Entry 1

Entry 1

Entry 1
A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 16 2002 10:33 AM

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I make traditional bread; and tradition is important to me. I thought a lot about this during the weekend. Anne (my significant other) and I went to England to visit my son, Francois, who is spending a year at King's College in Cambridge, and we knew we would be immersed in tradition. King's College greeted us with rain and its monumental chapel where the BBC was already installing equipment to record the Christmas Eve concert. Our room just across the yard wasn't ready, so we went to a pub to eat fish and chips and Cornish pasties. We ate under a ceiling scribbled with the desperate greetings of American pilots who had found a home in this pub during the early '40s.

Our first evening in England was spent at High Table amid the black gowns where we drank a lot of good 1990 Claret and then retired to the raspberry and green Senior Common Room to drink a 1918 sherry that should have been drunk by E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes—whose portraits adorned the walls and who were at King's College when, probably, that sherry was at its peak.

The next morning we were in London, the best place in the world for a traditionalist like me to be during the days before Christmas. The rain continued, and the streets were dense with shoppers. There really wasn't room to walk—one just moved with the crowd.

We ate lunch in a dark paneled booth in the bar at Greens surrounded by well-dressed English gentlemen and women with hats. We chose fish and chips, oysters, salmon cake, chicken livers, and grilled sole.

We felt already immersed in London by the next morning when we took a train from Paddington for our lunch at Fat Duck, a celebrated restaurant in the tiny town of Bray an hour outside London.

I have heard so much about the restaurant—its experimental chef, Heston Blumenthal, his daring combinations, and intensely expressed philosophies. The chef, via a table card, invited us to create our own childhood fantasy foods. He mentioned one of this own: Sardines and toast, which he offers improbably as a sorbet flavor.

Anne imagined a dispenser of Pez that would shoot little foods into our mouths and those soft wax "Coke bottles" that as children we bit to get at a horribly sweet, incredibly bad liquid. Francois imagined a food made from Pop Rocks, those little granules that, in his childhood, kids placed on their tongues to feel the sputtering and crackling.

Then, incredibly, after we had tasted amuses-bouches of white chocolate sorbet in carrot juice and little jellies of beet and orange, they arrived—Pop Rocks sprinkled over tiny cubes of beet that accompanied Francois' guinea hen; umami broth with mackerel; cauliflower risotto dusted at the table with cocoa powder.

For dessert, we passed over the smoked bacon and egg ice cream in favor of mango and Douglas fir puree with beets and green peppercorn jelly.

It was fascinating. Too much of the food was sweet, much of it was bizarre, and some of it was horrible. We realized that the food we found most compelling was the food closest to tradition, like my duck breast atop buttery mashed potato.

After returning to London, we joined the crowds at Covent Garden amid so many globalized chains—the Disney Store, Sunglass Hut, Claire's Accessories, Talbot's, Gap—that I could imagine I was in a faux British shopping center in Tampa, Fla.

But in Tampa it wouldn't have been raining so hard. So, we went to find the Covent Garden store of Neals Yard Dairy, the extraordinary affineur and exporter of farmstead British cheeses where Francois bought much for his trip to visit his brother in Sri Lanka, and Anne and I fortified ourselves for our flight back to Washington, D.C.

Yesterday morning, before leaving London, we ate breakfast in the paneled dining room at the staid and magnificent Connaught Hotel, where we could have chosen finnan haddie or bangers. I ate oatmeal, hot and grainy, offered to me with heavy cream and maple syrup (to which I added a little sweet butter).

I know that many chefs, Mr. Blumenthal included, would find the Connaught's oatmeal boring and out of date. I know that most chefs would have been casting their eyes around the dining room looking for a little lingonberry or Thai curry paste to enliven the oatmeal.

On the plane yesterday I thought about why it is that food invention has become so much more highly valued than recreation of food tradition. Alain Ducasse says that everything has already been invented; we are merely rearranging the inventions. If that's so, why are chefs so ready to abandon tradition in order to create bizarre concoctions to shock us?

A lot of my colleagues argue that this is what the customers want. They simply wouldn't come to our restaurants if we made what has "always" been cooked, even if it were cooked very well. I'm not so sure. I think too much cooking is done by macho, swinging young men who want to abandon tradition and have an unjustified self-confidence about their talents.

For me it is like listening to rock music versions of "Oh Holy Night."