More Pre-Holiday Food Thoughts

artistic plate of fettuccine and mushroomsWell, I had a nice post planned for today, something about the difference between self-awareness and self-absorption. Instead, I’m writing about food again, this time quoting from another book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite

I mentioned this book in another post, over a year ago, and I was reminded of it by a little phrase that popped into my head: “one tiny chop.” I knew the words were from this book, and I was determined to find it and put it into its proper context, a quest that has taken me probably 45 minutes or so. Finally I realized that I could just check the e-book out of the library, which I’ve now done. I want to quote as much as I can without violating the fair use limit of about 200 words. I hope this will inspire you in your own quest to eat quality over quantity and also to read the whole book. (You can just ignore the parts about Bruni’s various love affairs if you’d like; they’re really not the point of the story at all.)

Okay, here goes:

I went to a fancy event in a Roman socialite’s sprawling apartment . . .There was beef carpaccio in thinly-sliced ribbons, and each of the guests around me took just one. I had been contemplating four or five. We were given clean larger plates for a subsequent course of fettuccine with cream and mushrooms, and I figured the size and emptiness of this new canvas were signals to fill it up. But no: the modest hillocks of pasta that my tablemates gathered onto their plates had circumferences little bigger than a baseball’s. When the rack of lamb came, each guest took just one tiny chop. I’d allotted three per person on a few occasions when I’d cooked rack of lamb for company in D.C.

In a Roman restaurant I’d order a primo patto, or first plate, of ravioli, and there’s be just three or four round envelopes of pasta, each smaller than the base of a wineglass. The secondo piatto could come: maybe six ounces . . . Dessert would be modest and would be followed by an espresso that went down in only a few sips, continuing to make the point: the fineness of the sensations you experienced trumped the number or the duration of them. (Kindle location 3720—and I’d love to quote much more. Read the book!)

Now, I realize that most of us don’t go to fancy parties or restaurants with exquisite food. And this passage isn’t talking about feeding a bunch of hungry teenagers after a game when you need the maximum number of calories for the minimum amount of money. It isn’t dealing with the exigencies of a tight budget. It is, however, talking about a whole attitude about food, one that is available to anyone, no matter their status or income: that it’s a gift to be savored, part of the joy of life. The feeling in the above passage, as opposed to that of the descriptions telling about the monumental meals in Bruni’s home or at his family’s favorite restaurants when he was growing up, is one of refined restraint, but restraint that adds to the pleasure. It’s exactly the same feeling that pervades French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure and The Skinny: How to Fit into Your Little Black Dress Forever.

By the way, if you think that the descriptions in the Bruni passage don’t sound like any Italian food you’ve ever experienced, with perhaps the exception of the fettuccine (but where’s the tomato sauce?), you have to keep in mind that what we tend to think of as Italian food is really Italian-American food. It’s the same with Mexican food—the real deal that you’d find even in the humblest village in Mexico is very different from what you’re served at a typical Les Amigos de la Casa des Tres Hombres et sus Potrillos. (Not that there isn’t very good food to be had at those places; I eat at them all the time. But you have to be very choosy. I often order from the appetizer menu.)

Well, I hope these two posts are helpful to all of us as we stand trembling on the brink of the holiday season. I want to keep reminding myself that a) the existence of the food doesn’t create any obligation on my part to eat it if I don’t want it, and b) the work and expectations of the cook don’t need to factor into my eating either. I blush a little when I think of how I used to make a fancy dessert every time we had company for dinner and how irritated I’d get if someone didn’t eat it, or ate only a little. I also loved it when people asked for seconds. If the present me were to attend a dinner given by the past me, I’d be rather perturbed with myself. Well, too bad for that past me! I now take very little trouble with desserts for company, often just having some berries with ice cream for those who want it. (In fact, raspberries with dark chocolate ice cream makes a very good dessert, as people can eat just the berries or just the ice cream, or both, or neither, and no one needs to feel bad. Peg Bracken says somewhere that her heart sinks when she’s at a dinner party and the hostess approaches with some kind of flaming fancy dessert or other. She knows her hostess will be hurt if she doesn’t eat any but that she’ll regret it if she does. I’m not going to invest another 45 minutes tracking down that exact reference, but you get the gist. And you should own a copy of her The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book, even if you never make any of the recipes. Her personality comes wafting up from the pages. Her dessert chapter is titled “Cakes, Cookies, etc. . . . Or People Are Too Fat Anyway.”)

Okay, I’ll stop for now. More to come on this subject.

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