A pres le deluge , I finally understood. There is more than je ne sais quoi on the huge empty plates upon which La Nouvelle Cuisine is exhibited. There is also je regret rien . And in that discovery, born of a hangover, I believe I found the gastronimic mission of American cuisine! Voila! La Nouvelle Leftovers.
For more than a year I had mocked France's latest gift to the world. Then one day I had business to conduct with a woman who wanted to conduct it at Le Pavillon, Washington exponent of La Nouvelle Cuisine. I ordered lamb, and when the huge plate came i found esthetics. Was esthetics going to fill the empty spot in my stomach left by the bowl of Wheaties I had skipped that morning? All I had to eat was four slices of lamb no bigger than, but each costing three times as much as, a Susan B, Anthony dollar! And there was a smattering of zucchini sliced to resemble the parings from a rich restaurant owner's nails. Pretty, maybe, but was it lunch to a man whose daddy used to take him to beef houses for lunch back in those Ike and Mamie days when Washington was a beef town? Le garcon was amused . . . all the way to the Banc de Paris.
Ah, youth. Now I understand La Nouvelle Cuisine. Why is it that the day before a bottle of vodka one is so young, and the day after much older and wiser? The answer is simple: Man's liver does not mature by time alone; and thus, the soul of esthetics is not the eye, it is the liver.
As usual in matters of food, philosophy -- let alone physiology -- only confuses. Let me put it this way: the holiday season is upon us; many of us will eat and eat and drink too much. That is to say, we will slouch around tables heaped with ham, turkey, roast beef sliced by wine-sotted amateurs who will liberally dollop mountains of mashed potatoes around the obese slices of meat.That very un-Nouvelle fare will later in the evening be sculpted, as it seethes in our stomachs, by streams of alcohol. The funes from that process will lighten our heads, loosen our critical hold on reality, leaving one organ and one organ alone to make critical sense of it all: the beleagured liver.
Traditionally, hungover Americans try to repress the night before with starvation or scrambled eggs and consomme. This is our mistake, a remnant of chicken isolationism and watery Puritanism not befitting a world power. And, when mean reason once again grips us, we fill out out days of recovery with turkey sandwiches -- what sadder way to destroy nostalgia for all that might have been than to put memories between two pieces of bread.
I leave to scholars to prove the obvious debt La Nouvelle Cuisine owes to that bash of the millenium, the French Revolution. Such slicing does not occur in a culture that has not employed the guillotine. Such huge empty plates are not common in societies that have not beheaded a king. Such tastes come only to a people who understand the liver.
La Nouvelle Cuisine will never take hold in America. We have no king, not to mention a headless one. As for the American liver, it is something Americans meet only after big bashes while the French grapple with their lives from dawn to dawn, cradle to grave.
But as usual in matters of food, cultural history -- let alone sociobiology -- only confuses. Here is what I did in the last hungover morning after. I took the largest, most elegant white plate I had. I stared into it and saw more than just my haggard foodphobic visage. I saw the possibilities of the night before: the hand not squeezed hard enough, the kiss not held long enough, the dance not consummated. Then, with the sharpest knife available I approached the refrigerator in which the corpses of the night's feast did their own kinds of repentance. I sliced a bit of this, a bit of that -- not one, I repeat not one, slice was bigger than the mustache of Marcel Proust.
I reheated the sauce of le temps perdu and annointed the spare remains I had collected on my plate. I sat alone, still staring, sedately sniffing the aromas of the night that had been. I nibbled a carrot no bigger than a French pout -- I relished the memory of seeing a like carrot pass the lips of dare I say who. I tasted a shaving from the ham that had been marinated on bon mots. My fork toyed with a bit of potato, harder now in the sober dawn, but still soft inside, as soft as and no bigger than the diphthong in amour.
Need I go on? Comprend? La Nouvelle Leftovers. And once the meal is over, hand yourself the check, shrug like a hardheaded French waiter, and invest your older, but not poorer, liver in those esthetic tasks that still remain.