Ducks and cabbages and bean sprouts and a curled carp are all under the one bell-like top, and a fine fresh vapor rises from it, not mingled, not blurred in savor, as the helper raises and lowers it on a long rope according to the hissed and hectic directions of the cook. The hot room has a good airiness about it, in spite of or perhaps because of the controlled clouds of steam, unknown to most public kitchens. There is a steady chopping sound: everything edible seems to pass from the shelves to the steam stove by way of the chef’s incredibly skilled knife, and fish, fowl, celery, and a hundred other things turn, almost too fast to watch, into the strips, sticks, and mouth-sized morsels proper to being eaten with chopsticks.
There are a dozen or more books on modern pressure cookery. I find most of them dull, after the first simple principles have been laid down and shown to be foolproof to the timid and the superstitious with a series of artful photographs and charts. Perhaps it is because I can attain such comfortable forgetfulness of my life’s problems in the construction of a stew (as some women do in baking bread) that I do not wish to cut the time for it from four hours to forty minutes. And I am not particularly interested in “tenderizing” inferior cuts of meat, being intransigently of the school that would choose one good dinner of prime beef rather than six of thinly disguised chuck.
At times, I confess gastronomically, I grow damned bored. And then is when I call up the Professor’s ghost, and with a bow to him I make, much more time-takingly than any modern recipe would tolerate, my own modest version of his turbot.
I could not duplicate it, of course, even if I did indeed have the turbot…and an ancient copper boiler in a laundry house. But thanks to fast trains and efficient fish farms, there are beautiful, almost instant-fresh rainbow trout. And there is my postmaternal necessity for something besides beans and zucchini. There is, finally, my sentimental feeling about Brillat-Savarin himself…
The recipe which I devoutly evolve, then, assumes that I have two fresh trout, handsome and alike, a somewhat impertinent assumption on the side of a sage-covered desert hill, but not so much a one near the fine markets of Beverly Hills where I first assumed it. The trout, unfortunately, are all that my cooker willhold. But the fine thing about the recipe is that it can be repeated with no great deterioration to the net result as long a there is material for it to cope with . . and a dozen or so pretty fish, side by side in their clear jelly upon their couch of herbs, is a sight worth any coping, especially when it can be saluted, while the Professor’s ghost smiles just over my left shoulder, with a bottle of something like Wente’s Pinot Chardonnay or, drier and just as cold, Grey Riesling.
Then I can feel, almost as justifiably smug as the old Frenchman when he wrote about his turbot, that I have bolstered my own self-esteem as a cook, if not saved such domestic bliss as he fought for. I can forget the sometime tiresome routine of nourishing my family and instead sit back happily, in the company of One, and eat as artful a combination of fresh natural flavors as ever lay upon a plate. I can compliment myself unashamedly that I have dared ponder on what a gaffer wrote down more than a hundred years ago and have adapted it to my mode of living.
“While my ears drank their fill of the compliments which were showered upon me,” Brillat-Savarin wrote contentedly, “my eyes sought out other even more sincere ones in the visible post-mortem verdict of the guests, and I observed with secret satisfaction that General Labassee was so pleased that he smiled anew at each bite, while the curé had his chin stretched upwards and his ecstatic eye fixed upon the ceiling, and…Monsieur Villemain leaned his head with his jaw tipped to the west, like a man who is listening…”
“All of this is useful to remember,” he went on. I know how right he is, for though no general has tasted my little offshoot of the famous turbot, or no curé, a good man has, and with me, and shall remember the usefulness of the recipe many times again, and the magic of its flavors, when I may, being human, have become boresome…
U is for universal…
…and for a fleeting discussion of bread and salt, which remains man’s universal need in spite of the understandable assumption that it may instead be restaurant-sauce, as served from Singapore to Buenos Aires and back again in any upper-class chophouse.