dozenth time, an article manuscript that I’m hoping, finally, to send off by the close of the day (they don’t come often, but these are the days when a lunch will be forgotten)—that I’m loosing focus, that my mind is starting to spin. And then as I feel a pain emerging in behind my eyebrows, it dawns on me: I’m desperately hungry. Wait, did I skip lunch?!? And when my teeth start to ache I know my work is over.
This is a blog about enjoying great food in a place where it abounds. And in my life, hunger is a kind of a tamely masochistic game that I play on hectic days. But I’ve also begun to think lately about hunger, and I realize that I’m not even sure what it means. Recent estimates suggest that just under a billion people are chronically undernourished. About 1 in 7 people in the world are actually hungry, as a state of being. I don’t comprehend that kind of hunger, as a human and bodily experience. When a person lives in hunger, does the body cease to signal pain? Or does chronic hunger mean constant discomfort, a throbbing head, aching teeth?
Historians are accustomed to thinking of the world as profoundly and complexly stratified. We have intricate ways of conceiving and measuring the ways that societies have been and remain unequal. Some people have grasped more than others. Some of us have been granted a larger share while others have been denied. And yet, I’m not sure that we appreciate this fundamental division among people: luck, privilege, and the exercise of power open a chasm between those for whom hunger is a game and those for whom it is fundamental concern and life characteristic.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Click here to find Stage.
Fol Epi is located at:
398 Harbour Road
Victoria, BC V9A 0B7
Phone: (250) 477-8882
Click here to find out more about Ulla.
The property is both a farm and a restaurant, and proprietor/chef Brock Windsor uses his own produce and livestock as well as other local ingredients to create a new six course tasting menu every night. The food is impeccably executed, merging inventiveness with restraint and delivering dish after dish of tightly controlled, ingredient-driven, deliciousness.
The dining room is beautiful; we sat in front of the fireplace, which was delightful. The menu changes daily, but our meal began with a beet and blue cheese salad accompanied by show-stopping tomatoes, which I believe were grown on the farm. The next dish was a flawlessly seared "idiot fish" accompanied by white beans and house-raised bacon. The lightly seared porcini on the side of this dish perfectly represented the chef's commitment to letting his outstanding ingredients speak for themselves. Next, roasted pork on a flavourful bed of sautéed local corn and cauliflower mushrooms, a mellow but flavourful combination that vied for the high-point of the meal. This was followed by braised venison, seared polenta, and eggplant that had somehow absorbed the ideal quantity of soy sauce. After the fresh precision of the previous dishes, this heavier, meatier plate brought the meal to a perfect finale. With the real eating finished, Brock brought out duck egg crème brûlée, sending us happily and sweetly off to bed.
We chose to stay at the Inn with our kids, who had eaten earlier and slept in a room just up the stairs from the dining area while we ate. This was a great arrangement. Both Brock and Eric, who runs the dining room and waits tables, have young children and they were terrific with ours. The Inn is, in essence, a small house, so our kids could easily pop down when they needed us. The rooms themselves are clean, spacious, and very tastefully decorated.
The breakfast the next morning was just what you might imagine-more show stopping tomatoes, more home-grown bacon, and wonderful home-grown poached eggs. With great advice from Eric about other lesser known attractions of the valley, we set out for a wonderful day. The Stone Soup Inn is in the hands of generous and tremendously talented people. It is destination dining.
Click here to find out more about the Stone Soup Inn