October Dumplings I met the consistently fashionable Willis a couple of weeks ago at Kelley & Ping to see if I could convince her to start writing more stuff for us again. I've never been a huge fan of this fashionable Soho noodle shop, partially because I'm probably insufficiently fashionable, partially because I'd only been there before at night, with a friend during a period of tension, and we'd just sat across from each other in the loudly swirling gloom and ate noodles and found little to say to each other. When we left it was autumn, and it was raining.
It was autumn when I ate lunch there with Willis, too, but everything was different. A flat gray light, like that cozy light that brings the first dry snow, and inside everything was bright and white, and glass was steaming over and the tables were hectic.
"You know how this works?" Willis asked me, peering at me with skepticism. "The only time I was here there was waitress service." "Mmm. You were here at night. C'mere." "Um..." "C'mere." Nodding me over. "Just get me what you're getting." "You want noodles?" "Nah. Just get me what you're getting."
Thus we sat down to excellent vegetarian dumplings?I liked them, and I'm opposed to dumplings in general, and no real huge fan of Asian food in general?and garlicked, snappy greens that might have been stir-fried through with MSG, but might not have been. The usual clicking ritual of careful whiteboy chopstick-holding and dumplings drowned in cream-crockery bowls of soy sauce.
Afterward we stood outside, bundled against the snow-pregnant air, and I watched Willis smoke. Part of Willis' considerable charisma is a function of her diction, which manages to be both affectlessly spacy and gun-moll clipped. She's cool. We watched a stunning woman?an unlikely blonde beast of the sort who emerges from magazine pages to stalk downtown streets?totter down the street, leading a child by the hand.
"Hmm," Willis said, frowning with concentration. "She's a mother. So that makes her prettier." "She doesn't need help being pretty." "She doesn't need help being pretty. But the kid makes her prettier."
We meditated longingly on the blonde woman until she and her toddler were out of sight, and then Willis crushed out her cigarette. The air really did feel plump with snow. A peck on the cheek, then a walk along Houston St. back to the subway, full of dumplings and the clean exhilaration of new looming snow, even if you know that it's only October and it's not really going to come. And also the satisfaction of Willis' promise that she'd write for us more. But she always says that, doesn't she?
White Truffle Insecurity It's white truffle season right now, which means that through December those fungal spores will cluster underground against the roots of the Piedmontese chestnuts, hazels, beeches and oaks with which they grow in symbiosis. Living in fear. Their days are anxious and numbered. The arrival of hog snouts looms. Invasive pigs drag truffle families from hiding and into the light of day. Truffle-gathering as a metaphor for totalitarian policing.
Or whatever. That's a particularly ugly trope. But it does allow me to make the point that the fascination of truffles might be as much linguistically grounded?grounded in the metaphors the truffle's presence on this Earth feeds into and exploits?as in the way they actually taste. They're buried treasure, for one. White truffles right now cost $1500 per pound, so you're not too much off the mark to say they're worth they're weight in gold. They play into the whole primal buried/ deferred treasure complex of images that haunts poetry and mythology, from Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" up through Three Kings, that corrupt and mediocre current film and veiled, sneaky apologia for Western imperialism.
They're also rounded, hairless, sexless baby dumplings birthed by the mothering earth. Thus they play into that knot of poetical and mythological images and metaphors generated by birth and death and burial and regeneration. And play tangentially into?if you want to stretch it even farther, and what else have you got to do today??our fear of burial, or interment, of death. A fear that's also, if the Freudians were ever to be believed, conversely a subconscious desire for death and for the embrace of the grave, of the Mother Earth from which, far down in our race memory, we remember we were spawned. This knob of fungal death that's also its exact opposite, nourishment and life. "Feeding a little life with dried tubers," wrote Eliot, with the Fisher King and the Grail legend in mind. And truffles are, um, kind of like tubers, you know. The truffle as trope machine.
More. Truffles are foul-smelling and homely nodes, stained and stinking of the earth, which means that eating them's like eating dirt, or eating feces. Earth, hidden treasure, riches, birth, rebirth, mothering, desire, feces, nourishment. The armchair Freudian could wile away a summer vacation with the mere idea of a truffle.
And one more Deep Idea, which has to do with the truffle's conception and growth; with the cancerous nature of fungal growth, which involves the incubated redoubling of foul, soft matter in moist and grotty places, an image out of an unsettling dream. An horrific picture of unchecked slimy growth, the sort that haunts your subconscious.
I looked through the "truffle" entry in my Larousse Gastronomique and found a number of effusive truffle-based tropes, courtesy of various French people. I'm not the only one, it seems, who sits around metaphorizing this particular variety of fungus. Colette: "gem of poor lands." Brillat-Savarin: "diamond of cookery." George Sand: "fairy apple." Alexandre Dumas: "holy of holies for the gourmet." Fulbert Dumonteil: "black pearl."
The reason I'm going on about this is because I've never been able to justify to myself the fascination with truffles on the mere basis of their taste alone. The truffle's appeal has got to do with something else. Truffles make me feel unsophisticated and loutish and stupid, like someone who can't manage to appreciate the charms of puppies or children, or who can't help himself from considering Brahms' music boring. What's the big deal about them? The truffle's always seemed to me to be a pretty underwhelming piece of food, particularly given its cost. What am I supposed to be tasting in it? And it's not as if I haven't eaten them in sufficient quantities. I remember, for example, eating at Christian Delouvrier's Les Célébrités years and years ago. I poked around the huge oily gobs of black truffle that floated in the magnificent gravy accompanying whatever exotic variety of protein was on my plate that night?poked around the truffle gobs with my fork and wished that someone could absolve me of the responsibility of having to appreciate the dear things and tell everybody around me how enthused I was by their presence. I couldn't perceive that they were adding much to my appreciation of what I was eating. It seemed to me that the dish would have remained magnificent without them. They seem to me one of the most overrated luxury goods on the planet.
It's easier not to blame yourself for underappreciating the pleasures of truffles when they're free. But even then they're still tough to come to terms with for me. One evening last week my publicist friend Cathryn Davis generously took me along as her guest to the Italian Culinary Center, which occupies an appealingly functional suite of rooms in a gloomy old clothing-showroom building overlooking Madison Square Park. The evening was part of the Center's White Truffle Festival, and it worked like this: Several dozen mostly older truffle eaters occupied white-clothed communal tables set with stemware and silver and brilliant Mediterranean-colored crockery, drinking Prosecco and eating wonderful antipasti from huge platters that had been placed severally on each table (slices of frittata worked through with crisp shards of asparagus and with an essence of white truffle; and chunks of Caciotta cheese; and marinated wild mushrooms; and artichokes; and round, coaster-sized slices of a thick salami that evinced not the bland brown of the salami you're used to from delis, but the great, deep, mellow red of good beef) as they awaited the issue of the labor of the evening's guest chefs, Sette MoMA's Maurizio Marfoglia and I Trulli's Mauro Mafrici, in the kitchen alcove that occupied the cheerfully lit room's south end. First Marfoglia and Mafrici demonstrated recipes on the kitchen's counter as we guests craned our genteel necks. Then we were served the food. The Center's staffers slammed frost-beaded bottles of mineral water down on the tables and filled our red-wine bulbs with nebbiolo and served us truffle-covered plates of food worth...what? How much does a nickel-sized truffle shaving cost at the moment? Five dollars? Eight?
And so I addressed a fondue-stuffed and truffle-covered baked miniature pumpkin, trying to determine what differentiated it from a fondue-stuffed baked miniature pumpkin without truffles. What was it I was tasting? A creamy white-orange melt of polenta, fontina cheese, mild, butter and egg yolks, for one thing. That fondue was a good idea: the tart cheese was bound to the polenta through the agency of pure dairy. A smoky, gamy earthiness permeated the slop. But as for the influence of the truffle shavings that floated atop the fondue in its hollow baked pumpkin bowl, who knows? The dish's wonderful intensity of flavor might have been a function of the cheese's interaction with the polenta; might have been instilled by soft baked pumpkin flesh, some of which you scooped from the inside of the gourd with each spoonful. The dish's secret might have been several other things besides the truffle. Around me my fellow diners grimaced and concentrated over their pumpkins. But I wondered if they were tasting what I was tasting. It wasn't that I didn't love the dish. I did. It's just that, like at Les Célébrités years ago, I wondered what, if anything, these superexpensive fungal shavings had to do with my appreciation of it. It seems to me that any food that costs $1500 per pound should announce itself unambiguously, that you shouldn't have to agonize about it. A great Bordeaux fills your mouth and blows you away. Why shouldn't a truffle? I lifted a truffle slice from my plate with my fingers and stuck it into my mouth alone, peering out the corners of my eyes and hunching my shoulders like I'd be caught performing some act that would betray my ignorance. There was that pleasant dry mushroomy taste, with a hint of tangy, rotting earthiness. But you're so culturally programmed to experience truffles as a violent epiphany that I was disappointed.
Next the Center's staffers served us Mafrici's roasted wild turkey breast in a carriage of white truffle bread and Taleggio sauce. What we were dealing with here was a tremendously expensive and unlikely turkey sandwich. Two pucks' worth of fluffy, eggy white bread baked with truffle; between them, slices of turkey bathed in a sauce of Taleggio cheese (Taleggio is wop Camembert) into which truffle oil and yet more truffle shavings had been worked, and the whole mess flaked with more of the marble-covered truffle shavings. It was either a presumptuous croque monsieur, or else the world's most elaborate turkey melt, and it blew me away. I haven't eaten too many better sandwiches in my life. But again?and call me an ingrate, or a dummy, or whatever you want?was it the presence of the truffles that made it so good, or just that it's hard not to enjoy turkey slathered in melted cheese and good bread fried in eggs and oil under any circumstances? Maybe the truffles were meant to be indistinguishable from everything else; were meant to ground the dishes, to function in the background like a drone grounds chant, deepening its ambience without the listener's necessarily even noticing that it's there. I just don't know.
Or maybe I was just food-dulled, or maybe I'm just insensate to start with, and maybe it will all take a lot more work, a lot more effort, to fully appreciate this delicacy, the same sort of work that it takes to appreciate a lot of stuff everybody tells you is worthwhile. Someone ought to send me a half-pound of white truffles care of the paper. I'll experiment. I'll wallow in the things. I'll sit in my kitchen on Saturday and fold huge chunks of the stuff into my scrambled eggs. Or else I'll peddle it off in parcels to the first dozen genteel housewives I encounter walking into Grace's Market, and clear enough money for 167 cheese pizzas, or a new pair of skis, or the used Laser sailboat I've been meaning to buy, or maybe even a trip to the Piedmont, where some patient and knowledgeable old peasant might be able to finally teach me what I've been missing, teach me the score.
For information on the ongoing White Truffle Festival at the Italian Culinary Center, call 888-742-2373 or 725-8764, ext. 25. I'm not sure what the evenings cost, since I didn't have to pay for mine and was afraid to ask. But it's probably a lot.