Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leçons de choses: Lessons from Things

I wrote my first fan letter last week. And yes, it was to New Yorker writer and acclaimed author Adam Gopnik regarding his marvelous little book, Paris to the Moon. Make fun all you want, but I don't think this is more laughable than those of us who have written fan letters to The Backstreet Boys or New Kids on the Block, or the like. (And you know who you are!). PLUS, I got a response from Gopnik. I doubt Nick Lachey ever wrote back.

Anyway, Gopnik's charming book is a loose collection of vignettes and meditation from his time in Paris, where he lived with his wife and young son for several years. There is an old Oscar Wilde saying that goes "when they die, all good Americans go to Paris," and indeed, for all its ills, Paris still embodies a sort of paradise in the American cultural psyche. Nobody gets fat, everybody has something profound to say, and the food is always amazing.

Many parts of Paris to the Moon are laugh out loud funny, from when Gopnik joins a Parisian gym (and the term "gym" is used very loosely here), to his month-long battle with French Christmas-tree lights that borders on existential (French lights are very different from American lights, you see). But the part of his book that I found most remarkable was a section entitled "Lessons from Things."

Luke, Gopnik's young son, is enrolled in a local pre-school. Part of the curriculum is something called leçons de choses, which gathers valuable wisdom from the process of turning stuff into things. Bricks (stuff) being turned into a house (a thing). Seeds, dirt, sunlight and water (more stuff), will all somehow create a flower or a plant (another thing). How does it happen? What is the lesson from it? It is a oddly lyric way of approaching the world, and Gopnik marvels at the "lessons" we all learn from these "things" when we take a similar approach has these pre-schoolers.

For example, it almost seems just short of divine when you think about how pots of paints and brushes (stuff), when put together in just the right sort of way, with the right kind of vision, becomes a priceless painting (a thing). Lumps of stone somehow become beautiful sculptures, letters and words, formerly gibberish, become books and poems. Musical notes, put together one way, its mere cacophony. Another way, it is symphony or a song. Indeed, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from the process of transforming stuff into things, but no where more does Gopnik find this more profound than when it comes to cooking.

Mere mortals probably don't have what it takes to put stuff like musical notes or paints into too amazing of a "thing." But most people can put together "stuff" like bread, mustard, turkey slices, and lettuce into a damn good turkey sandwich. You don't even need the trans-formative power of heat to make a good salad, just the proper selection of stuff, to make a marvelous thing to eat.

When Gopnik moves beyond the very elementary level of sandwich and salad making, however, the magic of "stuff into things" becomes even more incredible. The lumps of raw meat and bevy of mysterious bottles filled with spices on his counter somehow becomes an delicious roast chicken. Vegetables with dirt still on them eventually become soup. Seemingly disparate ingredients somehow become a tasty crepe. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from these things indeed, and I am a firm believer that cooking and understanding food at its most basic level makes one appreciate their meal on a whole new level. I would have enjoyed my evening at Savoy no matter what, but the fact that I have still not yet achieved a perfect crack-ly skin on my roast chicken, despite many valiant efforts, made me savor the marvelous texture of Savoy's salt-crust baked duck even more. What else could I learn from the marvelous things on my plate?

Perhaps nothing else, perhaps just the fact that cauliflower is an under appreciated vegetable in my kitchen, or that raisins go with a lot more than just oatmeal, or that I really need to expand my horizons when it comes to cured meats, as there are some awesome things out there besides salami and chorizo.

Conversely, attempting to cook news things on my own have made me a better "order-er" in a restaurant. I sincerely believe that cooking makes you want to explore new flavor combinations and take a bit more risk with your dinner, especially when the person in the kitchen is a trained professional. Learning to cook is not as difficult as one might think. Just remember Remy and Chef Gasteau's motto from the great Disney movie Ratatouille: Anyone can cook!

They can and they should. Just start small. Some pasta here, then try some chicken, and maybe an omelet. You'll be braising short ribs in no time. Not only is it more economical, frequently healthier, and a great de-stressor at the end of the long day (Mad at your boss? Get out the big knife and start dicing some onions, pretending it is their face. Or something.), but cooking opens up an entire world of new discoveries, those little leçons de choses that make life (and meals) that much more fun.

Feeling even more ambitious? Check out My Cooking Party. I did this two years ago with two other friends and we had an absolute blast. You basically play "sioux chef" in a real, mini- restaurant style kitchen to a head chef who has put together a 4 course meal. You all pitch in to make the dishes, and once it is done, you sit down and eat it. It is a great hands-on way to learn that is fun and can appeal to all skill levels. Plus, they throw in a few bottles of wine that match the food with the price of the class. Opa!


  1. You've won me over, Gastronomical Jess. I will buy a copy tomorrow.

    Thanks for the good tip.


    An admirer

  2. Hey JJ, great write up. I am going to pass along to Monsieur Crumpler!



  3. One day this blog will be an excellent book, I bet.


  4. That's what I like to hear on all counts!

  5. The book sounds really good. You should sent me a copy.