I recently returned from several weeks in Paris with a renewed enthusiasm to eat my way through life. I grew up a believer in the transformative powers of food, and to this day, those around me know that a gourmet treat is the quickest way to put me in a sunny mood. However, the inverse also holds true, and if a meal disappoints my high expectations, I often deflate like a soufflé, depressed over wasted mastication. Lately, living in the workaday world of the hamburger heartland, food has fallen to, at best, fifth on my priorities list, largely due to the underwhelming nature of scrounged-up last-minute meals and worn-out restaurants.
But in France, I was reminded about how necessary the emotion of bliss is to a life well-lived, and how food can offer an attractive path to this beautiful state, when I spent day after day eating food that continued to please me, either through surprise or reassurance, at luxuriously leisurely meals that lasted well past the hour-long American lunchtime cut-off.
I had first made the important discovery that chocolate can be enjoyed at any time of day when I lived in France as an exchange student, but I then built up such a tolerance to fine chocolate that I was forced to consume four pain au chocolats and at least one Cote d’Or hazelnut dark chocolate bar a day to attain euphoria. This turned out to be an unsustainable state, mainly because I could not afford all new clothes, and I spent the following years avoiding fine food frenzies.
But this time, I returned to my old patisserie friends with a more healthy attitude toward quantity and a realization that when one is aware of the pleasures of every bite, it takes fewer bites to feel satisfied, both gastrointestinally and mentally. Variety is also a key to culinary contentment, and a city bursting with the olfactory outputs of dozens of different cultures is a great place to be reminded that variety can be appreciated as both the literal and figurative spice of life.
But what about those of us who do not live in a big city or work for business conglomerates that give Christmas bonuses sufficient to cover the costs of a subscription to Williams Sonoma’s cheese of the month club—how are we best to eat well? I am happy to say that this is one question I have the answer to: cooking! This most obvious realization came to me while perusing the cookbook section of my local library, when I stumbled upon The Ethnic Paris Cookbook. I was shocked to find a tome that offered me a second chance at mafé and yassa and corne de gazelle, $800 plane ticket not required.
Now here comes the proselytizing, but it should be fairly painless. Home cooking is not the ordeal many people make it out to be! (I blame Martha Stewart a bit for this, even if I do like ogling her cookies.) Yesterday, I baked rosemary bread and chocolate fudge scones, and cooked steak with gratin dauphinois and Americanized, simplified aloo gobi (thanks, Mom, for my new slow cooker), all in one morning! Sure, it took several hours, but I felt a wave of relaxation as chocolate dough oozed through my fingers. Conversely, I was revived by the turmeric/cardamom/caraway aroma that greeted me after a long day at the office, and my home-cooked dinner gave me the feeling that all was right with the world with each savory bite. And, with the invention of the refrigerator/freezer, many more days of jubilant eating will result from my one morning’s effort.
When life is filled with chores and we take most of our actions out of necessity rather than volition, we ignore the opportunity for transforming these quotidian moments into something unusual at the risk of wasting our lives. We have to eat (at least) three times a day, so why not approach this biological fact with the mindset that we have three opportunities to attain bliss through the explosion of life’s glorious energy across our tongues? It is a truism that an unexamined life is not worth living, but during those hours of contemplation, one will still have to eat. The best livers (people living life, not to be confused with duck livers, which reminds me that I have not yet encouraged everyone to give foie gras a chance, assuming it is not contraband in your state) know that within any moment there is an opportunity for joy. Eating provides means to actually living the good life, rather than exclusively philosophizing about it, and a joyless life can be just as banal as an unexamined one.