Looking in the mirror, I see myself as a modern mixture of common man and dandy. These days, who isn’t? Divorced from our primal functions, we stray from our better natures to develop all sorts of bizarre fetishes, anxieties, and idiosyncrasies. This is brutally evident in our eating habits: molecular gastronomy, fusion, the many forms of haute cuisine.
On an artistic level, I can appreciate this refined celebration of modern life. À Rebours is one of my favorite books. But as a lived tradition and as a world view, the idea that simulation bests raw experience is incredibly tiresome. I would take a flopping fish, freshly plucked from the ocean over any fine emulsion of herb, light oil, and compressed air. The irony is that most of my experience has been in the very camp which I despise. Over the years, I have participated in far too many celebrated tasting menus. On the other hand, I’ve never farmed, I’ve never hunted, not even gathered. And so while I have always been able to support my claims of being fashionable, I never have been considered particularly useful.
There are certain survival instincts which, as a form of leisure, I find appealing. An old Italian man once told me that when he was growing up in South Philadelphia, his uncle would go out into the woods after a storm and come home with bags full of mushrooms. They’d throw them into a pot with a penny, he said, to make sure that they were edible. Soon thereafter, the feast would commence. That the familial mushroom hunt has disappeared is a painful metaphor for the lost ways and values of our ancestors. I am unusually sensitive to the discontinuity between the generations–my own random mindset, but back to mushrooms.
Like any noble pursuit, it contains an element of danger. Each year, many people eat the wrong kind and die. It is bullfighting of the mind, where incredible stakes are waged against our own stupidity. Of course there are ramps and young ferns–soft vices, which are more like accidental gardening. The mushroom is for a man who appreciates the mouthwatering taste of peril.
So after a long and unseasonal week of rain, I pulled on the waxed cotton and strolled into the wilderness. It turned out to be a golf course, but I pressed on ahead, into something resembling forest. What followed was my own private misfortune, a collection of mosquito attacks, rude puddles, and wood rot pratfalls. Here was Don Quixote again, prodding through dead leaves with a stick, dressed to the nines. Where were the abundant white truffles? When I returned to civilization, my apartment on the north side, I made myself a simple sandwich and in the words of the old Zen koan, “how sweet it tasted.”
I shall one day taste of the morel, taste of the chanterelle, and the black trumpet will be sounded. At the very least, I returned to world of men with the remembrance of hunger as the foundation of raw culinary experience, which, after all, is something.