Plates, Garnishes, and Expectations

 

I started preparing food (I can hardly call it cooking) when I was in junior high. My mom was back in school finishing her bachelor’s degree and I was trying to repay the countless meals she’d made me. Upon return home after a morning full of classes, she was served her lunch: a sandwich cut into triangles, a glass of milk, dyed pale blue with food coloring, and canned peaches topped with sprinkles.

I didn’t know about balancing flavors or textures, but I understood eating with your eyes, that beautiful food is more inviting. Of course, my mother didn’t actually find turquoise milk or confetti-covered fruit appetizing. The colorings and toppings I chose were superfluous, what I would later learn was called irrelevant garnish.

A decade later I took my first cooking class at The Chopping Block in Chicago. It was a fun but humbling experience. I learned how to dissect a whole chicken, make aioli, and cook mussels. The instructor, Lisa, used a conspiratorial tone, that made it seem as if we were culinary experts instead of clueless novices.

“Don’t you just hate when parsley sprigs are just thrown on the plate?” she asked, her tone implying that she hardly needed to ask. “You should only garnish with parsley if there is parsley in the dish! A garnish should create anticipation.”

I thought of her words years later watching Grant Achatz (famed chef of Chicago restaurant Alinea) on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. He had a syringe full of heirloom tomato puree which he was piping into a mold shaped like a strawberry, complete with tiny achene, to create a food that defied expectation. The strawberry-made-of-tomato was a trick, a deception. It created false anticipation, surprise. In another dish, he served a piece of meat atop a pillow filled with fragrant steam, which gradually release the fragrance of a phantom ingredient, present only in smell.

Expectation is a funny thing. Since discovering my wheat intolerance I’ve grown to dislike going to parties where a snack table full of off-limits delicacies taunts me. I may feel perfectly satisfied before I arrive, but as soon as I see the crunchy pretzels and gooey chocolate chip cookies, I want them. For a while I can usually distract myself with conversation, ignoring the plates of the other guests, but eventually the temptation is too much and I go home. I know the snacks on offer at these parties are no better than the foods I have at home, but as forbidden fruit, they hold fetishistic appeal. I want, not just a bite of cheese bread, but the freedom to make my own unrestricted choice.

We eat with our eyes, which may be why the world’s best Chefs spend as much time devising perfectly arranged plates as they do creating harmonious flavors. On another episode of Chef’s Table, Brazilian chef Alex Atala coats ants in gold leaf before serving them individually on pillows of coconut meringue, cleverly transforming the humble ingredient from unpalatable to exotic.

I admire the beauty of a thoughtfully plated dish, but I’m not sure what to do with the edible flowers beloved by food bloggers, which are often bitter or vegetal, added to desserts and smoothie bowls only for aesthetics.

I recently saw an entire rose bud, thorns and all plopped in a bowl of chia pudding. The image was on Instagram, a dish made for looking at, but not for consuming. I know this, and the pale pink bud is beautiful, but seeing it makes me distrust the tastiness of the fruit puddle it floats in. If I must imagine the flavors of foods out of reach, then garnishes are indeed relevant to my conjuring.

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Russian Princesses and the Female Neck

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I recently read Anna Karenina for the first time; I was charmed by the drama, the humor, and the strange formality of 19th century Russia. I was captivated by the inclusion of actual shops, performers, and historical details. It seems almost every woman in the book is a princess.  Tolstoy is generous with his descriptions, particularly of clothing. Anna is portrayed in simple but expensive ensembles that draw attention, not to themselves, but to her. Her necklines are given special attention since they alluringly frame her elegant neck and round white shoulders.

Necklines are important to women. Most of us have a preferred cut, a particularly flattering line. While Anna is usually described in open, plunging shapes, my own preferred neckline is high and swan-like. High-necked garments recall the fierceness of Elizabeth I, the irreverence of Andy Warhol, and a beatnik-era poetic sincerity. Covered up to my neck, I feel comfortable and safe, yet somehow mysterious. The high neck elongates and smooths, a gentle truss, encouraging proper posture. It is modest yet seductive.

I wear high-necked tops most frequently in the summer, as a sort of counterpoint to bare extremities and flowing shapes. The shape of a high neckline draws the eye up, toward collar bone, neck, and shoulders, areas of my body I rarely find fault with. Unlike my legs or my waist, this upper portion never seems to change, it’s stabile, sinewy structure seems more essential than the parts that shrink, swell, and sag.

I’ve heard the high neckline described as restrictive, but I find the confinement calming. Wrapped in fitted fabric I feel the security of a dog in a thunder blanket. As a young girl, on cold winter nights, I would lie on top of my blankets and my mother wrapped and tucked them into a snug bundle to keep out the cold.

I cannot sleep uncovered. I use a blanket even in the hottest weather. I’ve always enjoyed a certain amount of restriction, finding myself freer when their is a boundary to test. This, I believe is something I share with Anna, who enjoyed her affair only as long as she was restricted by the confines of marriage.

A Reflection on Delicacy

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In some versions of Cinderella the lost shoe is made of squirrel fur; in others it is solid gold. But the glass slipper—sharp, easily broken, transparent, and requiring great craftsmanship—feels right. It is an object that requires careful handling, that cannot be bent or stretched, only broken. It’s delicacy is part of its magic.

Delicacy is a feminine ideal that has always felt out of reach to me. I long for small hands, long spindly legs and a tiny nose. To call something delicate implies fragility but also fineness, lightness, and equilibrium. Delicate features are both diminutive and well made, a combination that is alluring in its grace and vulnerability. We are attracted to things easily broken. Delicacy implies a need for care and restraint, it is a beauty which imposes, inhibits.

We use the phrase “delicate balance” to emphasize the difficulty of stability, a recurrent motif in fairy tales. The easily broken requires constant awareness and attention. The prick of a single spindle is enough to put a delicate princess to sleep for a century. Fairy tales are defined by delicacy, thin windows of opportunity, brief moments of connection.

There is a particular beauty to things which are easily destroyed: glass slippers, crystal coffins, a girl small as a thumb. In fairy tales, fragile objects are carefully tended to, eliciting tenderness in the people around them. In Wonderland, every move Alice makes seems to destabilize. Fairy tales are full of warnings to be careful.

In terms of food, a delicacy is something rare and expensive, often with an element of difficulty in preparation or discomfort in consumption. Some delicacies are young animals, consumed for their tender, inexperienced flesh, others are naturally poisonous foods specially prepared to remove their deadly toxins. In the Philippines, embryonic eggs are eaten by sucking translucent unborn ducks from shells delicate as fine china. Eating the developing birds is supposed to give strength to pregnant women.

Delicacy describes that which is easily injured or prone to sickness. A delicate constitution is one easily upset. A delicate stomach is one that struggles with digestion. But that difficulty is born out of sensitivity, an exceptional responsiveness.

A delicate instrument is one capable of distinguishing barely perceptible differences, fine-tuned, well-made. Delicacy requires great skill, it calls for deft handling, it begs both care and skill.

Women strive for delicacy. We long for thin bones, small waists, dainty features. It can be easy to dismiss such longings as frivolous, to equate them with subservience and weakness. But maybe our hunger for delicacy has more to do with a yearning for our sensitivity to be acknowledged, a longing to be seen as fine-tuned and deserving of attentiveness.

Patches

 

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In my mid-twenties I discovered designer jeans. They were my first taste of high-end fashion, bought on a shopping trip with some coworkers, an extravagant splurge—the price of a month’s worth of groceries—but I had to have them. I’d never before experienced an article of clothing that shaped my body. The jeans created a tiny space between my thighs, smoothed out the lumpy part of my hip and created a perfectly flat plain across my stomach. I had to have them. Over the next few years, I invested in a few more pairs, loving each more than the last. Then times got harder, and I stopped buying them. After a decade the ones I had disintegrated, the fabric wearing down to single white threads that still miraculously held their shape, the seams never fraying, but finally the denim itself finally dissolving. When the knees wore out, I cut them into shorts and when the pockets pulled loose, I cover the threadbare spots with vintage appliques. Even the patches are showing signs of wear now. I’ll soon have to throw some of them away. Their value now is that of patina, the beauty of age, the specific loveliness of things cherished beyond damage, kept beyond their prime.