In Praise of the Cook (Continued) 2

Patrick Manning, "Supari"

"Supari" by Patrick Manning

Good cooks carry with them secrets locked away in the arcane languages of foods, herbs and spices. They study their alchemical properties, creating potent combinations that not only arouse our sense of taste, but offer wellbeing and longevity. In India, the 5,000 year old Ayurvedic systems of cuisine promise the knowledge for prolonging a healthy life. Through a careful combination of spices and foods the system seeks to balance the six rasas or "tastes" of the Ayurvedic diet: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.The proper Ayurvedic mix delivers a sensual, tantric experience of food. The Ayurvedic physician prepares meals in concordance with the seasons, the freshness of the food available and the individual’s health needs. The cook is a physician and spiritual director, using the spiritual and physical properties of the food to enrich the consumer’s life.

Lassie Hallström offers a fairy tale version of this ancient science in his film Chocolat (was there ever a food given more magical properties?), based on the novel of the same name by Joanne Harris. Juliette Binoche play a mysterious stranger who arrives at a sleepy village during a wild storm. Although Lent has started, she opens a "chocolaterie," a small store filled with sublime candy, directly opposite the church. With an uncanny wisdom, she knows which confection will unravel the private misery of her reluctant buyers. Before long, her enchanted chocolates have transformed the lives of the villagers,rekindling passion in a dull marriage, providing the needed courage for an abused housewife to leave her violent husband and a spirit of loving acceptance to a bitter landlady. In Laura Esquivel’s delicious novel of magical cooking, Like Water for Chocolate (complete with recipes), and the movie made from it, the narrator’s great–aunt Tita is born in the middle of the kitchen table amid the spices and fixings for the noodle soup. Preparing food becomes a way of life for the child and Tita grows up to become a master chef. As she cooks, her own emotions mingle with the food and the diners are taken by sudden bouts of longing, regret and passion.Quail cooked in a delectable rose petal sauce causes her sister Gertrudis to become so inflamed with lust that her body produces unquenchable heat. Water evaporates before it can cool her, and her scent carried on pink clouds, attracts the object of her passion, one of Pancho Villa’s men, who arrives in time to pull the naked Gertrudis up in front of him on a galloping horse, allowing the lovers to face each other as they ride away to conjugal bliss. Like the bystander in the film When Harry Met Sally who witnesses the famous scene of Meg Ryan as Sally faking a loud orgasm in a crowded restaurant, we want to lean over to the cook and demand, "I’ll take whatever she’s having!"

"The Fruit Vendor" by Vincenzo Campi, 1580’s

More recently the alchemy of cooking has given way to a new and perplexing science of food which is no less magical in its ability to transform our sense of taste and propriety when it comes to cooking. Molecular Gastronomy, a termed coined in the 1980’s by French scientist Hervé This and Nicolas Kurti, a professor of physics at Oxford University in England, has sought to unravel the deep chemical structures of food and to discover the science beneath home cooking. Studying more than ten thousand adages and myths about cooking, these two scientists set out to prove or disprove these long cherished maxims. (I remember my French grandmére insisting that it was impossible for a menstruating woman to make mayonnaise; the oil and the eggs would not blend.) Along the way to collecting empirical data they inadvertently established a new realm of cooking possibilities. Foods that have similar molecular structures can be combinedto produce fantastic and unexpectedly compatible flavors such as garlic and coffee creme brulée, dark chocolate petit fours infused with pipe tobacco, barnacles with tea foam, a cappuccino of forest mushrooms with mushroom biscotti. Heroic young chefs are now determined to change the traditional expectations of diners. Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck restaurant at Bray–on–Thames in England, has produced award winning combinations of caviar and white chocolate, spice bread ice cream and crab syrup, and smoked bacon and egg ice cream served with French toast and tomato jam.Chef Richard Blais, an innovative chef in Atlanta, conjures mustard ice cream tableside by mixing custard with liquid nitrogen. In Houston, Chef Randy Rucker says his goal is to serve food the city "has never seen, ever" with items such as cod served with white–chocolate sauce. In Miami, Chef Gerdy Rodriguez has been experimenting with bread ice cream, gelatin paper wraps and tomato foam.

Arcimboldo, Winter

"Winter"by Arcimboldo

It makes me dizzy, these new spells, and I wonder what will be the results of such incantations on the adventurous diners. Will they be enchanted or ensorcelled? Of course I will try such strange delights at least once should I have the opportunity. But for now, I linger on a last memory, looking backward at the magic of older cooks. I visited my father a month before he died. We were, as always, in the kitchen and he wanted to make Champignons á la Grecque, a simple dish and one that I loved.Usually I sat perched on a stool, watching his swift hands, the spices tossed in without the benefit of measuring, a certain bottle of wine upended with a flourish, some of it poured into the cook and some into the pot. But this time he was tired and I was the apprentice, following his direction while he sat and watched. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life. Nothing else would have moved him to relinquish his position at stove except the knowledge of his impending death.I listened to his instructions and heard the underlying melancholy in his voice as I chopped, tossed, and stirred. What a final gift this was as I learned the spell that turned the mushrooms into fragrant golden morsels. We ate then, a quiet dinner by candlelight, and for a brief time all the fears, all the anxiety attending the gathering storm of his last days subsided, rolled back by the enchantment of good food.

About the author:
Midori Snyder is an author and teacher. She is also an editor and the webmistress of the Endicott Studio website and Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, visit her website, In the Labyrinth.

About the artists:
Forest Rogers is an award winning artist who produces mythic figurative sculptures and prints. More of her work can be seen on her website
Photography by Patrick Manning, travel and wedding photographer. For more information on Pat’s work please visit his website.

Text copyright © 2005 by Midori Snyder. This article may not be reproduced without written permission of the author. "Vasilissa the Wise and Baba Yaga" copyright © 2004 by Forest Rogers. Photograph "Supari" copyright © 2005 by Patrick Manning. These art images may not be reproduced without thewritten permission of the artists.