Monday, October 8, 2012

Reading Response: Secret Ingredients Part I

This weekend when I was reading the “Dining Out” section of Secret Ingredients, I caught myself thinking I was reading essays written by the same person at different periods of time. The essays are different and I could discern the different voices between the writers, but the pieces hold several common threads. The writers chronicle changes in cooking and eating traditions, describe la grande cuisine dining experiences in excruciating detail, and largely identify French cuisine as the best in the world. I found these themes intertwined in the essays, but the most important to me was the incredible level of francité throughout.
Five of the seven essays in “Dining Out” illustrate French meals. The disproportionate amount of French cuisine explored in this section made my mouth water and my head spin. I hope to study abroad in Clermont-Ferrand, France next year and I can’t contain my excitement. If all works out as I hope it will, I could spend nine months in a country with the most buttery dishes and beautiful pastries. The essays in Secret Ingredients are like guidebooks. When I was reading this weekend, I underlined street addresses and restaurant names with the false hope that I might have enough money to stop by and catch a glimpse of the described meals.
My imagined culinary tour of France began with Joseph Wechsberg in “The Finest Butter and Lots of Time.” When Wechsberg enters the domain of chef Fernand Point, he finds himself “suddenly, without any transition, in another world” (18). As he takes a tour of the restaurant and dines with M. Point, he receives--and then share with readers--countless bits of cooking wisdom from the famous chef and proprietor. “Du beurre, du beurre, du beurre, I keep telling my men--that’s the secret of good cooking. And time, lots of time,” M. Point advises (23). Later on, as Point serves Wechsberg a hors d’oeuvre, he says, “A good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well constructed as a good play. As it progresses, it should gain in intensity.” (27). I made a few mental notes: when in France, only eat food cooked with plenty of butter, only eat food that’s taken time to prepare, and always pay attention to the compatibility of foods in a meal. That’s doable, right?
It took me until Jim Harrison’s “A Really Big Lunch” to admit just how not doable my imagined French food paradise is for me to achieve. As Harrison described munching on a thirty-seven course lunch hosted by Gérard Depardieu, reality set in. La grande cuisine is not accessible to nineteen-year-old college students on study abroad. As Harrison wrestles with the “interior logic of overeating,” he acknowledges that a life centered on gastronomical pleasure isn’t accessible to everyone (90). He estimates that the thirty-seven course lunch he shared with Depardieu and ten other guests cost as much as a Volvo station wagon, but that he’d much rather have the lunch than the station wagon. Eating the ways he and the other featured writers eat is a choice: a true gourmand, Harrison ventures, is someone who keeps eating when no longer hungry.
Harrison claims he took “a long road from a childhood in rural Michigan to being the sort of man who gets invited to a thirty-seven-course lunch” (91). This claim gives me hope. Perhaps I’m not going to be dining with M. Point and Gérard Depardieu come September, but eventually, with storytelling and journalism as my guise, I could get there someday.


  1. So, as someone with a "dessert pocket," or "someone who keeps eating when no longer hungry," do you consider yourself a gourmand?

    1. Marin, I think that's a pretty big question! :) I don't know if I feel ready to call myself a gourmand yet. I want to know more about cooking and eating first. How would you define a gourmand?

  2. Sadly, I would be unable to eat a lot of French food and maybe that is why I didn't like this section that much. The mass amounts of butter didn't allow me to desire the food like you were when reading. Hopefully you will be able to try a lot of amazing things next year!

  3. My question is, is it a road you would feel comfortable taking? You note the complexities and unattainableness of this cuisine, yet you hope one day to have it. We have talked about gluttony in class, how would you reconcile that? (Not interrogating you, just genuinely curious!)

  4. I wish you good luck on your venture to France. Also, I know that many of the meals (37 course lunch lol) might not be attainable, yet I have seen some great pictures of cuisine in Clermont-Ferrand, France by study abroaders. Plus with your cooking skills, you'll be able to utilize all the special ingredients sold in France. Even if it is a compromise, I bet you'll find authentic and tasty cuisine options!

  5. I love your enthusiasm and excitement for study abroad. I also appreciate your point about how this kind of eating style described in the reading is not that of the average citizen. I hope you do get to taste some great food in France though, and then come back and tell us if it's really as good as they say it is.