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July 08, 2005

Foie Gras

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I can't resist passing along a couple of passages from an interview with Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin, New York City's legendary French seafood restaurant.

To set things up: Le Bernardin features fish prepared with French technique but often with Asian ingredients. Sample dish: Chinese spiced black bass in a Peking duck bouillon with Maitake and Enoki Mushrooms. The philosophical emphasis of the restaurant, believe it or not, isn't on dazzle or brio. It's on making a wonderful piece of fish the star of plate, and using all other elements to "elevate the fish."

Here's Eric Ripert:

The search is for balance and a harmony of flavors in our cooking. And that, I'm sure, is characteristic of every advanced culture ...

[In Asian cooking] There's a lot of ritual and a great respect for the ingredient, as with the French. Tuna or Kobe beef in Japan are treated like gold, just as a farm-raised chicken in Bresse, France, is cared for like a baby. They're two different cultures, but very similar. Everything has a reason, and rituals help to elevate the product to the next level.

Today there is opposition to serving foie gras. But 30-40 years ago, foie gras was a love story between the goose or duck and the farmer who massaged its throat as he fed it by hand. Of course, at the end of the day, the animal is killed and we eat it. But it was a celebration of life.

Ah, the French: precision and cruelty in the service of voluptuous, near-religious rapture.

Eric Ripert's comments remind me of something: I've often marveled at the way French and Japanese cultures have their similarities. Let me rephrase that, given my actual inexperience of Japan: The appeal French and Japanese cultures have for Americans seems awfully similar, don't they? Both cultures are hierarchical and ritualized, with an infinite number of prescribed ways to do things. Stuffy! Yet both seem to deliver mind-bendingly intense rewards.

It seems key to me that both cultures also seem hyper-aware of the spiritual-erotic-aesthetic dimension. That seems to me the real reason so many Americans have flipped for French art and Japanese art. Neither the French nor the Japanese quarrel over the existence of the aesthetic dimension, or of aesthetic experience. It's always there, available. And, when they want to, they simply enter right into it.

I wonder sometimes: Perhaps what drives some Americans around the bend is our native tendency to ignore, repress, or deny the aesthetic dimension of life. We debate it. We politicize it. We get literal-minded and pretend not to know what's being talked about.

Being a gung-ho, hard-charging people, we sometimes exploit the aesthetic dimension. We often seem to want to use the promise of satisfaction and/or transcendence to spur ourselves on. We often prefer not-quite-attaining satisfaction to the actual experience of satisfaction. We take our legitimate yearnings and channel them into self-help, into new products that promise to solve problems, into hard-driving ad campaigns, into fantasies of stardom, and into crazy beliefs ranging from New Age cults to the conviction that somewhere there's a job that will make me happy. It's as though we're determined to frustrate ourselves. We doom ourselves to not making it to where we say we want to be.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we quarrel so over the aesthetic dimension? It's here with us, always: Why deny it? There must be a reason (or three, or ten) why we enact and re-enact this pattern. What in god's name are we up to?

My theory: We tantalize ourselves with the promise of transcendence in order to goad ourselves to greater heights of achievement. We often seem more terrified of not-achieving than we are of almost anything else -- terrified, I suppose, that, if we were to let our dynamism go and shift gears for even a couple of seconds, some important opportunity would pass us by.

I've eaten at Le Bernardin a grand total of once, by the way. It was an expense-account lunch, and it was a great meal.

I found the q&a with Eric Ripert in Asian Food & Lifestyle magazine.



posted by Michael at July 8, 2005


Don't ever let your inexperience with the country stop you from theorizing!

Awarness of aesthetic side of life by Japanese and their supposed deep understanding and enjoyment of the ritual: especially amusing statement after the informative report on the love hotel in Osaka you linked to in earlier post. (Bullet points: -name of the hotel chain; - red vinyl chair; - prevalent porno fetish; -cartoon mania; - plastic handcuffs. Visuals are better than text)

Well, facts or no facts, "it's nice to have your sterotypes confirmed"(c)

Posted by: Tatyana on July 8, 2005 10:39 PM

Whatever the aesthetic similarities might be, French and Japanese cuisine seem to be on completely different trajectories in the United States. French restaurants may have set the standards for excellence in decades past, and still have a generally exalted reputation, but today are declining in numbers. Just think of all the "Le's" and "La's" that have closed in New York. Japanese restaurants were exotic 30 or even 20 years ago, but now seem to be springing up just about everywhere from mall food courts on up. Sushi and other Japanese food items are becoming almost as familiar as Shrimp Lo Mein and Hunan-Style Beef ... which isn't surprising, as many of America's "Japanese" restaurants actually are owned and staffed by Chinese immigrants.

Posted by: Peter on July 8, 2005 11:13 PM

From what little I've read about both cultures, I've always assumed that Japan had more in common with Great Britain than France.

Posted by: lindenen on July 9, 2005 3:50 AM

* what is more justified (on purely aesthetic level), paying $120 for 1hr 45min. at the said love hotel or same amount (and probably same time spent)at Bernardine for tasting menue? Poll, if you please.

* how many outside Japan would "dig" this aesthetic: "Teddy bears and fake cartoon windows on a concrete box: very Japan"?
Oh, no, I'm afraid the answer is "many, and numbers increasing": same with the po-mo look of housedress over jeans topped with yellowed hat from the 50's - spreading with alarming speed.

Proud to be clueless.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2005 7:56 AM


If you have a car, try out Blue Hill Stone Barns.


Posted by: john massengale on July 9, 2005 8:01 AM

Speaking as just one American I find myself wary of pleasure, aesthetic pleasure included. It's as though when you succumb to pleasure you are letting your guard down. Is this just an individual peculiarity? Or does it say something about the American ethos?

Posted by: ricpic on July 9, 2005 8:59 AM


Are you part of my flock? If not, you should consider us.


Posted by: Benedict on July 9, 2005 11:38 AM

Tatyana -- What could be more fun and self-indulgent than generalizing about cultures you don't actually know? I'd love to visit Japan sometime. But you hear such a variety of thigns about it. Turbokitty, for instance, visited recently, had some neat adventures, but came running back at the end of the trip, very happy to be in America. Another friend spent a week in Tokyo and hated it -- said it was the ugliest city he'd ever been in, quite something when you consider that he's from Detroit. Still, I know French art a bit, and Japanese art a bit. And I know the history of America's infatuations with French and Japanese art (a bit). Fun to think about how and why art (and, as Peter points out, food) from those two cultures sometimes hits many Americans so hard. My hunch is that the art is often beautiful, of course, but that it also throws us into a tizzy. It's often so aesthetically-aware and so tuned into the aesthetic dimension that it seems to bring out our yearnings and feelings of inadequacy. We want so much to have some of that in our lives too, but for whatever reasons it's difficult for us (but we can't help imagining how lovely life would be if only ...) On the other hand, Indian art and -- you tell me -- maybe Russian art are super-tuned-into the aesthetic dimension too, and Americans don't seem to fall for them quite as hard. I wonder why. Maybe because the Japanese and the French tend to play a bit more with the borderline between representation and abstraction? Because they're both very refined but very earthy too? Americans tend to think that what we need is more freedom, more space to go gaga -- and here are the French and the Japanese, very traditional, very hierarchical, with tightly-defined roles, very precise. Anything but "free" in our sense. And yet they seem to get something out of life we have trouble with. Grrrr. And then we go back for more. I remember that recently some brain scientists looked at the brains of some Asians and the brains of some westerners, and it seemed that Asians really do tend to experience the world more holistically than Westerners do -- they're more aware of negative space, the space between things, and how things interrelate, where we tend to hyper-focus on the "things" themselves. I wonder if that's true of all Asians -- maybe, who knows, the Cambodians are less prone in that direction. And maybe the French are more prone to experience things in the negative-space way? More experiments, please.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 9, 2005 12:01 PM

Peter -- It's a great subject. A book could be written about America's love affairs with various cuisines. What was that post-war infatuation with French cuisine really about? Why are we so hyper-aware of Asian foods in recent years? Why have we been slower to take to African or South American cooking? I have a few hunches about what France (and all things French) meant to the US in the '50s and '60s, and I marvel a bit at the way we've so fallen out of love with the Frenchie thing. But I'm stumped where the other questions are concerned. Got any hunches?

Lindsay -- You're probably right where the countries themselves are concerned. I don't know either one, really, and I'm a lousy history buff too. But where Japanese art's concerned, do you see it resembling or paralelling Britsh or French art more? I vote for French myself -- British art seems more reticent about "the aesthetic" than Japanese and French art do. But I could certainly be missing something.

Tatyana -- Hmm, an hour at a love hotel (presumably with a sweetie) or a meal at Le Bernardin, that's a toughie. Can't I vote for "both," and then see if I can get my expense account to pick up the tabs? How do you respond to Japanese pop culture generally? I have no idea what to make of it most of the time, but I certainly enjoy getting my mind boggled by it. "Those weird Japanese," I think, enjoying it all thoroughly.

John -- Always grateful for a food recommendation. But: New Yorkers are allowed to own cars? I didn't know that.

Ricpic -- "It feels like letting your guard down" -- that's a perfect way of putting it. I think a lot of Americans feel that way about it, don't you? They're really, really apprehensive, and then it builds and builds, and it comes to take on proportions that are way out of whack with actual importance. We such a hard time incorporating the aesthetic dimension into life in any-matter-of-fact, straightforward way. I think we tend to mythologize it -- which sets it at a distance and makes it seem huge and unattainable. (Or else, I guess, we pretend it's not there at all.) My theory is that ... Well, I don't know that I have much of a theory about why we do that. Do you? Puritanism? Our love of being go-getting (and hence our apprehensions about letting go)? Our literal-mindedness? Er, maybe it's less value-laden to say, our empirical bent? It can be very strange, our determination to go thru the day without acknowledging (or engaging much with) the aesthetic part of it. What are we holding off on? And how long? Seems to me many people seem to be waiting around until retirement, when they'll move someplace sunny and start enjoying walks on the beach and good seafood. Now that I say that, I realize people in some regions do better with the aesthetic dimension -- Southerners, Texans, many black people, some Californians ... So maybe I'm talking only about middle-class white northerners?

Benedict -- Maybe we're all signed-up already.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 9, 2005 12:38 PM

I often wondered why Americans are so obsessed with "having fun". Now that you explained, it makes sense: having fun, verifiable by wide magazine-cover smiles and loud appreciative noises is much more aggressive than succumbing to pleasure.
Parents of Young Baseball Liguers, demonstratively cheering on the stands. BBQ parties: paper plates strewn everywhere, awful burned charcoal smell, indigestion in the morning. Even Films at the Bryant Park: everyone checking on the neighbor: do you see I'm having fun?

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2005 12:51 PM

For some reason the comparison I have always come accross is that of Germany/Germans and Japan/Japanese. It was not uncommon before WWII even. But as always, comparisons say as much about the objects or ideas compared as about the person seeing the parallels.

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 9, 2005 2:07 PM

After a lot of thought and observing the country, I decided that Americans are incapable of moderation.

On the other hand you're cute and you make good bagels.

Posted by: Tracy W on July 10, 2005 8:50 AM


We tantalize ourselves with the promise of transcendence in order to goad ourselves to greater heights of achievement. We often seem more terrified of not-achieving than we are of almost anything else -- terrified, I suppose, that, if we were to let our dynamism go and shift gears for even a couple of seconds, some important opportunity would pass us by.

I'm a tad confused. You seem to be discussing a dichotomy between ambition and aesthetic enjoyment of life. Are you saying that Americans inaccurately see the world this way, and should wise up, or that it really comes down to choosing ambition or aesthetic enjoyment?

If it's the latter...I think you've got a pretty tough argument to make. Are you saying people should really abjure all forms of ambition--in other words, take up the smallest possible space in the world--in order to savor aesthetic nuance? If it's the former,i.e., the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, how is one to transcend it?

This is an interesting discussion, but I'd like to see it taken beyond the first step of the argument.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 10, 2005 6:46 PM

P.S. Also, is there no ambition in aesthetic pleasure, or vice versa? A highlight of aesthetic appreciation can be had from checking out the Parthenon, but a glance at a history book would quickly reveal that it exists because of the mega-ambitions of Pericles...ambitions that ultimately spelled the downfall of Athens after a decades-long war. I'm not so sure that these issues divide as cleanly as you're portraying them.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 10, 2005 6:52 PM

Why not both? Much as I'd like us all to be tribal aesthete-potheads, I appreciate fresh food and hot running water as much as anyone else. And bless lots of hard work for all that. But Americans -- many, anyway -- do seem to have a remarkably hard time letting go of the stress and the push at the end of the day (or week, or season), don't they? As Tatyana points out, we even seem to insist on doing "fun" strenuously. And when we do, our version of leisure tends to run along the lines of "crashing in the easy chair with a bag of chips in our hands." My guess about this is that leisure equals sin for us, but I could be unfairly generalizing here ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 11, 2005 1:57 AM

Well, I let my guard down enough to laugh appreciatively at MB's last posting. "Tribal aesthete-potheads" is a great phrase.

I think "pleasure" and "aesthetic pleasure" are getting mixed up maybe a little. Pericles may very well have found great pleasure in building a monster stadium and conquering, um, whomever he conquered. That's form of pleasure. I recently had dinner with an old friend who seems to get great "pleasure" from being a partner in a law firm and a big fish in a small pond and owning a great big house.

"Aesthetic pleasure"---letting one's guard down, getting carried away, relaxing in a mind and body zone that is different---does seem harder for Americans, or maybe just less "valued." There IS a sense among some people that that is a waste of time, not hard-charging enough, not "successful."

Personally, I've reached a point where I value it highly, and live for it. Don't always know what's going to do it for me, though. Sometimes an art museum seems like the most chlaustrophobic place in the world to me. They really should find a better way to display art. Being intimidated, and having to whisper, doesn't seem like a way to get Americans to discover the fun of artworks.

Posted by: annette on July 11, 2005 10:41 AM

Hey, if anybody's forming a tribe of aesthete potheads, I want in!

How 'come nobody ever tells me about these things?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 12, 2005 1:27 PM

One detail regarding the impact of Japanese art in France: When I visited Claude Monet's digs at Giverny a few years ago, it struck me that most or all of the art hung on the walls of his house consisted of Japanese prints. They were in room after room.

I'm not much of a fan of Monet's later work and haven't read much about him, so I don't know how much indluence those prints had on what he painted. At at glance, I'd say little or none -- but I could well be wrong. Whistler's work shows some influence from Japan in the form of his placement of the horizon.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 12, 2005 7:47 PM

Mr. Pittenger:

Japanese art had a tremendous impact on the New French Painting of the 1860s and 1870s. Whole books could be written on the subject (and have been.) The entire development of a flattened, less tonally modelled pictoral space and a brighter, higher-key color palette were quite direct results of the French enthusiasm for Japonaiserie. Japanese pictorial ideas were of tremendous formal significance for the art of Manet, the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists, Art Nouveau and the Fauves (including Matisse).

Interestingly, a drinking club of New Painters (including Manet)that was active during the 1860s, ostensibly formed to celebrate Japanese aesthetics, was also a covert center of Republican ideology. (It had to be covert because at the time, France was ruled quasi-monarchially, by Napoleon III.) The association of New Painting with the Republican movement and the association of official "Salon" painting with the authoritarian politics of Napoleon III's Second Empire--both of which occurred at this time, has also been of great significance for art history. I believe these essentially political associations lie at the heart of the effective repression of Salon Painting by art historians of the past century. (After all, Salon painting was the overwhelmingly dominant pictorial mode of art in France well into the 20th century, despite what histories of Modern Art would have you believe.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 12, 2005 11:16 PM

Great post. One big difference between French and Japanese culture, though, is that France is a much more individualistic culture. In general European nations are far more individualistic than Japan, but France perhaps especially so.

Americans distrust the aesthetic because of our religious "puritanical" moralism. Beauty and pleasure are almost by their natures amoral, but we are forever trying to press them into the service of some form of moral improvement.

Interesting too that the British, the European people most similar to the U.S., also dislike the French so much. There is a suspicion of French culture as somehow "effeminate" -- I think one must add the curiously inexpressive and emotion-repressing code of Anglo-American masculinity to the reasons why France is disliked. France is a more Mediterranean and expressive country (although it's every bit as macho, just in a totally different way).

Posted by: MQ on July 13, 2005 1:01 PM

Frank Lloyd Wright was also very influenced by Japanese art...
but MB, I don't think Americans are unwilling to admit to or indulge their sense of the aesthetic--the "Van Gogh in Arles" 1984 show at the Met broke visitors' records as the most visited show ever. The accompanying PBS film (made by a friend of mine) broke audience viewing records. All of those people could have chosen to go to a ball game instead, but didn't. And I don't think it was because of van Gogh's mental problems (most of NYC spends weekly time at the shrink).

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 13, 2005 2:38 PM

(After all, Salon painting was the overwhelmingly dominant pictorial mode of art in France well into the 20th century, despite what histories of Modern Art would have you believe.)
Which is why you really have to get to NYC and the Dahesh Museum, Friedrich!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 14, 2005 11:59 PM

Alan Watts once pointed out that the "materialists" he knew weren't materialist at all. They were ever caught up in ideation and hence paid little attention to the material world around them. The average monk, in the West or East, had much more appreciation for the material world.

Posted by: Reg Csar on July 15, 2005 1:08 AM

No wonder, then that Madonna the "material girl" is so into yoga and Kabbalah.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 15, 2005 4:01 AM

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