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My Epiphany and Me
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Is there a more enduring or clichéd inflection point in food writing than the epiphany? The experience when the taste of something alters the writer’s understanding forever: Julia and Paul and the Dover sole meunière at Restaurant La Courenne in Rouen, after landing in France; Bourdain’s first taste of raw oysters on a France-bound ocean liner as a boy; Alice Waters and the soupe de légumes of her first lunch in Paris. (For at least three generations of American writers these revelations occurred in France, which says a lot about who we’ve been; who we no longer are.)
Bourdain, like Augustine of Hippo ransacking his storehouse of memories to find god, finds the hand of divinity in epiphany. In his signature mock heroic voice, Bourdain describes that boyhood oyster initiation in spiritual terms. “[I]n that unforgettably sweet moment of my personal history,” he says in Kitchen Confidential, “that moment still more alive for me than so many of the other ‘firsts’ which followed—first pussy, first joint, first day in high school, first published book, or any other thing—I attained glory.
I’ve sometimes talked of my own THC- and vagina-free brush with glory: How in my early twenties I tasted a salad at Greens in San Francisco, looking out at that remarkable view to the Golden Gate and the Marin headlands, beyond which the restaurant’s farm lay. The salad has been shifting in my memory for years, becoming whatever I required it to be to satisfy the version of myself I needed to believe. In my latest recollection the lettuces are lime green and blackish red, smooth-lipped and ruffled. Thin apple slices, sweet and sharp; walnuts so recently our of their shells the edges were sharp, not worn down, not tumbled; greeny lumps of Stilton; pink flecks in the dressing—shallots, stained by vinegar, like the anthocyanin blush on pH test strips. Everything alive, everything reactive, so far from the bruised and busted produce I knew from dank and dripping Safeway coolers.
I wrote about the effect it had on me with some very cringey bombast: “Gazing out at the bridge so high it was only possible to see, above the safety railing, the cargo boxes of trucks gliding slowly, steadily on the suspended roadway. How the very lettuces I was eating had been picked that morning from a hollow along the unseen edge of the headlands before me; how they’d drifted along the bridge in a truck like one of the ones I could follow in the distance. How everything on my plate acknowledged time and transformation.” Yes, well.
Still, I know…how this epiphanic salad is the climax in a story of purpose I imagined for my life. Within months of tasting it I’d be cooking at Greens, apprenticing myself, so my narrative goes, to the kitchen that produced such a brilliantly revelatory salad. It’s a story that flexes my own extraordinary taste, my intellectual curiosity. In pursuing a salad, wherever it took me, I would dedicate my life to exploring the mysteries of food. The revealed truth of this salad gave me purpose—never mind that a salad is sort of a ridiculous thing, such a flimsy, evanescent thing to pin a life on.
That’s the lie of the remembered epiphany: that it peremptorily bestows a specious authenticity that cements purpose. It’s god’s Magic 8 Ball, demanding absolute faithfulness to its revealed fortunes.
Is speaks, this lie, to how uncomfortably those of us who write about food grope for meaning. How we sometimes force food to fit a narrative, instead of letting it be; instead of examining our own need to squeeze experience into familiar shapes: redemption or fidelity; comfort or reassurance. To imagine glory in otherwise agnostic lives of doubt. #