When Grant Achatz, a world-famous chef, temporarily lost his sense of taste, it was tragic. When my friend, a pastry cook who would prefer to remain anonymous, lost his ability to digest dairy, it was a catastrophe of more mundane proportions. For a dessert professional, lactose intolerance is a serious disability. My friend could no longer taste his own ice creams and puddings. Although Achatz has written about how tongue cancer helped him think outside culinary conventions, I do not think my friend has embraced the creative potential of his condition. He lives in a state of begrudging acceptance, avoiding the milk, the cheese, and the pain, psychic or gastrointestinal, of confrontation with his new self.
Thus, I was surprised that my friend asked me to leave out a little detail from my birthday dinner reservation. Eleven Madison Park allows ample opportunity to disclose dietary restrictions: making the reservation, confirming the reservation, and certainly before the meal begins, when the wait staff routinely inquire, “Do you have any allergies or dietary restrictions?” But my friend wanted to eat incognito, without any alterations to the menu. Despite its four stars from the New York Times, Eleven Madison Park changed its menu format this fall. The now mandatory tasting menu focuses on the history of New York. Homages to Jewish cuisine, clambakes, steak tartare, and Central Park picnics contribute to a Broadway-worthy experience. There are creamy corn soups, black and white cookies baked with Parmesan, and runny slices of cheese. Junior’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake and Desserts does not make an appearance, though there is a goat cheese cheesecake with huckleberries. Dairy is unavoidable on the Eleven Madison Park menu, and my friend wanted to spend his summer earnings on the whole show, not a censored copy.
For six months, my friend had not tasted any dairy products. In effect, he had been on an indefinite fast. Like a life-long vegetarian who suddenly wolfs down a bloody burger, or an orthodox Jew who branches out to bacon, my friend had delayed his gratification to the point of sensory over-stimulation. Like a tantric act, the moment of tasting would merge the aesthetic and the bodily in terrifying and transcendental unity. Could he handle even a spoonful of sublime pistachio ice cream without losing his mind (and his bowels)?
In the 18th century, hunger and taste were considered mutually exclusive. During the “Century of Taste,” appetite and discernment were incompatible. Denise Gigante traces the tradition back to Hobbes, who organized man around the stomach, not the mouth. The demands of the body precluded aesthetics. One who took bodily pleasure could not appreciate the beauty of what one consumed.
We inhabit a world of over-saturation, and so aesthetic discrimination should be our default status. The profusion and proliferation of spectacular commodities has neutralized the threat of hunger. Even those forced to live in a state of continuous malnutrition are so inundated with media and flavor-engineered materials that sensory hunger is impossible. Post-industrial capitalism has tested the Hobbesian hypothesis and found it lacking. It is rare that we derive profound pleasure from anything, because we are exhausted. The artificial production of appetite is the only remaining pathway to spiritual experience in our
Before dessert, Eleven Madison Park serves an egg cream, a classic New York confection that calls for syrup, milk, and seltzer. Their current iteration, which uses a vanilla malt syrup, instantly reminded me of a frozen custard I had at Ted Drewes in St. Louis one pre-teen summer. Time’s distance can function like a fast for the soul. We call the sensation nostalgia, but the Romantics would have said Heimweh, or homesickness. I cannot speak to my friend’s experience, which was surely more visceral.
We must pay the consequences for our aesthetic appetites. Throughout the meal, my friend popped four lactase pills, like a grizzled lawyer preparing for his much younger date. Despite his best efforts, later that night my friend felt like he was dying. Yet, we should not consider our punishment as divorced from our pleasure. One need only look at Bernini’s “Saint Teresa” to witness the convergence of agony and ecstasy. Tantric eating requires some measure of self-destruction. Today’s paradox of discernment is that self-denial is equivalent to self-indulgence.
Jason Bell is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. In Defense of Delicious runs alternate Fridays.