I’m armed with a glass of decent, cheap red, and a hunk of unbelievably expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano. I’ve got my remote control, my thumb at the ready. The flatscreen is lit up and the photons are flying.
The dog has his muzzle parked on my thigh, a pool of drool is seeping into my sweatpants. Arnie loves Parmigiano-Reggiano and he knows, if he focuses on me with his big, brown eyes, and deposits enough dog slobber on my leg, he will get a treat.
Arnie and I are indulging in an annual ritual: watching the State of the Union address.
I’m addicted to this event. It hasn’t always been this way but, over the last decade or so, I’m hooked.
It wasn’t too long ago the State of the Union address was a real speech: classical, lumbering, full of complex, albeit slanted arguments, chains of reasoning establishing conclusions, proposals with substance explained. In short: semi-logical, fact-filled, a raging bore.
Not anymore. This once-a-year speech by our elected supreme leader has turned into a fascinating spectacle for those of us with perilously short attention spans. Its been customized to suit the pop culture-conscious American, the TV and Internet crowd.
That’s me. I’m good for about twenty to thirty seconds of concentration at a time, and this speech is tailor-made to keep me glued to the set. Arnie, too.
This is the political process reduced to shorthand. The speech is designed to harmonize with our increasingly limited capacity to entertain complicated ideas – a consciousness shaped by Internet drivel, news briefs and commercials, by rapid-fire film editing, by communications aimed at convincing us we need useless items, that we need to increase our debt load, and wade deeper in a stream of surging consumerism. These missives must, of necessity, be short and sparkly, complete before we can think about them. Simple, because, in a consumption-fueled society, life must appear simple for everything to work.
So it is with the State of the Union speech. It is a sales pitch.
The veneer aids the enterprise. There they are, the leaders of our federal government: legislators, legalists, militarists. Elected officials sit with their party brethren, each party on a seperate side of the house.
The Big Guy begins a series of, for the most part, one- to two-sentence utterances. Each is a code, a quick cut to an oversimplified theme. The speech is interrupted every five or six sentences by applause from the audience. The pacing is deliberate, the interruptions part of the spectacle.
Arnie and I particularly like the quasi-British habit of the legislators as they leap to their feet to illustrate heart-felt responses to a tightly packaged, minimalist meme. Occasionally, the package is so stunning, the adherents not only leap to their feet and applaud, but they cheer lustily, their aging bio-systems charged with a potentially dangerous dribble of testosterone.
Arnie’s ears go up when he hears a lusty cheer. Mine, too.
The scene is reminiscent of an old arcade game, where figures with huge bobbly heads pop up through holes in a board. It is a Pavlovian extravaganza.
“Lower taxes for the middle class.”
“Safety and security.”
“No more dividend taxation.”
“Better watch out, we’re comin’ to get ya.”
“Take care of old people.”
“No child will ever go to bed hungry, or without a Ph.D. in particle physics.”
“Did I mention big tax cuts for the middle class and an end to the growing wealth gap?”
I get caught up in the short-attention span spectacle. I find myself leaping to my feet every fifteen to twenty seconds, exuberant, fired by the energy of simple thoughts. By the end of the address, I’m tuckered out, and I’m hungry.
My friend, Walt, provided me with a nearly 60-year-old copy of “The Escoffier Cook Book and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery for Connoisseurs, Chefs, Epicures,” and I pry the dusty tome open in search of solutions to my problem. There they are: 2,073 recipes, each one requiring no more than a paragraph or so.
Simple. Short. Just like the ideas in the speech. All brought forth by the great French chef A. Escoffier, in two sections: The Fundamental Elements of Cooking and Recipes and Methods of Procedure. Of course, like all things in a universe that may have been created simple so we can observe and absorb it, the complexity of the recipe is determined by our intention.
While each recipe is, in and of itself, short and sweet, many of the elements in a recipe refer to another recipe, and that, in turn, refers to several others which, in turn, refer to the elemental processes detailed in another section of the book.
In other words, what seems to be easy, clear and straightforward is, in reality, dependent on a number of other elements, each of these resting on elements, etc. To gloss a recipe is to engage something simple. To ponder making the recipe involves another layer of detail: figuring amounts, times, going in search of the ingredients.
Preparation unpeels yet another layer of the proverbial onion.
I, for example, decide I will whip up what seems to be a simple dish: Valois chicken breasts.
The darned recipe is three sentences long. Couldn’t be easier than this, eh? Just like a promise to protect Social Security.
All I have to do is treat some chicken breasts in the manner “a l’anglaise.” No problem; I turn to the description of a l’anglaise.
This is still relatively simple: coat the breast in flour then dip in egg wash and coat with golden breadcrumbs or “fine raspings.” There are, of course, separate descriptions of how to prepare the crumbs or raspings. Things are now a bit more complex than the initial sentence indicated.
Then, the breast is sautéed in clarified butter. A number next to “clarified butter” leads to a separate description in a distant part of the book of how one goes about clarifying butter by removing the solids.
The second sentence of the Valois recipe urges me to serve the sautéed breasts with small, pitted olives, stuffed and poached at the last moment. Okey dokey: pit and stuff and poach olives. Hmmmm.
The dish is to be served with a Valois sauce, on the side. I like sauces. I turn to No. 63 to deal with Valois sauce. My desire is pulling me into deep water. Similar to a desire to repair the nation’s ailing infrastructure.
This recipe is also three sentences long.
The first tells me to prepare a bernaise sauce. I turn to the recipe for bernaise sauce. Typical bernaise: shallots, tarragon, chervil, salt, pepper, vinegar, egg yolks, butter.
Then, for the Valois, I am told to complete the bernaise with a few tablespoons of dissolved pale meat glaze, No.15.
To make a pale meat glaze, according to Escoffier, I must put brown stock in a large pan over an open fire. Brown stock (No.7), or estouffade, or Fonds Brun ou Estouffade, is created with oven-browned bones plus a mess of meats and vegetables and aromatics cooked with water for at least 12 hours, skimmed repeatedly, then strained and passed through a sieve. It’s cooked with additional meats for another lengthy period of time before again being strained.
To make the glaze, the brown stock is reduced over a period of several hours and, moved to progressively smaller vessels as it decreases in volume. During the process, the every-thicker mix must be strained through muslin at each transition, until it reaches glaze consistency — “when it evenly coats a withdrawn spoon.”
A three-sentence recipe requires several days time and a Herculean amount of labor.
For a serving of crummy chicken breasts Valois.
The apparently easy task has turned into a trip to the labyrinth.
I get a better idea. Coat (a l’anglaise) and sauté the breasts in a mix of olive oil and butter after pounding them to uniform thickness and seasoning them. Remove from pan. Cook some sliced mushrooms until the fungi give up their water and the liquid evaporates. Add a bit of oil and butter, turn down the heat a bit and throw in some minced shallot and minced garlic. When the shallots soften, toss in some tarragon and a batch of low-sodium chicken stock. Season again, spritz with some fresh lemon juice, reduce to a thickened state, put the breast back in, turn off the heat and hit the sauce with some butter.
This is something I can make in a flash, so I can get back to something simple, where everything is clear and straightforward, and easy to understand.