Monday, December 27, 2010


What makes a good tarte tatin? Going by the polite compliments of those who consumed the pear-ginger tarte tatin I made for Christmas dinner, my quibbles are excessive. Soggy crust does not matter. The way the butter rose to the top to form an off-white opacity does not matter. Hell, those things didn’t matter to me, either. I only wanted there to be more of it. Yet a sense of culinary aesthetics demands that the pears should not be laying in a pool of liquid when the tart is turned out onto a dish. (Maybe this could be avoided by using sugar instead of honey.)

There is also a sense that the making makes the dish, a conflation of the process with the result. The logic goes if I’m pleased with the pears boiling in honey--if it looks good, if it smells good--then the tart is good. This also goes for the sweet potato pie I made the same day. I liked its color (a bilious drab green), and what went into it. The light spices, the light sweetening of honey, the light color of the Japanese yam flesh, the thickness of the pie all came together in an aestheticism that had nothing to do with taste and yet constitutes a great part of taste. When I tasted it, it was the beauty of the process I was wishing for.

This is why it is necessary but impossible to separate taste from aesthetics, pleasure from ideas. Necessary because taste does not come of itself, and impossible for the same reason.

I might account for my former enthusiasm for the dozens of dense, eggy spice cakes by remembering my enjoyment of what went into them. There was a subtle balancing art of ingredients and spices that went into these cakes that was impossible to discern in the finished product unless you were me. It was possible for me to taste some hidden nobility in the cake despite the consistency which I could somehow deny. More likely I only now, several years later, remember them as dense and disgusting, and at the time there were not other possibilities that I knew of.

In honor of the cooking process’s interiority (if not the cook’s) rather than its ultimate appearance as taste to the world, the accompanying photos are of pear peels, pears boiling in honey, and unbaked sweet potato pie.

Excuse me.  Instead of "in honor of," the paragraph above should begin "to exploit," much like speeches that "honor" the dead.

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