The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio

 

 

 

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The Flickering Memories of Dining Out

I’ve been thinking about old restaurants a lot.  Not necessarily the fancy, Michelin-starred sort of places, necessarily, but places which have hung on for a long time.  When you stand back and look at it rationally, it’s a bit weird that we put more of an emotional investment into the occasional spending outlay of eating out, than we do into things we purchase all the time, like soap or paper towels.  So why is that?

We’ve been having a really hard time of it lately in Georgetown, the neighborhood in Washington, DC where I happen to hang my cape.  One after the other, a number of long-established local dining institutions have been shutting down, to be replaced either by new restaurants or by retail space.  Au Pied du Cochon, The Guards, and Cafe La Ruche, among others, have become historical footnotes in the history of the village.  Now we can add Chadwick’s to that list.

Businesses don’t last forever, not even favorite old haunts, and particularly not in the restaurant world.  True, some places have remarkable powers of survival.  Lhardy in Madrid for example, has been serving outstanding food near the Puerta del Sol since 1839; Scott’s in London has existed in one form or another since the 17th century, albeit not in its present location, when it began life as a tavern serving oysters brought down by coach from Scotland.

In some cases the place stays the same, but the identity changes.  Georgetown’s City Tavern Club, for example, occupies what started out as The Indian King tavern and coaching inn back in 1796, and has gone through numerous owners and name changes since then.  Other dining spots manage to hold on to both location and ownership, such as Billy Martin’s Tavern, which opened in Georgetown in 1933 and is still owned and operated by the Martin family today.  If Martin’s ever went bust, I think I would go into mourning.

Lest you think that such things only concern what we might call everyday people, the high and mighty have their own attachments to favorite dining establishments.  For example, in the British press this morning there were reports of Prince Charles having personally written a letter to Antonio Carluccio, when the chef had to close down his popular Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden.  The place where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got his start had to shutter, due to ill health stemming from the chef’s exhaustion.  That is the nature of the beast of course, when the chef both defines the place and runs the business, as it can spell the inevitable end of a great dining establishment over time.

When we lose a favorite dining spot, particularly one that we have known for awhile, it’s a bit like losing a member of the family.  We may even feel guilty about not visiting them more often, as if we owed a for-profit business some measure of sworn fealty or filial devotion.  After all, this is just commerce, and an ephemeral sort of commerce at that: we eat the food, and it is gone.

Except what really distinguishes a favorite restaurant is not the food, but the memories we make there.  A dining spot where we celebrated a significant event, for example, like a birthday or anniversary or first date, can burn bright in our memories long after we’ve forgotten what we ate.  And even when we do remember the menu, more likely than not it’s not just the food, but the company who shared that food with us, that causes us to look back fondly at the place.

Restaurants will continue to come and go as tastes change, market forces expand and contract, and chefs retire or move on to other things.  So while not turning into some sort of guilt complex, it’s important to periodically visit your favorite spots to help keep them going.  More importantly however, you want to make return visits to places you like to eat, in order to keep your old memories fresh, and continue to make new ones.  For the day will almost inevitably come when you can no longer sit down to dinner at a place like The Guards, in front of a roaring fire, eating the best cheeseburger in the village with a group of good friends in lively discussion.  And that will be quite a sorry day, when it comes.

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

That’s Amore: The Inelegant Joy of Real Pizza

Last evening in most convivial company I ate pizza at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood.  My choice was the Napoli, consisting of tomato sauce, basil, black olives, anchovies, and buffalo mozzarella, on a superb crust having just the right textural combination of chew and crunch.  I probably inhaled my pizza in about five minutes, because it was so outstanding. On the other hand, it may also have been because my parents always called me “the vacuum cleaner”, due to my ability to suck up enormous quantities of food – a trait which, fortunately, is combined with a rather fast metabolism.

Il Canale has become a favorite among residents of the village, and it’s not hard to understand why.  This is not American-style pizza, doughy, perfectly symmetrical, and teeming with processed who knows what.  Rather this is the way pizza is generally prepared in Europe, employing long-established guidelines regulated by the Italian government.  This means that among other things, the bread is not a chemically based afterthought, virtually tasteless and designed merely to hold the toppings, which are themselves overly processed and lacking in genuine flavor.

Pizza did not yet exist during the time of the Italian Renaissance man among men Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of and inspiration for this blog, so we do not know what he might have thought of it as a food.  However based on his writings we can assume that he would have found it a rather problematic dish to consume. In his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione recounts a dinner party at the home of Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, where one of the guests picked up his nearly-empty soup bowl, said to his host, “Pardon me, my Lord Marquess”, and proceeded to gulp down the remaining broth. “Ask pardon rather of the swine,” replied Gonzaga, “for you do me no harm at all.”

Still, pizza is ultimately a peasant food, and treating it as though it were pheasant under glass when it was meant to be eaten directly with the hands would be a bit precious.  This is an inelegant dish, but part of the joy comes in figuring out how best to eat it.  I usually attack a whole pie such as this one, by eating the first slice with a fork and knife, in order to make access to the rest of the pizza easier, while simultaneously allowing the often molten-hot cheese to cool slightly.  I then follow by picking up each remaining slice in turn and folding it in half, sometimes folding in the point first and then folding the entire slice in half, so that the sauce and toppings have less chance of escaping down the front of my shirt.

Even if you can’t make it to Il Canale, it’s worth seeking out places that do pizza this way, particularly for those of us accustomed to delivery pizza and “discs emerging from the microwave”, as a friend puts it. Yes, pizza is still messy to eat, no matter how fancy it is.  What is quite different, in this instance, and very, very enjoyable indeed, is to be able to taste a combination of natural flavors when enjoying one of these types of pies.  That, at least, one suspects Castiglione would approve of.

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown