The measure of a meal

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Apparently. there are some for whom a meal is at best an imperative, not exactly a take-it or leave-it situation, but neither an event for which there is any particular zeal.  Perhaps they subscribe to that prosaic rendition, “I eat to live, not live to eat“?  I can’t defend the subscription since most people who retail that advertisement are in no threat of gluttony, skinny rascals! You’re more likely to see them jogging in the park than hedging the trough. Their interest in dining simply isn’t there. I am almost persuaded that dining is old fashioned, not what the younger generation considers integral to the social fabric.

If, however, you’re like most people I know, a meal is an occasion, anything from a gathering to a celebration to a bash. Yet in the unfolding of this analysis what intrigues me is not the variety of platforms for a meal but rather what makes a meal a good one. Surely you’ll agree that even discounting the purpose of eating, it still matters how we perform the ceremony and that what we eat is good. Let’s begin by considering the obvious ingredient – the company of those at table, whether family, friends, associates or sometimes quondam strangers. As a social animal I adjudge community an elevation. Beyond that common denominator (and here I confess my preference for dining in the company of others rather than alone), the measure of a meal becomes exceedingly more labyrinthine.

Most recently I have cultivated the axiom that less is more.  I don’t mean mere quantity – though that alone can prejudice the enjoyment of a meal if it surpasses one’s capacity. Instead, I signify the value of moderation in ingredients.  A better description might be discretion or delicacy or refinement. It is astonishing how even a trace of some product or additive can insinuate the entire plate; and, naturally, the preservation of the balance of those elements is critical to avoid being overbearing.  A close second to this maxim is the adage, “The best sauce for any meal is an appetite!”  Like a good sleep, a good meal demands the observation of routine – in these instances, getting up and going to bed regularly or eating at the same times from day to day.  A meal is clearly a visceral habit and it is unavoidably united to our corporeal seasons. Once again I accept that nibbling throughout the day may be a prescription for weight control but it isn’t a scheme directed to the improvement of the culinary experience. If there were anything I might add to the agenda it would be a breath of be fresh air, say a brisk walk or a bicycle ride.

There has been endless debate surrounding the necessity or otherwise of variety in the choice of foods one consumes. I have adopted the preference for variety. Whenever I become absorbed in one diet or another – and I have tried them all – I predict their failure by being overly uniform. The Atkins Diet for example, while temporarily successful, proved to be a tiresome protein dedication and subsequently heralded its own adverse repercussions. I was even drinking bacon fat (an episode which triggered a hasty visit to the Emergency Ward to have my rings cut off my swollen fingers). In any event no diet however initially appealing is sustainable as a vehicle for gastronomic pleasure; rather it becomes a mere duty and at best a ritual, often evangelical or fanatical. As a practical solution it makes sense to maintain an openness to food of any description not only because the disposition accommodates changing availabilities but also because it assures pacification of mercurial urges and cravings. This morning I had a cinnamon bun lathered in warm caramel sauce and topped with chopped pecans!  I mention this as I have no doubt it contributed in no small part to my current euphoria.

I hasten to add in view of this admitted decadence, that this evening’s meal was, by comparison, a study in restraint.  And yet there was no deprivation whatsoever.  Balance, it’s all about balance! To my everlasting credit, I called upon my lessons so painfully won – limitation of quantity (not only the veggies but also the salmon), delicacy of ingredients and variety.  It is sous-entendu that everything was fresh and healthful, not the least of which was the Stilton cheese in the mixed green salad with the vinaigrette simple. In case you care to know, the sweet was sliced pear, blackberries and vanilla whole milk yoghurt.

Far be it from me to distort this thesis by suggesting my eating habits are monochromatic. Yet I qualify my professed catholicism by preserving an indisputable preference for simplicity.  Oysters for example with only fresh-squeezed lemon juice (or maybe fresh horseradish if one must).  Same applies to a baked potato – just lemon juice, forget the butter and sour cream and God knows what other contaminants have been promoted over the years.   Though I won’t exclude poached lobster in beurre blanc. And while my affection for garlic is well-known it is an additive designed to compensate for what is in truth the veneer of tastefulness.  Besides, I hate having to exude second-hand garlic throughout the following day notwithstanding how eagerly I may have devoured the oil drenched Romaine and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

While it is no longer within my province, alcohol is an acknowledged component of fine meals. If I were to adopt that particular vernacular once again, I am as opinionated about booze as about everything else. Over the years I developed customs.  Initially the starter was whiskey and soda, mostly blended whiskey (though I as regularly swooned over Lagavulin).  Privately I adored the cut crystal tumblers, I collected them.  I never pretended to purify my indulgence by insisting upon drinking whiskey neat.  Salted peanuts and green olives make a nice accompaniment. Subsequently, I discovered martinis (first vodka, then gin) and they pretty much spoiled anything else thereafter, by which I mean martinis translated jet fuel into rocket fuel. Crudités worked well with cocktails. For a clear soup (or a cream bisque or chowder) there is nothing I like more than a dry Sherry. As for the main course, sadly perhaps for me, I never acquired the taste for wine. If anything I preferred Champagne but that was an infrequent (though certainly not unknown) resort. In an odd way it no doubt explains my passion for sparkling water instead. By the end of the meal I was more absorbed in the fortified wine whether Porto or Madeira. Cheese of almost any description fits here.  I seldomly stocked a dessert wine but it was a rare treat with Belgium chocolates. And I always insisted upon concluding a fine meal with fresh fruit presented in its original form in order to oblige my guests to perfume their hands with the smell of the rind.