January 23, 2008

What makes us human?

In honor of the nineteenth-century French writer, Stendhal (whose birthday is today), a quote by him:
"One can acquire everything in solitude, except character."

No small thing, character. And, it strikes me that it is in company, particularly in sharing a meal and conversation together, that one truly becomes a social being. As Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma points out, it was Brillat-Savarin who, in The Physiology of Taste "draws a sharp distinction between the pleasures of eating--'the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied,' a sensation we share with animals--and the uniquely human "pleasures of the table."

I like this. Even though I hadn't yet stumbled upon these ideas, this could explain why it felt urgent to me in the last 2 weeks to start a cooking club with my friends. It will be a seasonal cooking club in which we rotate hosting once a month, and each prepare a dish to bring that is lovingly prepared using only ingredients that are in season. I am doing research to find out what is seasonal in our area (the Southeast) and then sourcing the ingredients at local area farmer's markets, natural groceries, and our newest addition to the city, Whole Foods. This brings up the issue of local versus sustainable. I am still doing the background work to try and understand the advantages and disadvantages to these two movements in the food world right now, but my instinct tells me that to eat seasonally is already a great first step. In terms of taste, it is only natural that eating things in their proper season makes them taste better. Then there are the arguments about where food comes from and our responsibility to support our local farmers so they can continue to grow food and not tobacco, like a lot of Tenn. farms, not to mention the environmental impact of eating food that is transported thousands of miles to get to us. But when faced with the decision, although it would be best to eat BOTH locally and seasonally, I think that if we can manage to do one of them, seasonal may be a little easier. And we can keep trying to eat locally too, in the hopes that our regional food chain and its choices will only improve with increased demand from people like us. So our first dinner, held last Saturday at my house, consisted of a root vegetable soup, a salad of endive, pears, arugula and candied walnuts, scallops with bacon, leeks and lentils, and dessert of fresh pears with grapefruit zabalgione and a citrus pound cake. The meal was fantastic. We learned a lot, ate a lot, and most of all, we gathered together for some good, old-fashioned "pleasures of the table." I can't wait until next month's Seasonal dinner party!

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