Exactly 221 years ago today, Marie Antoinette was beheaded!
With all the talk of the growing wage gap and the new billionaires and all, the French Revolution occurs to me from time to time. Could a bloody, desperate people’s revolution against a privileged and corrupt elite happen again? Here?? (Answer: Anything can happen anywhere and usually does. So yes.)
I’d much rather talk about hot chocolate. In an hour’s worth of research about Marie Antoinette, I learned that aside from not actually saying that thing about cake (it was a line in a story written by someone when she was just nine and falsely attributed to her) she liked to have hot chocolate in the mornings. Curious about how one might make Marie Antoinette Hot Chocolate, I consulted the oracle and indeed found the recipe for her exact hot chocolate on the official Chateau de Versailles website. It’s been passed down through the ages and this really does seem to be the way Louie and Mar-Mar liked it. Check this out:
“Place the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water in a coffee maker and boil gently; when you are ready to serve, place one egg yolk for four servings and stir over a gentle heat but do not boil. If prepared the night before, those who drink it every day leave a leaven for the one they make the next day; instead of an egg yolk you may use a whisked egg white after having removed the first mousse, mix it with some of the chocolate from the coffee maker then pour back into the coffee maker and finish the preparation as with the egg yolk.”**
I assume they do not mean you should put chocolate through your Mr. Coffee tomorrow morning. And as for “the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water,” there’s no mention of how large these bars are, or what sort of cacao percentage you should work with. I’ll bet they used extremely chocolatey chocolate, but it’s anyone’s guess. I do think if you attempt this (and I will and will let you know what happens) you ought to serve it in the fanciest cup you can dig around for. Marie liked it with whipped cream and an orange blossom, apparently, so get thee to an orange grove or the Versailles orangerie or, you know, Whole Foods.
**Source: “Les Soupers de la Cour ou l’Art de travailler toutes sortes d’aliments pour servir les meilleurs tables suivant les quatre saisons” (Court dinners or the Art of working different foods for the best restaurants based on the four seasons), by Menon, 1755 (BN, V.26995, volume IV, p.331)
We all have fanboy moments, geek-outs, obsessions. I sure do.
We identify ourselves vis a vis our preferences and interests. This strikes me as normal and healthy. It starts early, when as kids we swear allegiance to either chocolate or vanilla, and it goes on from there: consider Trekkies, (who get picked on more than is probably necessary) or model train collectors (who wish they’d get picked on more.) There are cupcake fanatics and Twilight fans and many millions of quilt geeks out there, with whom I proudly stand. Even choosing not to be a fan of anything is an identity choice; the antifan, the independent — this is a (paradoxically) popular option. It’s human to seek our bliss, whatever it is, and as long as no one is doing harm, I support bliss-finding of all kinds.
But let us linger on that “doing harm” part.
While I was sewing the other night, I watched a documentary about sommeliers. Somm, made in 2012 by director Jason Wise, followed four American males over the course of a year as they studied and then sat for the Master Sommelier exam.
The Master Sommelier exam is “an almost impossible to pass” test administered once a year by the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are three parts to the test, all more torturous than the next: there’s the theory part, where the subject must be able to do something outrageous, like correctly predict the temperature on a typical day in May in some ancient Mediterranean terroir; there’s the blind tasting, where the quaking, shaking young man or woman must suck down multiple mystery wines and accurately answer what they are and where they’ve come from, down to the vintner and the year; and then there’s the service portion of the test, where these pour (sorry) souls must execute pitch-perfect wine service to people who aren’t real customers, but the members of “the Court” who are actively trying to make them fail.
The exam is an exercise in absurdity. Only 135 people in 36 years have passed this course.
The four guys followed in the film were open and honest about how studying for the test had all but ruined their respective relationships — and their girlfriends concurred. The test created tension between the friends, took its toll on their bodies (no sleep, lots of wine, mega-anxiety) and though it wasn’t a major focus of the film, I can only imagine the economic impact of the experience on a Masters-bound somm. Most take off work to study full-time, and to try all these fancy wines one must eventually purchase them, I assume? And the Knights of the Court of the Round Table of Master Sommeliers of Camelot’s Men don’t administer the test for free, naturally: it’s $325 to register, and you have to get to the city where it’s held, find someplace to stay, and you’d better be rocking a killer suit when you show up all shaved, haircutted, two-bitted, etc.
I was more than a little grossed out by all this.
Though it cannot be denied that fine winemaking — “vinification” if you’re nasty — requires skill, craftsmanship, innovation, and a hell of a lot of work, at the end of the day, you’re gonna pee this stuff out. I apologize for being crass, but this is the reality of any beverage. Does good wine taste delicious? Oh, yes. Does it make you want to sing and make art? Totally. If you choose the right bottle on a date, are you going to impress the waiter and up your chances of getting lucky? You just might, Johnny. And these are all good things that you can’t get from ordering a Coke.
I also want to give props to people who know wine. Full disclosure: I dated a sommelier last summer. He has risen through the ranks of the Chicago restaurant scene, he’s extremely skilled in his job and he’s passionate. That’s cool; he’s not the problem.
It was the level of obsession and elitism on display in Somm that made me want to order a Mr. Pibb in pure defiance of a world that creates such monsters. I would’ve ordered a damned Diet Rite if I could’ve, and popped the lid with a flourish reserved for a pricey sauterne. When I watched one of the guys say, in a kind of trance, speaking-in-tongues state over a glass of white, “This wine is bright, this wine is clear, this wine is from the Loire Valley; this wine is medium body, this wine has vanilla notes, this wine…this wine is freshly-cut garden hose,” I stopped stitching at my sewing machine, hollered, “Oh for GOD’S SAKE!” and threw my half-square triangle in the general direction of the screen.
The Master Sommelier Exam prides itself on being exclusive, but they’ve landed backward: these folks have shut mere mortals out so completely, they’ve made us the enviable ones: we can still enjoy glasses of wine; they can’t. We can still get excited about a $30 bottle that we won’t describe much better than “really good” and we can move on after it’s poured to talk about other things that interest us, like…not wine. The tower they’ve built is all ivory, no stone. They can’t love the thing they love anymore because when you love something, you set it free.
(I don’t know how that works, either, but it was a perfect way to end that paragraph.)
Anything that can ripen can blight; everything, if conditions are right/wrong, can go septic. Find your bliss. But prune it.
Speaking of being remarkably stupid, I accidentally bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that can’t be cooked where I’m currently living. Please let me explain.
About three weeks ago, I was having a heated discussion with someone I love very much at a chi-chi food emporium here in New York. Who I was with and what we were discussing is not important; what is important is that I bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that I can’t cook where I’m currently living. Please let me keep explaining.
“I gotta get some meat for dinner!” I hollered at my loved one and she (essentially) said, “Fine! Get’cher dumb meat!!” and I stomped off, past the fancy spice aisle, around the fancy sweets display, up to the fancy meat counter. You’d think gazing at gorgeous, dead flesh in a wide glass case would make me forget my heated conversation, but it didn’t. I was distracted. There was only a vague awareness of my dinner plan. I was not registering the high prices of the meat I was scanning. My thought process was doing something like this:
what a lame day —> ooh lamb chops —> I’m a bad person who shouldn’t try to be right all the time —> do I need rosemary? —> that man is wearing a blue suit —> wow, look at that meat —> a roast would be good —> why does she say things like that? —> she loves you, just stop it —> standing rib roast —> Adam’s Rib —> Katherine Hepburn —> Out of Africa —> I want to go on my safari now, not in five years —> it’s getting late, pick something —> I should apologize —> chocolate —> order meat now
Indeed, it was within the stream of this magnificent cognition that I opened my mouth and ordered some meat. My selection? A 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick. Oh, I didn’t say, “Please give me a 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick.” That might’ve stopped me. No, I just pointed to it and said, “Let’s go with one of these guys.”
The butcher smiled (wouldn’t you?) and hauled the enormous section of cow from the case. He Frenched me a steak and wrapped it with what I can only assume is butcher paper made from unicorn hide. It was when he pushed the massive thing across the steel counter to me that I had my first moment of panic: did that sticker give the price of the entire steak or the price per pound? This was either bad or gasp-inducing bad news. Turned out to be the latter. I had requested a two-and-a-half pound cut of beef that cost $27/lb.
Can you give meat back? Once a butcher butchers, isn’t it like getting a manicure? It’s yours, now. The lacquer is dry; the meat is cut. If I could say, “Oh, wow! That is absolutely not anything I can afford! Please take your steak back!” and the butcher would, then what?* Does anyone want someone else’s meat? Will it just go to waste? I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I’m still not sure about this (feedback is welcome.)
I was thinking about whether or not to try and give it back when the second wave of panic hit: I had nowhere to cook this. Remember, my “kitchen” in the East Village is a tiny stove against a wall. That’s the kitchen. There is no countertop. My “workspace” is a cutting board I put over the sink and I’ve made that work pretty darned well, but this… In no universe was this gonna work. The steak is half the size of the range, and that is barely an exaggeration. And the place is so small, any large cut of cooking meat would deliver a film of fat over everything and impart a eau de seared cow fragrance to every last possession of Yuri’s and mine. What had I done?
My loved one and I left the food emporium worse off than when we came in, for a variety of reasons. The conversation hadn’t covered new ground, both people were hurt, and one person now felt very poor and very foolish. I don’t believe in a magical wizard in the sky who doles out punishments (or rewards) and karma is just one half of a song title by Boy George, but I did feel major cause-effect comeuppance. Being a brat, Fons? Bam! Sixty-dollar steak you can’t cook. You’re welcome.
The story ends okay. Me and my loved one still love each other very much and are fine. And this very night, I’m taking the tomahawk to my sister’s place. I will make this thing (no small feat; I’ve been researching for days how to not ruin it) and we will all enjoy it. It could feed a family of four, easy. I’ve learned the best way to get an even sear on it before you cook it in the oven is to place a foil-covered brick on top of it, after you truss and season it.
I will use the brick I frequently use for smacking my forehead.
*This notion of trying to return a manicure is fascinating. Consider: how awful would it be if you got a manicure and then realized you couldn’t pay for it? No cash, credit card declined. Would you have to sit there while the technician removed the manicure she had just given you?? The shame! The awkwardness! The stained (but nicely filed) nails! To me, this is almost Hitchcockian in its spookiness.