First, I have a favor to ask. Our church is participating in the Durham CROP Walk tomorrow, which raises money for Church World Services hunger relief both locally and around the world. If you are able, I invite you to support us in our walk. You can donate here.
I getting close to the end of one of the books I’ve been reading this season, Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, and it continues to be full of good things. Yesterday afternoon, I sat out on our front porch and read while I waited for Ginger and our friend Lori to come back from walking Ella and followed Flinn as she came to the end of her Superior Cuisine class with a dinner at Le Doyen, which she says is one of Paris’ best.
The meal began with an amuse-bouche – something to entertain the palate: a small chunk of fish that tasted of smoky bacon topped with a beet sorbet. When the chef came to see how they liked the meal, he asked her which dish was her favorite and she picked that one.
That’s it. By dumb luck, I’ve hit some nerve and named his favorite dish, one that he’s been working on for months. He kneels down, and for twenty minutes we talk. Well, mostly he talks and I try to figure out what he’s saying. Lately, he’s been thinking about the idea of masculine and feminine foods. Do I agree that some foods are masculine or feminine? Before I answer, he tells me how he things about making them “dance” together. Sometimes, at night, after the kitchen has closed, he takes ingredients that he thinks will not work together and figures out how they could. Beets alone didn’t work with fish, but beet sorbet was sweet enough to offset the salt of the fish, for instance. He has many thoughts about sauce, which I miss entirely when he begins talking too fast for me to follow.
Dance works best for me as metaphor. I have good rhythm, I love music, I can feel the beat, but if you’re looking for someone who can really cut a rug, I’m not the guy. I appreciate dance. I even married a dancer, but I am not one. I do understand how, as John Michael Montgomery once sang, “life’s a dance you learn as you go.” Cooking is, too; I may not be much on the dance floor, but I’m a pretty good culinary choreographer.
1638, “of the kitchen,” from L. culinarius, from culina “kitchen.” Meaning “of cookery” is from 1651.
c.1789, from Fr. chorégraphie, coined from Gk. khoreia “dance” + graphein “to write.” Choreograph (v.) is from 1943.
We changed our menu a bit at Duke last week, following spring break, to keep with the season and to spark some interest. As we talked about what we might change, Abel asked if he could make the pasta sauce.
“I have a good idea,” he said.
We had a chipotle alfredo on our last menu, but he had different ideas. I watched him write his dance last Monday. He diced onions, celery, and garlic and sautéed them in butter until they had cooked down and then added Marsala wine and let that reduce.
“I need rosemary,” he said. And I got him bunches of it, which he chopped and added to the mix. He was cooking and tasting and thinking at the same time. “Now a little tomato paste.” He finished each sentence with something less than a period, leaving a sense of expectation hanging over the pot. He stirred in the tomato paste and then added chicken stock, some cream, salt, pepper, and a couple of other seasonings, and then let it all simmer – dance together – until he was ready to say, “Taste this.”
I dipped my tasting spoon into the pot and touched it too my lips. To call it a rosemary sauce is to sell it short. I could taste layers of flavor — movements, if you will: a beginning, a middle, and an end, all in balance and harmony. It’s awesome. It’s selling like crazy. And he choreographed the whole thing with the stuff we had on hand, creating a new thing out of all that was familiar and available.
Whether walking or dancing or skipping, there are only so many motions our bodies can make. Some come naturally; some take training and practice and skill. What makes the difference between how I look moving to music and a dance is how the movements fit together – the conversation between body and heart and mind that makes the simple movement of arm or leg become something transcendent.
Maya Angelou’s poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration is one of my favorites because of its simplicity. I was teaching English in an inner city Boston high school at the time. I took the poem to my students and showed them she hardly used any words that had more than three syllables, or that were not just ordinary words.
A rock. A river. A tree.
People used those words everyday, but she put them together and they became a work of art, they became something that spoke for and to everyone.
I love the detail Flinn gives about the chef staying late to work with flavors he thought would work together and staying with them until he figured out how they did – to rehearse, to create his rough drafts – so he could choreograph a dish for his customers that would inspire them. He danced with his food the same way Abel worked on his sauce, or I love working on my soups, cooking and stirring and adding and tasting, over and over.
Why Jackson Browne has my soundtrack this particular week, I’m not sure, but “For a Dancer” popped up in my play list as I was writing tonight, moving me from the kitchen to the dance of daily life that calls us to choreograph and collaborate at every turn.
keep a fire for the human race
let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down
perhaps a better world is drawing near
and just as easily it could all disappear
along with whatever meaning you might have found
dont let the uncertainty turn you around
(the world keeps turning around and around)
go on and make a joyful sound
into a dancer you have grown
from a seed somebody else has thrown
go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
and somewhere between the time you arrive
and the time you go
may lie a reason you were alive
but you’ll never know
Hey, look at me. I’m dancing.