Sunday, November 21, 2010

Food as Character

Food is character.

There's no getting away from it. It defines us. It strips naked completely what we would like to have hidden.

One can tell more about a person from what they will or won't eat, conditional on their background, than all the degrees, documents, and recommendations that they trot out.

If you want to learn about a person, watch them at dinner.

Observe how they hold their fork, and ask them what they feel about eating animal innards, and you will quickly strip them emotionally naked. Observe their inward or outward delight (or lack thereof) to a perfectly executed dish, and you will learn more about them than by asking a thousand questions.

Food is character.

Great writers have noticed this forever. When Edith Wharton describes food, she is not describing the food as much as the society that would make such food, and the elements of the society that would eat it. Food becomes the barely neutral turf on which the anxieties of society play.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his one and only, wondrous novel Il Gattopardo observes his characters, and in turn, has them observe each other through the medium of food.

If you've never heard of Lampedusa, or his only novel, the CC urges you to seek it. Most people's knowledge of Lampedusa comes from the eponymous, and equally wondrous Visconti movie.
The Prince was too experienced to offer Sicilian guests, in a town of the interior, a dinner beginning with soup, and he infringed the rules of haute cuisine all the more readily as he disliked it himself. But rumours of the barbaric foreign usage of serving an insipid liquid as first course had reached the notables of Donnafugata too insistently for them not to quiver with a slight residue of alarm at the start of a solemn dinner like this. So when three lackeys in gold, green and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at the table avoided showing pleased surprise: the Prince and Princess from foreknowledge, Angelica from affectation and Concetta from lack of appetite. All the others (including Tancredi, I regret to say) showed their relief in varying ways, from the fluty and ecstatic grunts of the notary to the sharp squeak of Francesco Paolo. But a threatening circular stare from the host soon stifled these improper demonstrations.

Good manners apart, though, the aspect of these monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork halfway up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving his fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at the table to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

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