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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Dancing Pastry Chef

If there is one wrong question to ask in a pastry class, it's whether you can replace butter in pastry dough recipes with a non-dairy substitute. I asked that question Saturday morning during a cooking class at Sur La Table in Newport Beach -- I asked it blithely, unsuspecting, of the effervescent pastry chef who was teaching us about summer fruit desserts. The chef looked at me in silence for a few moments, measuring up her opponent, then proceeded to drill me about the ethics of being a vegan. She was fierce. She didn't pause long enough for me to answer her questions; she expostulated on the marvelous conditions cows are raised in at dairy farms, which she knows about, because she grew up on a dairy farm where cows were treated to music -- jazz, blues, classical, whatever stimulated milk production the most. When I managed to slip in an answer, I stuttered. At last the chef said, "If you have to, if you absolutely have to, you can use olive oil instead of butter." My face burned. I cursed myself silently for my penchant to ask questions, too many, the wrong kind, and of the wrong people. I smiled at the chef and prayed that she would move on to the next topic, the next recipe. When she did, I felt I could breathe again.

Chef Diane is a force of nature. Opinionated, hilarious, sarcastic, fiercely articulate, she taught the class with inexhaustible energy and palpable passion for her craft. She said the best tools a chef has are her eyes, nose and hands; she knows when a tart shell has finished baking by the way it looks and smells. She interrupted herself in the middle of an explanation to turn to the oven where a tart shell was baking and said, "She's ready, she's talking to me," and instructed her sous-chef to take the shell out of the oven. Her hands were lively, the nails cut very short. She wore no make-up, and her blond, curly hair was combed tightly away from her forehead. Her chef's jacket was white with black buttons and black trim around the collar and cuffs; with it she wore a pair of black and brown pajama-looking pants that looked insanely comfortable. She laughed with ease more than once at her chubbiness. She seemed genuinely pleased to be alive, to be at Sur La Table on a Saturday morning teaching a cooking class. It started me wondering when was the last time I felt as happy in my own skin as she seemed to be in hers.

We made a berry crisp, a strawberry-rhubarb tart, grilled peaches, and a coffee and cinnamon chocolate sauce. I ate a little of everything, unrepentant about breaking my vegan eating rules. For one thing, I didn't want the chef to notice I wasn't eating and berate me about my butter-hate (I do not hate butter but there was no convincing the chef of this after that most terrible question about butter substitutes came out of my mouth); and for another, I didn't think I could resist for long enough the deliciousness spread before me. So I nibbled and munched, trying not to grin too wildly, while Chef Diane warned us that she would come to our house and hurt us if she found out we bought fake vanilla extract, and raved about organic farming and the Santa Monica farmers' market. I think I have a crush on Chef Diane. I think I want to go to culinary school to become a pastry chef.

I suppose this was a weekend of the senses, of the body; I don't have very many of these because I live in my head most of the time. On Saturday morning I dug my fingers into a stick of butter and crumbled it into flour and sugar to make streusel; on Friday night I sat entranced in the dark watching and listening to Rafaela Carrasco's flamenco troupe dance on the stage of the Barclay theater. Behind me sat a woman who had drunk too much champagne, and the fumes of her breath mixed with the smell of dust rising from the stage as the dancers pounded it with their almost inhumanly nimble feet. The first dance started in complete darkness; there were no lights on the stage, all the senses quieted except for hearing, because in this dark, against the background of softly shuffling bodies, the rhythmic pounding of steps exploded like gunshots. The things one can do and feel with the body... The dancers were extraordinary. I had never seen flamenco dancing before and I was exhilarated. My sister, who was with me, said that the dancers didn't dance traditional flamenco but introduced elements of modern dance and ballet in the choreography; she was slightly disappointed. My sister has spent several months in Spain, so she knows what she's talking about. I didn't know any better, so I drank in all the beauty of the dance without reservations. For a fraction of a second it occurred to me to wonder why I was so excited, so entranced; why is homo sapiens capable of such a visceral and rapturous response to art? The question slipped out of my mind; there was too much in the moment to pay attention to. But I don't know that I want to explore it even now. I have this suspicion that there is no adequate answer. If there is one, it will come more readily from the experience of beauty rather than the rational analysis of it. Oh but Kant and Burke and Schlegel would beg to differ. Well, I say let them beg. At least for now.


Blogger Michelle Fry said...

"Beautiful writing. I love this the most: "For a fraction of a second it occurred to me to wonder why I was so excited, so entranced; why is homo sapiens capable of such a visceral and rapturous response to art?"

I am no philosopher but I think we take such joy in art because we must. If we did not, the suffering in this world would be unbearable.

August 17, 2006  

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