Feb 15, 2013

Pleasures Deferred are Pleasures Redoubled

by Chef John Leonard

Last year my Christmas present from my wife was a week of retreat, renewal, contemplation, and above all, silence, at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky.  This monastery’s most famous monk was Fr. Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in the monastery), writer of, among other books, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, perhaps the definitive spiritual coming of age book.

A hallmark of the Trappist order is the rule of silence.  Other than prayer, chanting, and singing the Sacred Office according to the Liturgy of the Hours, talking is kept to a bare minimum.  When I visited the monastery with my mother two years ago I felt sorry for the monk standing in front of the “Silence, please!” sign as my mother asked him question after question, finally forcing him to break his silence.

I haven’t been to my retreat yet but I look forward to it.  I have read that modern people at retreats cut off from cell-phones, i-pads, televisions, and the like go through withdrawal, some of them becoming distinctly uncomfortable with silence that forces them spiritually inward. Perhaps they aren’t comfortable with what they discover about themselves.

My personal theory is that we live in a world where not enough is deferred, and in particular, pleasures.  When it comes to food that means we don’t eat seasonally anymore since someone, somewhere is growing now what we can only grow in the Summer, and through the magic-carpet effect of refrigerated container ships and in some cases cargo jets we can eat whatever, whenever.  When we go to the supermarket we see the cornucopia—“the horn of plenty”—of produce that rightly belongs to other seasons.  We eat indifferent tomatoes now, instead of waiting for the ambrosial ones of late summer.  Even in my house there are strawberries in the refrigerator and I am convinced that when I open the door they somehow glare at me with an accusatory, “we shouldn’t be here now” look. The right tomatoes to eat now are the wonderful ones that were made into sauce in early Autumn; and the right strawberries to eat now are the ones that were transformed by the wonderful alchemy of water, sugar, and airtight jars into strawberry preserves.

This notion of eating seasonally and deferring culinary pleasures is age-old and rooted in (former) necessity, but I maintain it has merit.  I think of this also because the Lenten season is upon us and for many it is a season of deferring what one enjoys, partly to concentrate on spiritual self-renewal, but with the happy effect of finding anew after 40 days the pleasures of that which was foregone.  I note in conclusion to this section that in Italian Mardi Gras i.e., “Fat Tuesday”, is known as “Carnevale”, which in Latin means “removal of meat”, thereby indicating that which will be set aside for the Lenten period.

In keeping with eating seasonally, at some point in the next few weeks we will be making a classic French peasant soup called a “garbure”.  There are many versions of garbure but all include root vegetables, dried beans, and just small amounts of meat for flavoring.  The Jewish equivalent to garbure would be a cholent, the rich and satisfying stews prepared before the Sabbath, consigned to the local baker on the Sabbath eve, and left to cook overnight in his oven to be picked up after the Sabbath services for the family meal.

Of course before we do the garbure and go into a lean season we must recognize Mardi Gras. Perhaps a jambalaya will fit the bill, and a molten chocolate cake for good measure. Before we defer the pleasures we might as well enjoy them.