Soil to Soul

6 June 2017

Sj train to copenhagen

 

 

Soil to Soul

For Peter Haldorf

 

…Food is the language of life. And, for me, bread its alphabet…

What is Nordic? Behind the curtain of rhetoric and topography there germinates a sincerity. The respect, the patience—what Americans call a kernel of truth has here grown into a melon. Scandis are the first Buddhists—they eschew a pure cohabitation with nature and hence each other. Notice how, with balanced conviction, peaceful and profound are those who respect earth before themselves. This reverence is a yardstick which measures the rest of our lives. Because, even if we don’t camp on weekends or walk barefoot in the park, we must acknowledge that indeed earth is our first mother. We spring from the soil, in all depths of that word, and that soil is the womb of life. We are born from food and we consume food like no other substance throughout our lives. Food is the most sacred and most democratic transaction between life and living. Martin Luther, in his Reformation, wanted each of us to be our own priest. Through food, each body is a church.

 

interlude…Living is an indulgence into the substance of nature. And nature has many roots, many tributaries. We all swim through the indulgence—some in minutes, some in glaciers—and we all explore the vagaries. We take a nature—money, religion, art, education, business—and through it we refract the light of our lives. We choose that medium, in other words, to make sense of who we are and who we are not. But it all goes back to the ambition of desire—what do we need to know. We know as much as we need to, the old wisdom says, but never enough to want what we don’t need. Often, we treat ourselves the way our parents treated themselves. And if we get beyond the guilt of the flesh, we can redeem the soul of the soil. In it, down there, we’ll find the security we spend our lives negotiating…

 

They don’t know it, but Scandis are fatalistic. And that to me is their purity. The cold euphoria. They’ve graduated and it’s all behind them—not somewhere, but there, where they left it. There are no wounds or sores of history. They and their food, so long as I heard about it, spent recent years wishing they were somewhere and someone else. Pizza, calamari, hamburgers—the exotic and absurd food rivaled the ironic suntans and Mediterranean lifestyle they fetishized. (So, when Mathias Dahlgren makes a pizza with two year old fennel, farmers cheese, chervil, pine—this is the consummation. This is the maturity, the acceptance, the embrace of who they are where they are. Start where you’re at.) Europe looks to America for content. America looks to Europe for form. And somewhere in-between is Scandinavia. Lugubrious and quietly pregnant with the humble poetry of its cuisine.

 

The beauty and grace of Nordic food is its confidence. Like most cuisines, its contemporary technique is French. But its finesse lies in the embrace of itself. In other words, self-esteem. Scandinavia is an acoustic envelope—a region and way of life distinct. Held within the ink of its myths. The dialogue of life is assimilation—we inhale 2000 particles and choose only to exhale four. We take what we need and leave the rest. This is living. This is love, maybe. It is also food. Nordic food, in its own essence, is something that goes to nature first and last—from the soil to the soul. It doesn’t blemish or bruise or foam or sauce. It allows ingredients to speak for themselves. It lets ingredients, not chefs, tell the story: chefs are the griots.

 

 

I find myself with a curious compass, in love with two obedient mistresses. Louisiana and Sweden. There is solidarity to their natures. Sweden, Louisiana. Both landscapes roil with seduction. Each landscape is a valentine from God. Both are drenched in compassion. Both are courageous crucibles. Both are as vulnerable as the people who live within them. The fury, the leviathan, ecstasy, between soil and soul here, or there. They are not jealous landscapes, like California. Not anemic and religious like Arizona, or Morocco. Not secular like Gibraltar. Nor reluctant like Quebec. Geography is destiny. Landscape is fate. The landscape we inhabit is a mirror into our souls. Does it have seasons or parking lots? Does it have forests or interstates? Does we live with it or on top of it? I’ve found myself, for my entire adult life, in the Mississippi Delta. And this wet land has always been a splinter in my soul.

 

Artists like Picasso and O’Keefe were purely modern artists. They were making images with pure form, pure lines, pure color, and pure technique derived directly from nature. Appropriated, harvested, reduced, deveined, milled, and cooked into art. Just as countless Scandinavian restaurants are doing with Scandinavian ingredients (Skaer Toft Mill; Sebastien Boudet; Faviken; Ralae; NOMA; Restaurant Volt; Tradgard Rosendals; Aurora Mill; Agrikultur; etc.) These people aren’t quite chefs, they’re modern cooks in a very retro métier. They are, in a sense, farmers not in the field, but in the kitchen. They work deep in the soil of cuisine, with the seeds given, and they make the most of the geography, its irrigation.

 

I think now, in Scandinavia like nowhere else, food is in the midst of Cubism. Cezanne’s pure form, where the pixels were reduced and dissected to their molecular clarity. Fat, salt, sweet, pickling—ingredients uninterrupted and very sexual. (The root cellar, that womb in the earth where last year’s harvest is fermented until the garden is pregnant again.) The rest of Europe, and America, are in the midst of Impressionism. We’re taking fleeting frames of what’s happening immediately. We’re consuming rather than creating, we’re telling rather than listening. American cuisine now is very journalistic, observational: it gives only what it can take. It has achieved flavors as a protagonist, but it cannot secure them. As Prospero reminds in The Tempest, “The rarer action is / In virtue than in / vengeance…” Good food is compassion, restraint: it’s all the philosophical molecules of virtue.

 

Soil to soul stands for the basic principle of physics. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it is merely transferred. Ingredients too are neither created nor destroyed, in the best kitchens. They are merely transferred from the soil to the soul. And I hope, one day soon, that one of these chefs will poach Newton’s apple, or maybe mill it into flour. Better yet, they’ll serve it raw.

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