Monday, November 20, 2006

Eat to the Beat of the Bounce

Maybe you don’t do this, but I do—-open an old document as a way to fling Word open. Of course that gives me a chance to read myself, a kind of mirror-glimpsing that isn’t always flattering (how long has my prose been this fat?). But somehow it seemed more than fitting that as I prepared to write this entry, I found this paragraph from back in the days when I wrote a book column:

Finally, to end on a Larry King-ian note, pitchers and catchers have reported, Spring Training has sprung, and the only baseball book you need is Baseball Prospectus 2001 (Brassey’s), full of stats, sure, but also lines like this one about the just-retired Will Clark: “I’ll take ‘Rednecks Who Can Flat Out Hit’ for $200, Alex.” Now that I’m in Jeopardy!, I’ll see you next time, if my nose isn’t in a book.

For now it’s time for me to prove that my limitations are the sincerest from of flattery, and they’ll go a long way to show how terrific Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! is. It’s a book by Bob Harris, who you might know from his blog or his posts at This Modern World. It’s of course about Jeopardy!--Harris is not only a five-day champ (remember when that meant something?) and a recurring Tournament of Champions figure--but also about JEOPARDY, as in, what do I do with my life and how do I be very very nice to the people I meet, even when they get sick and die? Harris’ book gets to tell almost too many tales, so it leaves you with more plot lines than losing contestants end up with Mrs. Butterworth bottles, but I get ahead of myself, in a way Harris does, too, sometimes, only to pull you right back into another moment that leaves you laughing or crying. You won’t look away.

Of course part of my admiration of the book is that it’s exactly what I wish I could pull off, a work that makes everything seem connected, coincidental, neat as a perfectly blended whisky or a Dickens’ plot or that oh-so-cute constellation of freckles on your lover’s cheek. Even its index (of course a book about connections has an index) is full of skewed views: for instance, you can zoom right into Howards End either as “re-imagined as thirty-foot buttocks” or as an “actual end of a real guy named Howard.” Yes, Harris worked in stand-up comedy for years.

It’s also fascinating that Harris finally feels he has to see the actual sites that were merely clues or responses during his games. I have to admire someone who can travel the wilds of the world to see blue fairy penguins barf, among other things, when it’s enough for Amy and me to drive the 2 hours up to Paso Robles and take a food and wine tour on the patio at Tablas Creek Vineyard. That’s what we managed a couple Sundays ago, and therefore enjoyed September in Tuscany, October in Spain, and November in Burgundy and the French Alps in about three lip-smackingly delicious hours.

After all, just as mortadella isn’t just bologna, food is never just food. Proust knew that with his madeleines, so now we always think of madeleines and memory. The one time I had the good fortune to be in Tuscany it was August, not September, and much of the rest of Italy was on vacation somewhere else, so much so that places like Florence’s Vivoli, acclaimed as gelato heaven (if that’s not redundant), were shuttered up tight--we couldn’t even tell where they were supposed to be. But last Sunday in Paso was clearly where we were supposed to be, enjoying perfect salumi beautiful on the tongue both in taste and speech--sopressata, coppa, bresaola. The later--vividly air-cured, flavor-condensed slices of beef--even explains why someone attempted beef jerky, and why jerky should be considered even more of an abomination. As for sopressata, at least the one made by Armandino Batali (yes, Mario’s dad), it redefines the glories of pork fat, a salami in which you can feel each glorious fat cell pop as if your mouth were full of bubble-pak. And with this we had perfectly grilled artichokes and fresh mozzarella and pecorino stagionato and three wines, each wonderfully odd--a Grenache Blanc, a Counoise (it’s not just for blending anymore), and a Mourvedre.

This was just round 1.

In many ways I approach food in the way that Bob Harris crammed knowledge studying for Jeopardy! I might not have notebooks, but I have books, like Max McCalman’s Cheese: A Connoisseurs Guide, and I love reading up, learning things like “Monte Enebro’s creator, Señor Baez, is considered a Spanish cheese hero, and his creation is considered one of the nation’s premier alimentary artifacts.” Not only does “alimentary artifacts” sound like a Jeopardy! category, but Monte Enebro is Spain at its best, at least in Paso Robles a few week’s ago, a chalky-creamy goat cheese with a tart rind, one of those taste yin-yangs that sings its own duet of deliciousness.

That cheese was the star in its Spanish constellation, including marinated olives and marcona almonds redolent of rich olive oil and sparked with cinnamon and cumin, Serrano reserve ham, about which I had no reservations, preserved sweet red peppers and caper berries, manchego artequeso (not sure what artequeso means, but I’d translate it as “saves the cheese from its Trader Joe’s over-familiarity”). This round also features the first spot-on wine-food pairing (not that the Rosé or Cotes de Tablas are anything to spit-bucket), as Tablas Creek offers its Vermentino, a grape from Corsica that is steely dry for a white and marries perfectly with boquerones, an anchovy even J. Geils would love (now that’s trivial pursuit for you).

Of course, Prisoner of Trebikstan will help you with that pursuit, as it’s partially a how-to, not just for Jeopardy-hopefuls, but also for anyone wanting to remember anything. Harris comes up with clever ways to remind you of that “m” on mnemonic, often in giggly-dirty ways, but off-color jokes are the easiest to remember. (Quick, whose end did we kid about in the paragraphs above? See?) But Harris’s book refuses to admit anything is trivial—-just wait and see what trouble forgetting nonsense gets him into. For Harris writes early in the book, “I hope you’ll be willing to free associate and think silly things and zigzag off the path sometimes while we’re at it. [ed. note: how could I not like this book?] After all, daydreaming and making ourselves laugh with silly ideas is how we figure out which memories we want in the first place.”

Or you could just eat yourself silly, as we did at Tablas Creek. Round 3 of food actually worked as three rounds itself, much more than the previous mix and match. This time each dish had its corresponding wine. Each dish also climbed a ladder of luxe and lusciousness, a culinary can you top this. We started at ground level with the humble potato, although these were heirloom and fresh dug so the starches hadn’t seemed to settle—-their near-fruitiness made one realize why the French call potatoes pomme de terre (apple of the land). Of course, you melt raclette cheese over the land itself it might taste yummy, especially with just enough mustard for spice and cornichons tasty as they are cute. This course went brilliantly with the Tablas Creek Bergeron, their early-harvested Rousanne, so a bit less deep, a bit more tangily citrusy than what they make from a later harvest. Indeed, some of the wine went into the recipe (a sneaky way to pair wines and food, btw).

Next up was a confit of duck rillettes. More or less duck hash, this was like cooking duck lovely, than shredding it with forks. If you know about the more traditional pork rillettes, this lacks the fat preparation, or at least the fat presentation—-it appears to be just duck in its little bowl. You eat it with cherry preserves and say thank you. It pairs well with Esprit de Beaucastel, the Tablas Creek red blend that is so much like a Chateauneuf du Papes that it shares the name of one of that French region’s best houses (the one that co-founded Tablas Creek with the Haas family in California).

But the afternoon ended with a perfection that was enough to quiet any animal rights qualms. Chef Jeffrey Scott is evidently famed for his moulard duck foie gras “au torchon,” which truly was a coup (beware of sneaky French film allusion—-this is still a Bob Harris review, too, and I’d be remiss to leave you without trails to track). I’ve never had a flavor melt in my mouth like this, and Amy and I were in, and ate much in, Provence last year. That’s one of foie gras’s great attractions: how can anything this flavor-full change states in one’s mouth, seconds from substance to essence? There’s no fruity preparation here (although the foie gras is made with some cognac, so that’s lingering, too), just toasted brioche and truffle scented fleur de sel. And the perfect wine, short of a Chateau Y’Quem (it wasn’t that good a day or I’d be dead), the Tablas Creek white vin de paille (wine of straw) that’s unctuous gorgeousness while surprisingly low in alcohol for its heft of palate.

All of this comes together on a patio in Paso Robles. The seasons of Europe, the foods of Italy, Spain, and France. Me, a guy born in Paterson, NJ, I’m there somehow after Maryland and Iowa and Pennsylvania. Amy, a woman born in Poughkeepsie, NY, she’s there somehow after Colorado and North Carolina and living behind the Orange Curtain before it was a hip TV show. Knowing the answer is a question we best ask together, we have decided to stare jeopardy down as a couple. It seems not just everything that rises must converge, but everything rising or not must converge: stories, and true stories, and more reviews of books and food. Harris describes, in somewhat reverential tones, the Forest Bounce, a Jeopardy! tactic invented by legendary player Chuck Forest. Forest refused to run a category in the usual straight column, instead bouncing from clue to clue across the board. But as Harris’ book proves, the straight line is a myth, so we might as well jump. Who knows what awaits, what answer we might never have asked, what food we might never have tasted, what love we might never have savored?


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