This week I spent almost my entire food budget for the month on one meal and it was completely worth it even if it means I have to eat just ground beef from my dad's farm for the rest of the time.
I grew up on Chick Fil A and Kraft, so I didn't really discover fine dining until I was in college. I think my first date ever was probably at Cafe Luna, one of Champaign-Urbana's few fine-dining establishments, with a graduate student much older than I was. Fresh in my abandonment of veganism, I'll never ever forget the lamb shank I ate there, the way it melted in my mouth. This restaurant was where I was baptized into a love of truffles, duck confit, and aioli. I learned that pleasure from food didn't have to involve overeating, that it could involve more complex emotions, flavors, and aesthetic experiences. My taste and my food budget has never recovered.
In terms of the delicate avant-garde Kaiseki-influenced modernist cuisine that now dominates the upper tiers of fine dining, my first experience was probably at Manresa, in California. After that meal, I wondered if it is possible to become addicted to novelty? I suppose if that is possible, I do suffer from a terrible case of neophilia. The next day after a meal like that, my regular food seems so pallid and devoid of life. It's no wonder so many people who enjoy modernist cuisine are spurred to improve their own cooking skills.
Getting Next tickets was no small feat. I think I am either enormously lucky or very fast at clicking things. It felt good to be one of the thousand that won out, out of many thousands more who tried. Which was surprising, since this year's headlining meal is the most expensive that NEXT has ever done, because it is a tribute to elBulli, which was considered the greatest restaurant in the world before the head chef closed it so he could do other things.
Because I knew this was going to be a long, expensive meal, I vowed to get the most out of it. I read a book called A Day at elBulli, watching the documentary (though really it's mostly raw footage) Cooking in Progress, and watched Anthony Bourdain's episode on the restaurant.
A Day at elBulli is mainly pictures, which are important for getting a sense of what the restaurant was actually like. It was in a somewhat out of the way part of Catalonia, nestled along a picturesque coastline. Seeing pictures of that place, I experienced a wistfulness in my heart, one that I am familiar with. I remember I first felt it one very rainy day in New York City, when I was sitting on the Subway. I had just moved there from Uppsala, Sweden, and was trying to get my bearings. I looked up at the ads that are on the ceilings of every train. One was for Delta, advertising flights to Japan, Brazil, and all sorts of other places. It was almost like that feeling you get when you get a call from someone who you are yearning for. But this feeling was infused with wanderlust. New York City might be the greatest city in the entire world, but in that moment all I wanted to do was experience, once again, the feeling of waking up somewhere new. Perhaps that's why I lived in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, and finally Queens before I left.
If I haven't figured out how to eat in a way that made me healthy, I might have never left Illinois. I was supposed to study abroad my junior year, but one of the reasons I didn't do it was that I honestly didn't know if I could make it. I didn't want to be sick in a strange country. But I got healthy, and I went to Sweden. And it was good that I was pretty healthy there, because my roommates informed me that people didn't go to the hospital there for frivolous reasons. Eventually I did wear my health down a bit with booze and cake, necessitating a cleanup of my diet towards the end, but I never once needed to see a doctor.
Sometimes I wonder if my newfound health is as much about what I do eat, rather than what I don't eat. Sure I feel best when I leave certain things out of my diet, but I'm not particularly delicate. It took months of boozing and caking around Central Europe before I really started to feel it. It reminds me of one study in which they successfully treated GERD with melatonin (I think sleep is important in the causality of GERD) and vitamin and amino acid supplements. My diet when I had GERD probably didn't just have some terrible foods, it really honestly didn't have anything good. I probably didn't get many nutrients that are used to build the linings that protect our gut from potentially injurious constituents of food (any food can be an issues). I've gone from being a delicate flower (at one point I was so sensitive to histamines that I couldn't even have fermented foods) to someone who can really take a punch and keep going. Nothing was as gratifying as going to the allergist and testing positive for NOTHING this fall, when in the past I tested positive to almost everything. Inflammation makes you react to things, good and bad. Once you've got that down and repaired your digestive system, things get easier for many people.
Which is good. Because honestly, god knows what I ate at Next. There were certainly some innovative dishes that used other ingredients in place of things like pasta (cauliflower couscous and a ravioli made out of cuttlefish), but honestly, there were lots of things I ate that I would have trouble eating if I hadn't cultivated some resilience. The restaurant was explicit that this was one cycle where food allergies could not be accommodate. I'm lucky I don't really have any.
When dining, a guest can experience pleasure on four different levels. First, there is a purely physiological pleasure which comes from satisfying hunger; it is the most fundamental pleasure, but no less important for being so. Secondly, there is the pleasure perceived by the senses, which tells us, for example, if a dish is 'delicious,' whether or not we like it, if it is too salty, if we have tasted better in other restaurants or at another time, and so on. Third is the pleasure connected with emotions: everything related to the occasion, such as the attention and generosity with which a guest is treated, the company around the table and the guest's own expectations. Most restaurants are able to satisfy these three types of pleasure.
However, there is another kind of stimulus which is directly related to reason. It is the intellectual pleasure derived from judging the meal according to parameters that are not strictly gastronomic, in which other elements come into play, such as sense of humour, irony, provocation, childhood memories, or -- a very important point -- the appreciation of the level of creativity of a gastronomic proposal. These are aspects which the guest does not expect to find in a restaurant, but in fact they form an integral part of the dish and of the menu. This is what is known at elBulli as 'the sixth sense.' When a new dish is created, the aim is that the guest will enjoy it on all flour levels, and experience all the pleasures that the act of eating can provide.- From A Day at elBulli.
And it was all worth it. I can say I've often regretted buying things, but I've never regretted a journey or experience. In fact, without these, I feel diminished, as they are a major source of creative energy for me. I wish I could find this creative energy elsewhere, in some god or some romance, but it has never been that way for me, though these things also influence me. After a meal like the one I had at Next or a trip like the time I went to Big Sur, I feel broadened and sharp. I feel like all kinds of experiences I have had before have been coalesced and made more clear to me.
I'm not a materialist, I don't care for things. I don't like cars, I hate things that can be exploited. I live a simple life. The only luxuries I have in my life are travel and food. I don't even own a car—I use a small car that is here. It's not even my car. I use it to come to work sometimes. Really, to get from place to place, I just take a taxi. I have a cell phone that I use a lot. I use the phone to get organized, but on July 30, when I start a new life, I'm going to remove the phone from my life."- Ferran Adria
A tidepool, lying by the ocean in the sun, the curling bark of a tree I found in a park in Madrid, the colors in the drunk dream sequence in Dumbo, the way the first fish I ever caught smelled, a kiss you were not supposed to take, scratching the skin of a lime in my cousin's orchard, playing in my mother's garden when I was eight, sitting with friends in a smoky bar in Europe, the scent of the forest floor in Sweden, seeing El Greco paintings for the first time, a dream I had about Japan. Things too little to be easily remembered, except when the senses are tantalized.
cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce
When I got home I was somewhat drunk (which is why this is pretentious and rambling) and I thought about what a meal would be like if it were such avant-garde cuisine, but influenced by the Paleolithic. What if you did a meal that went beyond the banal and really reached into the depths of that era. The dish above was a big influence because of the variety of vegetal flavors surrounding the "cous-cous." Some of them were unfamiliar, even alienating.
The concept of alienating food entranced me because one thing I find is that people are often unable to conceive of the fact that the diet of ancient hominids was enormously diverse, containing foods that most people have never even thought of as foods. Many of the foods and flavors you find in paleobotany are profoundly alienating to the modern consumer. Some of them were multi-purpose as well, with the lines blurring between food, medicine, and recreational psychoactive substance. I would include such alienating flavors to emphasize the remoteness of the era. Of course maybe I wouldn't include so many psychoactives for safety reasons. Cocktails could stand in.
However, despite being strange and alien, the meal would also serve to humanize ancient hominids. Evidence shows that ancient hominids used natural materials not just as tools, but as decoration, utilizing shells, natural pigments, and feathers for aesthetic purposes. Some of the plants they used also don't seem to have much purpose, beyond imparting flavor. In incorporating these ideas, the meal would fight asceticism with aestheticism. Such associations would be emphasized with references to Japanese Kaiseki, which is a notable form of cuisine because many plants that were used in the Paleolithic are no longer used in modern cuisine at all...except in Japan. This also emphasizes the complexity and diversity that characterizes both Japanese and Paleolithic edibles.
Oh, also with inspiration from The Knife's electro-opera about Darwin
Some papers I read while drunk included:
Of course I had to substitute some things and even then, this menu includes things that would require a lot of foraging to procure, since they have never been commercialized. The format is mainly based on botanicals in Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing.
1. Alchemilla vulgari = medicinal plant in rose family
Rosehip cocktail with bitters
2. Pine-smoked oysters with various pigmented powders and seaweed "feathers"
3. Brachypodium ramosum = bunch grasses related to oats=
Oat crusted deer tenderloin with wild mushrooms and edible fried smoked insects
4. Arctium lappa = burdock, Anthriscus caucalis = relative of carrot
Japanese burdock and wild carrot salad
5. Bromus secalinus= relative of rye
boar liver pate on rye cracker with foam of blood and small edible flowers
6. Cyperus badius = relative of chufa =
Spanish Tigernut Horchata cocktail
7. Persicaria hydropiper = water pepper, tastes similar to Sichuan pepper, though water pepper is actually eaten in Japan, but I'm not sure I could find it here =
Sichuan pepper & salt crawfish
8. Scirpus lacustris = bulrush
Bitter sprouts and bamboo shoots, eel, cooked in bison fat butter with a garnish of fried fish bones
9. Sparganium erectum / : Typha angustifolia / Typha latifolia= bur reed (medicinal) / cattail rhizome =
cattail flour/buckwheat blini with roe, hazelnut “sour cream,” and yellow cattail pollen “golden” powder
10. Botrychium ternatum = fern root =
bracken starch mochi
Also, the table is decorated with wood chips and lamps made from small animal skulls hang on strings from the ceiling. On this menu is printed:
From Nabakov’s Pale Fire
What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.
Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
Coming soon: My new book, the opposite of Paleo Comfort Foods, which will be titled Pretentious Postmodern Molecular PaleoGastronomy. All the recipes will require a fully equipped laboratory and ingredients that can only be found in remote mountain wilderness. However, I have been having trouble finding a publisher.