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Good enough

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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For my birthday late this winter, my husband and I went out to eat at a well-regarded restaurant. I had heard that this particular establishment was the right sort of place for a special occasion: swanky yet subdued, creative yet solid in its offerings. The menu, in the current minimalist fashion, listed only ingredients — lamb, sweet potato, walnuts. So we airily ordered cocktails and sat back, waiting to see what the wizards in the kitchen would do.

One by one, tiny and delicate amuse-bouches appeared on our table. Wizards, indeed — with the exception of fresh leaf garnishes, hardly anything was served that had not been dehydrated, smoked, powdered, geléed, frozen, or otherwise tackled with the tools of molecular gastronomy. After a while, we lost count of how many miniature snacks had landed in front of us, too busy trying to decide whether, say, the hibiscus-beet leather with orchid gel was a one-bite snack or something that could be successfully torn in half before being consumed. 

The restaurant gradually filled up, and the conversation slowly became louder than the piped-in music. Everybody was clearly having an excellent evening. But at one point, after the latest course of minuscule food on large platters arrived, my husband waved his hand over it and said, "This is fascinating, but, you know, it'd be nice to have something substantial."

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="How do you experience a meal?"]

And that was our problem. We sampled a boggling array of ingredients and techniques and combinations, but our overall impression was one of unusual textures, not compelling tastes. No single ingredient stood out as exhibiting the essence of itself; no creative combination of flavors stunned us by transcending the sum of its parts. 

We had a perfectly pleasant and intriguing meal, but we left feeling merely full, instead of satisfied. 

During our dinner, we discussed the usual: recent shared experiences, the latest articles we'd read. We'd gone to a performance of the Puccini opera '"Turandot"' a few weeks earlier, and had been frustrated by the familiar PR spiel there: opera is fancy, opera is challenging, opera is for those who already understand its subtleties. 

The British writer G. K. Chesterton once called this attitude "the pleasure of appreciating works of art which ordinary men cannot appreciate." He wasn't a fan; he also called it "that basest of all artistic indulgences."

Apart from the fact that this line of thinking totally contradicts the history of opera — many operas over the past few centuries were written for a popular audience, and modern-day musical theater is a direct descendant of opera — it has always struck me as the wrong way to go about marketing opera. It's entertainment, after all; it's meant to be enjoyed, not necessarily venerated. 

Our fellow diners in that crowded restaurant certainly seemed to be enjoying their evening's entertainment, but I wanted to ask them: Are you having fun because it's truly fun for you, or because you think you're supposed to be having fun? 

After all, it's hard not to feel awed by edibles that have clearly been prepared with enormous, painstaking effort. The staff was superb, giving thoughtful answers to our questions; the wines were offbeat and uniformly excellent. And, yes, for the amount of money we were all spending that night, it would be embarrassing not to find the food stellar.

But that depends on your definition of "stellar." One of the articles I mentioned to my husband that night was a recent New York Times Sunday magazine cover story, '"Secrets The article — an excerpt from a new book by Joshua Foer about competitive memorizers — noted that when people learn a new skill, such as typing, they generally learn it quickly, until they reach what Foer calls "the O.K. plateau," or a level that's good enough. 

Most people are content to stay at the good-enough level; very few of us, after all, bother trying to improve our average bicycling skills to match those of Lance Armstrong. But if you're creative enough, and hardworking enough, you can push past that OK plateau and become, say, a competitive memorizer. Or a celebrated chef.

I am not a chef. Like most of us, I am a home cook. I am probably a better-than-average home cook, but again, that depends on what you think "average" means. When my husband and I dine out, we generally pick the items on the menu that we don't have the means, equipment, or patience to try at home: the Peking duck, the charcuterie platter, the elaborate pastry confections. Why not celebrate the labors of someone with more training and skill than us?

That birthday dinner, however, was beyond our usual powers of dining appreciation. And when we realized why, we were both briefly sad: We are never going to be the kind of people who reach for or even claim perfection, be that typing, bicycling, memorizing, or cooking. 

We would much rather enjoy what we can do, instead of lamenting what we can't. Sure, we're always trying to become better home cooks, and those labor-intensive charcuterie platters and pastry towers suggest what's possible. But perfection isn't one of our desires.

Should our acceptance of being just good enough label us philistines? Perhaps. My reaction to Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker article on fantastical desserts wasn't salivation but snickering. A dessert experience that's supposed to replicate how it feels to be soccer player Lionel Messi scoring a goal? Even Gopnik, a dessert enthusiast, hesitated over this concoction: "You feel . . . something of what Messi must feel." 

Actually, you don't, because, of course, you aren't Messi. And neither are you just having dessert. You're participating in an aesthetic experience constructed with sugar. Whether you enjoy it depends on whether you listen to your head, or to your gut. Does dessert come first? Or is it merely a medium?

A professor at my university was known for teaching a class in which he argued that the most important aspect of opera was the libretto. I never took his class, because I thought he had it all backwards: obviously music was opera's chief draw, not the often-ridiculous words mouthed by the singers. But opera without words is just music. A opera that truly fulfills makes you listen with both your head and your gut.

The same is true of our daily bread. Dinner that birthday night wasn't really a meal; it was an intellectual venture via comestible. Quite literally, it was brain food. We listened, but the music played only for our minds.

As we left, my husband said, "That's the kind of dinner I'd like to have about once every five years, just for the experience of it." On other nights, we'd prefer to have simply eaten.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

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