Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fundamental Texts.

From The Escoffier Cook Book:

"362- Melon with Port, Marsala, or Sherry

Select a cantaloup or other melon and let it be just ripe. Make a round incision about the stem end, three inches in diameter; withdraw the plug cut, and through the hole remove all the pips with a silver spoon.

Now pour one-half pint of best Port, Marsala, or Sherry into the melon, replace the plug and keep the melon iced for two or three hours. Do not cut the melon in slices when serving it. It should be taken to the table, whole, and then the plug is withdrawn and the fruit is cut into shell-like slices with a silver spoon, and served with a little of the accompanying wine upon iced plates."

I ran across this a month or so ago and it has stuck in my head. There is something so French in this recipe. Firstly, Escoffier is the ultimate compiler and ultimate aesthete for what we think of now as classic French food. All culinary students nowadays know his name (even if they don't know much about him) and equate it with rightness, as law. His recipes are quite exact, but also (and maybe this is translation and difference in what our foodstuffs are now and our knowledge of our own produce), somehow vague.

There is something in this description that approaches scripts for modern performance art pieces. Everything must be just so (according to the aesthetic of the actor/artist/gourmand) and it is expected that the audience be appreciative of the meaning and carefully planned intention of the action. If nothing else, one appreciates the style, the conviction, the grace or the passion with which the action is acted out. Or should. Instructions are just precise to sound assured, but vague enough to feel as though that the reader needs a guide, someone more qualified to initiate and lead the ritual that should not really be meddled with.

Note that one cannot use anything but a silver spoon to remove the pips from the melon and that it must be just ripe, but not overly so. The plates must be iced. Presumably one would know what shell-like slices cut and removed through a three inch incision would be quite precisely, but to the modern reader it sounds like some mysterious and illicit surgery, but for a fruit. One that you enjoy upon an iced plate, with the accompanying wine. (How does one deal with the remaining highest quality wine upon the iced plate, use a tiny silver spoon? pick it up and lap at it like a kitten? My guess is no and no. But where did and should it go?? I find this to be serious suspense in the text. There are many questions like this in the recipe that [seriously] add a level of high, anxious drama for me.)

Another passage, just above:


Their shape is round, their peel is greenish yellow, thin and smooth, and their flesh, which is light green and sweet and delicate, more nearly resembles the transparency of the water-melon flesh than that of the cantloup in flavor."

I love this because it shows language's real limitations in pure description. There is only akin to. There is only comparison, spaces between words to conjecture at what a thing is and still one can only guess at the described object. The object is foreign and will always remain so in the eye and mind of the reader (modern and not modern). It only exists in the imagination. The pipe is not a pipe.

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