I think food can sometimes achieve perfection.
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?