Friday, November 25, 2011

The disaffected scion and the importance of important days

Chef Thomas

A lively dissonance in this portrait of the ill-manicured, workmanlike hand's settling upon the pure-shot clavicle of natural elegance, suits the occasion of a discussion of obligation and resistance, and the difference between manipulation and learning. From these points of view, the gesture becomes so much one of reclamation that I hope a reader will forgive my not putting forward an intimate portrait from a family of my own, because it doesn't exist. I know all one could want to know about the vitality of disaffection with ostensibly important holidays, yet none of that information could possibly contribute to its crisis management. I would draw this, instead, from the common principle of three misconstrued chefs ~ Waste nothing. 

Mindful of Will Hunting's snarky challenge, Let the healing begin, one doesn't think in those terms, or even of reconciliation. Little could more inflame disaffection, than the common effort to suspend it pro tanto and gain no understanding that it is all right. The doctrine of waste nothing is derived, in fact, from a dismembering process, and goes, rather, to the appreciative celebration of every fragment. I like its relevancy.

The important days are every day, and define the chef's answer to the falsity of eliciting a recalcitrant youth's collaboration in what is, from his perspective, a one-day farce, possibly even a parody of appetites gone awry. Thomas Keller is deeply on to something, in his brief essays on killing a rabbit, trussing a chicken, and cooking offal. The same is true by cultural definition in Daniel Boulud's almost Rilkean Letters to a Young Chef, and in Gabrielle Hamilton's poetically pragmatic inadvertent education of a reluctant chef, but Chef Thomas's are the arguments which ring through to our case. I never did ask him, but they seem to come from Melville's rendering of the whale, not The Bear, not Hemingway. There are circumstances where gastronomy is superior to tragedy, unless they really are the same thing.

They give the youth a justification for coming down from Truman Capote's pecan tree, which challenges none of his pain or anger, none of his opinions of folly or form, but goes directly to the thing he plainly prizes the most, his personal nourishment. They give him the experience of pity without self-implication; they give him a model of caring rooted in his most accessible qualities - craft, feeling, play; and they give him a sense of participation with natural conduits - the ingredients of the feast - in the contribution he has found himself unwilling to make to those he distrusts. Engage him in the carcass of the occasion; let his pride be shown to him.

Ultimately, the important days are important days from his perspective. It's nice, if he can be enlisted in the proper address of form, in the pursuit of behaving properly under stress. But he gets that at school, and we have seen the limits of those expectations at home. These are the days when caring for him is put to its most stringent test; the days when he needs the most to know what that means, and to inherit the essence of it, to do the work, himself. The rest can and will come later. But this, this is all you ever wanted.

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it - the whole bit. Then he left.

I don't know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit, I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.

The next ten rabbits didn't scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful ..

Thomas Keller
  with Susie Heller and
  Michael Ruhlman
The French Laundry Cookbook
  The Importance of Rabbits
Artisan, 1999©


  1. Unprecedented.A visit hear seems like a prayer, at least some days it is so. pgt

  2. Some time back, when I left California, he wrote in my copy of this first of his "cookbooks," a summation which I thought very much belied the acute concentration with which he pursues his métier, which I liken (because you have studied this entry) to AE Housman's in the eyes of Daniel Mendelsohn - "Playing fair," above. He wrote, "It's all about finesse." Yes, indeed, this may be the impression he generates, but in our dialect "finesse" is also a verb, implying, to despatch uncaringly.

    This is a catastrophe, for bunnies, for boys, for blogs, and for their readers and writers. And so, his eyes on the result, he's prepared to apotheosize the ingredient, the authentic character of the being, which is prodigiously hard and yet is a natural testament of feeling, of which consumption is truly an anti-climactic test. One has to work within the satisfactions in the middle, before the thing is despatched to the dining room.

    I have many regrets with rmbl, but none with what I've been given. It isn't possible to thank you for your trust.