The latest New Yorker is the Food Issue, featuring Judith Thurman on tofu in Japan, John Seabrook on fruit in Umbria, Malcolm Gladwell on creating the perfect cookie, and other appetizing articles, most of which are not online (including, alas, Adam Gopnik’s “Two Cooks”). But the first one, Calvin Trillin’s “Speaking of Soup,” is, and it describes his quest to learn a little Spanish in Cuenca, Ecuador, while gorging on as many servings of fanesca as he could fit in during Holy Week, the only time the thick (“marginally liquid”) fish-and-grain soup is served.
Being able to say anything I wanted to in Spanish before the moment had passed was what I’d been daydreaming about. I was thinking of the day when my response to a particularly good fanesca (the only kind of fanesca I’ve ever experienced) would no longer be limited to “delicious” or “very tasty, thank you.” I could envision myself pushing back from the table and making a statement to the waiter that was as complex as the dish itself—something like “I can’t take leave of this glorious establishment without saying, in utmost sincerity, that the fanesca I’ve just had the honor of consuming made my heart soar, or at least go pitter-patter, and I want to emphasize that each and every bean had a valiant role to play in what was, when all is said and done, a perfectly blended and modulated work of art.” In that daydream, the waiter is so impressed by my eloquence that he offers me seconds. I decline, with a short speech that reminds him of something he once read in a story by Jorge Luis Borges.
As much as I enjoy Trillin’s hearty style, I was most excited about the Gopnik piece, about a British chef who specializes in every kind of meat (“nose to tail”) and a French one who uses no meat whatever (“One day, I found myself regarding a carrot in a different light, and I saw the cuisine végétale ahead of me through an open door”). I can’t link to it, but I can quote my favorite sentence, in which the author shows that his love affair with words is as powerful as Fergus Henderson’s with meat:
This is not to say that he doesn’t think that tails and heads and spleens are good to eat—he does think that, absolutely—but he also thinks that the idea that noses and tails and feet and spleens might be good to eat would be interesting even if they weren’t as good to eat as they are.
The careful repetition-with-variation of “tails and heads and spleens” vs “noses and tails and feet and spleens,” “he doesn’t think that” vs “he does think that” (with two different thats), “are good to eat” vs “might be good to eat” vs “weren’t as good to eat,” the balancing of the first two clauses (before and between the dashes) against the longer final clause—the whole thing is like a little meal in itself, whetting your appetite and satisfying it in one long-drawn-out lexicoculinary gesture. (Alain Passard, the French chef, said on a television program that “a single gesture on a plate was the right direction for the future of cooking”; I’m dubious about that, but a single gesture is definitely the right size for a sentence.)