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The Poetry of Pork

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I
am befuddled by those who reach for their measuring beakers and electronic
scales, as if they were lab technicians, when pouring over sauce-smeared
tomes such as Cuisine Actuelle and French Chefs Cooking.
When I read lush descriptions of lamb tarts and pear Napoleons, my first
instinct is to chase my wife around the butcher's block.

I
am convinced that descriptions of pot lids trembling in the kitchen,
will, if executed well, quicken the pulse of even the most straight-laced
and proper. Who did not, for example, redden with embarrassment and
roar with laughter when, in the publishing and film sensation, Julie
& Julia
, Julia Child compared the hot and hard sheaf of the
al dente
pasta boiling in the pot to the stiffness of a man's
saucisson
?

It
is probably the culinary image we will recall long after everything
else about Julia Child has been washed away with the dishes. And even
though cookbooks are the utilitarian manuals of the kitchen, the best
really belong in the boudoir rather than in the butler's pantry. Anthony
Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, amusingly calls good
culinary writing "food porn." He is entirely right. The language
of the kitchen - with its "searing," "juices" and "drippings"
- is semi-erotic.

Of
course, some will consider it utterly inappropriate to be aroused by
the mere suggestion of pied de cheval oysters. Perhaps they are
right. But sweating palms and sweating onions have long been bedfellows
in the stews of great literature. Mrs. Waters' famous dinner seduction
of Tom, in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, is not just serious
literature and highly amusing, but, in the Tony Richardson film at least,
also seriously hot.

But
reducing the sensuality of good culinary writing to mere sex also misses
the point. For the best culinary prose is really about a healthy and
earthy appetite for life, and the goal of the culinary-inclined author
is to stimulate the readers' senses until they are fibrillating with
excitement and ravenous for the very essence of life.

You
don't have to be a professional scribbler to get this. I was recently
studying the writings of a 13th century Buddhist priest,
research for my next novel, when I came across a letter thanking a supporter
for sending him a sack of rice. The monk wisely pointed out that rice
does not just sustain life. It is life itself.

I
couldn't agree more. In the hands of the great literary masters, food
morphs into a symbol for all of life, from the sensual trigger of a
deeply personal story (Marcel Proust's Remembrance Of Things Past)
to the instrument of deprivation at the heart of a cruel society (Charles
Dickens' Oliver Twist). Gluttony and starvation, the destructive
extremes of food intake, have consumed every scribe from St. Augustine
to Franz Kafka.

I
learned the value of food as social commentary when I was Forbes'
European Bureau Chief. My personal journalistic technique, when needing
to quickly understand where a country was on the global scale of economic
development, was always to head directly to the local markets. In the
Ugandan capital of Kampala, for example, I followed brown-hide longhorns
into the abattoir, where the walls were splattered with blood and the
steers' hacked-off hooves were stacked and sold as a culinary delicacy.
Outside, under the flame trees, women sipping milky tea shelled beans
and sold Nile Perch broth or a peanut sauce to go with a starchy-green
banana mush called matoke.

In
short, the hardscrabble African nation instantly entered my soul through
my pores, and the market descriptions in the subsequent article made
Forbes
' readers in New York or Seattle viscerally understand Uganda's
economic landscape, far more effectively than the dry recitation of
per-capita GDP statistics.

Now,
in The Hundred-Foot Journey, my novel published by Scribner about a lowly Indian chef
who conquers the elite world of French haute cuisine, I have tried,
successfully or not, to use food in the same big-picture manner. The
novel is very much about the lighthearted joy that comes from whisking
together good food with eccentric characters, but it is also, at another
level, about clashing cultures, destiny, ambition, passion, and the
opposing pulls of modern society. All of life, in short, and it's
funny how, during the writing process, the unconscious pulls from its
depths the precise culinary image the novelist needs to make his case.

When
writing my novel, I came to a passage where I wanted to convey the shock
that hits my Indian protagonist when he is abruptly transplanted from
steamy Bombay to chilly London. At that precise moment, I recalled the
local Portuguese technique for catching octopus, which we all used when
I was a boy summering with my family in Cascais, Portugal, during the
late 1960s. I flashed to my father dragging the quivering grey blob
from its underwater lair up on to a rock, where he inserted his fingers
inside the slit of the octopus' gill, and then abruptly turned its
entire head inside out, so the octopus' organs were exposed to the
air. Death was fairly quick.

This
culinary image - head turned inside out - seemed like just the right
means of conveying what profound culture shock feels like. And that's
how it mysteriously unfolded. Every time I put pen to paper, I found
my nib dripping with the juices of a cognac-basted pork roast.

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