Corn Rules

July 24, 2010

On my way home from Berkshire Wordfest today, I passed a farmstand selling corn. Since I’d just been talking about my mother, I couldn’t help stopping to buy a few ears.

Corn was Mom’s great culinary triumph; nobody made it better. This was because Mom had a farmer who knew exactly what she liked – the youngest, smallest, whitest ears – and he went out to the field and picked them when she called. Mom would put down the phone, put a pot of water on to boil, and hurry over to his place. We’d shuck them quickly, and when we put them in the pot they were just minutes out of the earth. Mom never cooked them long – just a minute or so, to get them hot enough to melt the butter.

Today the farmer looked puzzled when I said that I was looking for the smallest ears, but he obligingly went through the pile, looking for what he called “the puny ones.” Most farmers leave the ears on the stalk too long, so that the kernels swell up until they’re starchy (my mother called that “horse corn”). When I stripped the ears I was happy to see that the kernels were pearly and immature. I dropped them into boiling water for a minute, slathered them with butter, sprinkled salt on top. Then I sat down and ate three ears, all by myself.

They weren’t as good as Mom’s. But they made me happy.


Kings of Pastry

July 20, 2010

Been thinking about this film a lot, since seeing it yesterday. It’s an intimate view into a strange, macho world that seems so foreign, so old fashioned. Watching those men struggle to win the Meilleur Ouvrier de France pastry title is like watching Olympic athletes training; they give it their all, for years, and then it comes down to three short days.

It’s a man’s world and in the first few moments of the film I couldn’t help remembering a meeting I had, years ago, with the women chefs of France. They were setting up their own organization, in opposition to the MOF. Because they are, of course, left out of the competition. It’s only for the ouvriers, not the ouvrieres; there’s even a point in the film where the chief judge tells one of the contestants to “man up” at a difficult moment.

But once I got over my feminist outrage – after all, in this country pastry has become very female-dominated – I started thinking about the competition itself. I didn’t want to eat a single one of those confections; not one of them struck me as delicious. They were so worked on, so complicated, so technique-driven. Every one of those pastries had been touched a thousand times. And every one of them had been constructed for the eye as much as the mouth. I’d much prefer to eat a piece of pie.

And I won’t even begin to get into how truly ugly most of those laborious pulled sugar constructions were, with their strange shapes, their atrocious flowers, their little birds and giant butterflies.

But mostly this wonderful film explains – although that is clearly not its intention – why there is a new food movement in France, a reaction against this antique tradition of technique. The young chefs have shaken off this world, along with everything it represents. Watching this film about the MOF is like watching a ghost go floating out of the room. I’m not sorry to see it go.

In the beginning of the movie President Sarkozy gives a speech in which he makes a populist case for the MOF as the triumph of the anti-intellectual. The work of the hand, he says, is as important as the work of the mind. And that, of course, is precisely the point; the new breed of chef refuses to accept that they are simply using their hands. The best modern food is not being created by people who are working to win the MOR, and the most interesting chefs aren’t creating old-fashioned set pieces. They want to appeal to your mind as much as your mouth. They want you to think about what you are eating.