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Bergson, bernaise and a trip to the past




Vladimir Nabokov titled his autobiography “Speak, Memory.”

In the off chance I do anything worth noting in an autobiography, I’ll title mine “Eat, Memory.”

Being of Bergsonian bent, I’ve never adjusted to temporal convention. I swim in the flow of things; no literalist, and lacking analytical talent, I have difficulty knowing what day of the week it is. I don’t remember important calendar dates. Absent the encumbrance of employment and the television schedule, I would be hard pressed to tell you what time it is; I’ve never owned a watch.

I entertain existence in terms of duration.

I believe my situation has something to do with the fact Danny Freeman beaned me in the temple with a baseball bat when I was a lad; I do not recall events in my life relative to the year or month or day when they happen. Even the places in which events occur are of secondary importance. So it goes with a contusion on the frontal lobe. (I wonder if Bergson took a couple blows to the melon?)

For me, duration is marked best by food, by the flow of existence between poles marking the discoveries of powerful, soon-to-be favorite dishes.

Food is time for me, and food experiences are my most effective mnemonic devices.

So, the other day, when someone asked my age, I had to engage in an extremely laborious process.

I excused myself, telling the person I would get back to her with the answer. I went home and made an elaborate chart that I thumbtacked to the wall, manipulating the elements until the answer was clear.

On the chart were layer upon layer of time lines, each representing a certain duration defined by foods. The length of a strip indicated the extent of a duration; the color of a strip — gold, silver, bronze — represented the quality of the terminus of the duration.

After the lines were in place, I subjectively weighted the quality of each duration then, with a calculator, worked out correspondences between durations and linear time.

I began with the period between my discovery of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on buttered white bread (consumed with a glass of cold milk) and the first time I tasted a fresh berry tart, the berries embedded in a firm lemon curd. I figured that line should be about four inches long, and silver in color.

Next up: the period between my first terrifying encounter with school lunchroom macaroni and cheese, and the first time I had mac and cheese the way it should be made — the way my grandmother Mabel made it: al dente rigatoni baked with a bechamel rich with garlic, cheddar, mozzarella, gruyere and Parmesan, a breadcrumb crust golden—brown from the broiler. That line: an inch and a half, but as gold as a rare sunset.

How about the duration defined by the transition from maudlin pancakes to Aunt Hazel’s paupiettes? Oh those incredible crepes, filled with a mix of minced veal, mushrooms and spinach bonded in a custardy gel, the dish baked with a fresh tomato and basil sauce. A silver line of two inches.

Then there was the Middle Eastern duration, from Helen Habib’s kibbeh baked each month when I was very young, to falafel and hummus sampled at a stand on the Lower East side of Manhattan. The line is six inches long and, over its length, the color changes from bronze to high silver.

Raw things deserve a line. My old man made steak tartare tableside, the fresh-minced filet mixed ever so gently with an egg yolk, spots of Worcestershire and mustard, salt and pepper. Garnish with a bit of finely minced white onion, some capers and serve with toast points. From there to that first revelation of sashimi at the sadly defunct Mandarin in Denver. In fact, it was at the Mandarin, thanks to the deft touch of chef Ted Tani, that I first savored saba — broiled mackerel bliss enhanced with a bit of shredded daikon mixed with shoyu, each bite delivered together with a thinly sliced round of serrano. That line: eight silvery inches.

From a helping of curried eggs manufactured in 1966 by Martha, a hippie princess in San Francisco, to a premiere vindaloo prepared by my dear friend Kirk from a recipe procured at a backwater restaurant in Toronto, to the transcendent masamam at J’s Noodles — a line of eight inches. Gold as gold gets.

Crumbball button mushrooms to chanterelles, morels? Eleven inches. Maximum silver.

Dinty Moore beef stew from the can to a pot au feu prepared in a decrepit kitchen by the mother of a Parisienne painter, four cuts and kinds of meat gracing a blend of humble vegetables, elevating them to perfection? Served with stone ground mustard and fresh baguette, the broth first as a soup, followed by the meats and vegetables? Fourteen inches, at least. Gold all the way.

Korv and lefse, the comfy lefse hot and running with melted butter, all the way to rijsstafel in a seedy Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam? Twenty inches. Bronze that is sure to turn to silver.

The distance from a McDonald’s hamburger served at an original Golden Arches to that first perfectly-grilled porterhouse. purchased for a chubby 14-year-old at Peter’s Backyard in the West Village by friends of his father’s from Rahway, New Jersey? A silverish nine inches.

The Colonel to coq au vin equals four inches. On a silver line.

Farcie de veau through schnitzel Holstein with runny egg yolk washing over anchovy fillets perched atop golden brown veal, hustling to a sea-fresh carpaccio of salmon taken al fresco at a cafe on the Champs d’Elysée? A time line 18 inches long, of burnished golden hue.

From that first pickled jalapeno eaten with my 8-year-old buddy Mark Vigil, fished from a huge jar on a countertop at a cheesy little restaurant on South Broadway in Denver, to chipotle in adobo sauce? Twenty inches. Silver. Polished by peppers of all kinds.

From grape juice to Malbec, a fruity pinot noir, syrah, a monster cabernet? Thirty inches of the most lustrous gold imaginable.

Canned tuna to lobster thermidor at the Mount Vernon Country Club; brutalized chunks of round steak to prime rib with green beans almondine at the Palace Arms; store-bought cupcakes to flourless chocolate cake with chocolate sauce at a bistro on Place Igor Stravinsky, wolfed down after a full day at the Pompidou — each worth twenty inches of peerless silver.

From strained peas spooned from a small glass jar and dribbled down the chin to the veal piccata I whipped up the other night — we’re talking 430 very golden inches.

From Wonder Bread to garlic nan at Anwar’s buffet in London; from bottled steak sauce to chimmichurri at an Argentine restaurant, applied to everything — meat, bread, my hand; from do-it-in-five-minutes box stuffing to Hazel’s corn bread dressing; from Kraft American slices to Maytag, Roquefort, Stilton, Brie, Roblechon; from bomb pops to Haagen Daz. Count three-hundred inches and put on your sunglasses: this line is thermonuclear bright!

From Secret Sauce to Hollandaise, with an off-ramp to bernaise or paloise? Eighty-two inches of the finest gold. From bottled mayonnaise to learning to make Hollandaise? Seventy-six inches, as gold as you can get.

Actually, making Hollandaise, once you’ve done it, is not too difficult. And it’s a hop, skip and a jump to bernaiseville.

The sauce should be made in a double boiler, over hot but not boiling water. Start with four egg yolks, a bit of kosher salt, a tad of freshly ground pepper, and a small splash of white wine vinegar. A tiny bit of lemon juice, if you like. Stir constantly with a whisk until the yolks begin to thicken. Do not get the mix too hot!

A dab at a time, begin to add cold butter, up to a stick and a third, whisking as each piece is amalgamated into the egg mix. Do this until all the butter is absorbed or until it tastes right. To make bernaise, take a bit of tarragon vinegar and teensy little pieces of minced shallot and reduce to a near sludge. Then make the sauce using the sludge as a base, adding finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves. Keep it on the heat, again making sure the sauce does not get too hot. Reduce the sauce to a super-thick state. Use it on grilled meat, on grilled fish. Do as I do and eat it with a spoon. It’s a shame you can’t get a gigantic straw anywhere these days.

It was a lot of work, this trip through the wreckage of my memory.

The lines told the story. I arranged them in an intuited order, evaluated the color scheme and got to work with the calculator. Taking into account a short-lived and unfortunate infatuation with Rice-a-Roni, the picture was clear.

I’m nearly 66 years old, earth time, with memories galore for my autobiography.

And I’ve got plenty of eating to do before I’m ready to write.

With luck, the time lines will be tiny and colored a blinding, brilliant gold.

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