11 Jul Awakenings
by Jason A. Dixon
“Gourmandise is an impassioned, rational and habitual preference for all objects that flatter the sense of taste.”
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Others before me have made the observation that, unlike animals, humans live their lives in a straight line. There are certainly cycles and patterns — birth, development, adolescence, procreation, death — but unlike animals, humans have the ability to plan for the longest-range possible: an entire lifetime.
Sometimes, however, that long-range planning overshadows the very important need to live in the moment. It is not only a matter of savoring one’s achievements, though that’s important, of course. It is also about remembering that we are perceptual creatures; we have senses — and they are part and parcel of our experience on this Earth.
Full engagement of those senses is exactly what food allows us. We can take pleasure in the elegant presentation of a meal, or even in a single ingredient (as evidence, examine the evocative photography on this site). Even when we do not directly touch a dish, our minds immediately jump to contemplation of tactile sensations, such as its texture. We can allow its aroma to envelop us, which invariably engages our sense of smell as we anticipate the delights to come. And, of course, there is that ultimate pinnacle of sensory pleasure: the taste. That is when one’s anticipation is finally met with a pleasure that can stop time itself — at least until the next bite.
This month’s theme, the delectable berries of early summer, is particularly well-suited for sensory gluttony. It’s also wonderful for a beginning gastronome. For someone just starting to experiment with food, delicate balances of flavors are difficult to achieve and understand; sometimes a flavor that should be secondary is overdone. But the pungent punch of blackberries, strawberries, and even blueberries ensures those flavors dominate.
This month’s selections also offer the beginner some lessons in unexpected combinations. Lavender was something I cherished in hand soaps, not on my plate (I should add, not on my birthday cake, either — as that, thanks to our editor-in-chief, was how I was able to enjoy this tongue-teasing dish). Another unexpected pairing was Madeira wine and butter; this sophisticated addition to a London broil certainly made it difficult to resist the un-sophisticated urge to devour the entire platter on the spot.
As I reflect on the Über-weekend during which most of this issue’s recipes were sampled (and, in some cases, prepared under my guided hands), some thoughts on cooking arise. I love recipes; it’s comforting to have all instructions before my eyes and available for checking. Recipes can only take one so far, however; what is more valuable is the understanding of how certain ingredients interact, both with each other and the cooking implements (dishes, utensils, and heat (or lack of it), for instance). It may seem like a tired cliché, but cooking is like life: One must have a firm idea of the end goal and a more general idea of the direction one is prepared to take, but one must also have the courage and spontaneity to switch directions when the necessary resources aren’t available, or when the intended path won’t take one to that goal.
It is this creative, think-on-your-feet aspect of cooking that I’m drawn to. It is also the most demanding part, as it requires flexibility, ingenuity, and the ability to think a few steps ahead. This highlights nicely the fact that while engagement of the senses is vitally important, humans are not simply perceptual creatures. Our minds go beyond the moment of perception almost without our consent. Perhaps it is inevitable that the true gourmand will not be satisfied with the what of food, but he must also have the why. Hence, during this, my very first faltering steps of a gastronomic journey, I’m glad to be a part of a team that explores the why and how, while never forgetting to experience the what in all of its glory.
Photo: Kelly Cline
Jason Dixon is a guest contributor to The Gilded Fork, and the editor-in-chief’s staunchest grocery shopping accomplice.