When I was little, and even now, my mom would tell me about the regional specialties of provinces in Vietnam and even other countries. She’s not a traveller, those were places that she has never been to, but she read about them in books and she has the uncanny memory to remember every detail of what she reads and recite it with such enthusiasm and emotion that makes you feel like you’re reading the book yourself. So I never felt the need to travel. (The only thing you can’t really experience from reading is the smell – it’s often the hardest sense to put into words, and any word description is always an understatement of the actual smell.)
Good writers can make you want to travel to the place they describe, taste the food they praise, meet the people they talked to. And then there are the really good writers who pull you into the story. When you read their books, you’re already at that place, eating what they’re eating, listening into their conversation.
When I read “Blue Trout and Black Truffles” by Joseph Wechsberg, I was in Vienna eating Tafelspitz (you have to capitalize the word because it’s German, and did you know that there are 24 different varieties of boiled beef, only one of which is Tafelspitz? [I admire the precision but I’m not convinced of the taste…]), then I was in Prague stuffing down knedlíky (dumplings that contain small cubes of fried bread, dumplings filled with whole plums, cherries, sweet cabbage [?!] or nuts, dumplings made of butter, egg yolk, dry cottage cheese, salted and “almost as light as a soufflé” [!]). I was strolling through the woodlands of Périgord, following a little pig named Mignon in search for black truffles (and almost got convinced that truffle tasted good). Wechsberg, with his gentle, objective humor and a hidden whiff of discerning aloofness, took me from Ostrava before World War I to Budapest in 1946 (when Hungary was still inside the Iron Curtain), then south to Genoa, “where the skies were blue and the people still knew how to laugh” (and made supposedly phenomenal ravioli), then northwest to Paris and Bordeaux and Lyon. I don’t know French and could only silently mumble through the included menus as I read, I’m not even that much into European cuisines, but like an old Roman chapel near L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence, where “even the unbelieving feel the urge to kneel down”, this book makes even the non-drinker feel the urge to hold a champagne flute by the base (and never at the stem!) [I actually can’t picture how that works (-_-‘)].
At 8 am, I finished the last page. I took a shower until 8:45, then went out to lunch with Cheryl at 11. We had soba at Ippuku. I felt like reciting the old Hungarian proverb, “We are poor, but we live well.”
A few favorite tidbits:
- “Prague’s women had great charm and vivacity, but they were rarely slim and long-stemmed. Dumplings were the national indoor amusement; to eat twenty or thirty dumplings at one sitting was considered a feat of virility.” (84)
- “… as they say in Bordeaux, people take on the color of the wine that they ‘work’ and drink. M. Landèche’s face had the reddish color of the grapes of Château Lafite-Rothschild. And M. Henriot’s hue reflected the golden glow of the wines of Château d’Yquem.” (190)
- “[La Tour d’Argent] was an immediate success and always jammed, but there was always a way of getting a table. A cavalier who had neglected to make his reservation would pull up his horse, walk in, challenge one of the guests to a duel, kill him with sword or lance, and take his place.” (227)
- Wild goose with plum sauce at La Tour d’Argent was Cardinal Richelieu’s favorite. (228) [To encourage me to eat, my mom would tell me “The Three Musketeers” story (by Alexandre Dumas) while spoon-feeding me. After that story finished, we continued to (and consequentially finished) its two sequel novels, also by Dumas. Ah the good old days…]
- “You can export all the ingredients, and even the cook, but you cannot seal in a can the shining of the Sun or the blue of the sky and the sea, and pour it into the saucepan.” (127) <– EXACTLY why I would only consider food made by Japanese in Japan truly authentic Japanese food, and likewise with other cuisines.
- “A Balatoni Fogas to Start with” really resonated with me, perhaps because I’m from Vietnam and know first- (and second-) hand the detrimental effects of communism on Culture [yes, capitalized Culture].
- “One Moment in Heaven”, “Afternoon at Château d’Yquem” and “Provence without Garlic” are lovely pieces on wine and France [I think… as if I knew anything about wine…].
A little bit about the author:
Joseph Wechsberg worked as the European correspondent of The New Yorker from 1949 to 1983. He studied Law and Economics in Prague, Vienna and Paris, then he studied violin at the Wiener Konservatorium, played music in Parisian nightclubs and later on cruise ships to New York and the Far East. His well-travelled experience gave him great advantage in becoming a journalist and a writer. “Blue Trout and Black Truffles” is a collection of essays, some of which originally appeared in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, Gourmet, Holiday, and The New Yorker. [I feel incredibly inspired, but that means I need to start traveling and collecting some world(ly) experience soon. (-_-‘)]