My lovely friend, and fellow foodie, Candie (a student from Bordeaux, France studying with me at UC Berkeley) and I went to Tartine on Sunday. Candie, like all of us workaholic students at CAL, has been rather trapped in the Berkeley area that immediately surrounds campus - a place of eateries, bars, and atmosphere geared towards the college-life crowd who favors cheap and fast, over quality and with love. In general, though the East Bay is a great place to live and their are some little gems for eating, it is not so rich in its variety of restaurants, especially ones with authentic, international flair. Candie loves being here but has been thoroughly frustrated with local food selections. In other words, she was dying for some REAL French food!
We went on our escapade, à la Français, to my ol' standby for great food, Tartine. This is a bakery/café/restaurant where you can always expect consistency: simplicity; artistry; high standards; attention to details; a long line out the door no matter what day of the week or time of day you go; sour, exasperated expressions on the Hipster waitstaff; crowded seating and tables usually shared with multiple other parties; and above all, the euphoria you reach after you eat, making it worth all the hassle of actually getting your hands on their pricey morsels.
Our meal started in reverse. We got hot coffee, a dark chocolate-topped eclair filled with vanilla cream, bread pudding with apples, and a lemon tartlet (in a to-go box for later). By the time our actual food arrived, we has sequestered some seats that were tucked against the wall-lined windows, with other diners sandwiching us in on both sides. We ordered the melted Humboldt Fog goat cheese on walnut bread with apple garnish, and the green chard quiche from their rotating, daily selection.
|Melted Humboldt Fog goat cheese on walnut bread with apple garnish.|
Something we discussed endlessly was how food needs to be eaten slowly and every flavor individually tasted in order to appreciate how each one part combines to create the dish's complete character. That seems all-so romantic, I know, but in so many places around the world this kind of love-making with one's food is like breathing. A culture's skill with food is often equated to their sexual talents, so I wonder if our abilities in the United States are considered more like Traci Lords, or Paris Hilton?
Food is also something never to be taken for granted. I personally have witnessed people, including children, starving in other countries so I have real issue when I see people in my own country inflating themselves at alarming rates just because they can, or worse, because they think they "deserve" to. I therefore feel that when you eat, the act of eating should be about nourishment and pleasure and respect for the food you are lucky enough to have access to, not just a reaction to your growling stomach or even more unacceptable, a fast-food advertisement you saw on TV. Above all, what we choose to put in our mouths should be more than empty calories eaten out of repetition or boredom!
|Green chard quiche.|
Candie brought up a good point though; if the ingredients themselves are of poor quality (laden with chemicals, unnaturally large in size instead of small, but full in flavor, etc.) then how can a person appreciate the taste of their food? I agree. If you have never savored the true aroma of a vine-ripened tomato, or the way a carrot retains its sweetness and softer texture when left to grow naturally (things I think most Americans have forgotten or are unaware of altogether), then how can you understand the importance of eating produce grown locally, organically, and consumed within a week of it being picked? And don't get me wrong, it's not all about veggies and whole grains for me; I have nothing against fat. I just want the grease that I eat to come from olives, sunflowers, sesame seeds, good cheeses, even bacon or ducks, not from a giant machine that heats it up and injects hydrogen bubbles through it!
|Dark chocolate-topped eclair filled with vanilla cream-note the specks of vanilla bean.|
|Tartine's bread ovens.|
Another issue my friend addressed was how we in America make food combinations that are neither conducive to digestion, nor to being able to sort out each ingredient's characteristic virtues. That got me thinking. A common stereotype of American cookery is that we put lopsided emphasis on either shocking the eater with unorthodox, sensory overloads that seem exotic and radical, or by throwing odd mixtures together (especially salt, sugar, and hydrogenated fats) out of sheer laziness. We tend to do this instead of integrating harmonious flavors and textures together into food that make you want to slow down and enjoy them for awhile so that we can pick out the nuances of single ingredients.
Take a Starbuck's Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino® Blended Beverage, or a ®for example. Is there any way possible to distinguish each and every flavor component of those products? No way, because that's just it; they are products and not what should be considered edible food and drink. I think what we should instead be focusing on are the joys of straightforward cuisine: painstakingly prepared and executed, but using ingredients from nature and techniques that highlight the food/drink itself, not distracting condiments. Just look at Tartine's bread ovens above. It takes a lot of work to make bundles of warm goodness come out of there, but the rewards are immediate and long-lasting. When a customer like my French friend samples their bread, looks in disbelief at the crusty softness in her hands, looks then at me with the same expression, smiles, shakes her head in satisfaction and says, "I can't believe I finally found a taste of home! I'll never forget this meal," they know they are doing something right! To conjure up a fond food memory is to give a person back a piece of their past, and to keep them coming back in the future.