Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Knives from the Sea and the Problem of "Fish-Goat"

Spring time has finally arrived in Paris, and the "couteaux" (knives) from the sea, a common treat that I associate with summers in Spain with my family, have begun to appear on the fish markets. Called "navajas" in Spanish (meaning razor blades), they are a species of shellfish whose taste I consider vastly superior to not only mussels but also many different kinds of clams.

These were purchased on rue Mouffetard this morning, and the fishmonger told me that they can be eaten raw, to my surprise. I went home and prepared them the Mediterranean way: heat up olive oil in a pan with a few pieces of garlic; when the garlic begins to dance, throw the "knives" into the pan and "stir-fry" until the slim "boxes" begin to open; remove from fire as soon as they lose their modesty and display their flesh. The rest is simple: parsley, lemon juice, and the delicious sauce produced in the pan, which should not be lost.

In Chinese, the character "鮮" (pronounced "xien") refers to a kind of taste that comes with extremely fresh and flavorful food, and it can be applied to both vegetables, fruits, seafood as well as meat. However, this two-part ideogram is essentially made up of the part “魚" (fish) and "羊" (goat, sheep), intriguingly bringing together two kinds of meat known for their distinct animal smell. Both are earthly delights that cannot be neutral: they are the coquettes in the world of food. The "couteaux" tasted exactly like this: tender, juicy, fragrant and moist like the summer wind of the Mediterranean. In fact, they do not even have to be salted, since they were evenly marinated during their short lifetime in that mysterious uterus from which all organic life comes: a bath of salt water, seasoned with alga.

God is good, one might say, yet the Buddhist monks knew exactly that this is the kind of taste that keeps the most well-intentioned from receiving enlightenment. Anything that tastes too "xien" provokes desire, and desire is always modeled on the carnal kind. In my very limited philosophical knowledge, only in ancient Greek philosophy and Christian theology is this negative view of desire modified - vis-à-vis the concept of love. Love is the desire of something for its own sake - a brilliant solution to a biological necessity that brings as much joy as it does suffering. Nevertheless, the great philosophy of the East understood the moral problem presented by tasty foods. In the austere form of Buddhist diet, not only meat and fish are to be avoided, garlic, onions and leeks are considered taboo - because they make food taste good, or "xien." I doubt the Christian monks thought differently: is not the holiest food simple bread, perhaps with a little of soup? Even the fun foods and beverages invented in the monasteries, such as biscuits and beers, tend to taste wholesome and pure like the earth. The mild intoxication that one experiences after having a few too many beers is still less dangerous than the kind of para-erotic "fish-goat" taste that one gets from shellfish, foie gras, and blood-based foods such as boudin noir (France) and morcilla (Spain and Portugal).

I enjoyed eating the knives of the sea this afternoon, but I soon will need the psychic-physiological tranquility that only rice, potatoes and vegetables can bring. The Lord put an infinite number of tempting fruits on this planet (the French call seafood "fruits de mer" with good reasons), and fruits always put us in debt to the world for the reason that we pick them and consume them without too much labor. Hence the Original Sin in Hebraic-Christianity is conceptualized in terms of picking a forbidden fruit in the garden of the Lord. Other things, however, remind us of the necessity of our labor, of our obligation to give ourselves to the world whose existence precedes ours. These things are cereal-based and usually taste plain, heavy and sometimes even dry: in short, they taste like quotidian life in its simplicity and dignity. Rice, couscous, pasta, bread, tofu - these things give us back our existence as earthly and mortal beings, who have better mind our own business on earth before plunging into the oceanic Eden to plunder the edible pearls sown by the pagan gods.


gale said...

Thanks Jouce - a good post.

I love the idea of fish-goat quality. Even though it's a descriptor of freshness, do you think it might be related to umami - the Japanese name for the fifth taste (in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter?) I still think it's very interesting that Europeans had no name for this fifth taste. Or perhaps they had less of a need to make it distinct - maybe it is taken as something superior to or combining of the other tastes.

When I read your post, I also thought of the tables of Louis XIV and the other royals of the medieval and early modern period - their tables decorated with swans and who knows what other things. What does it mean to live a life of indulgence if these things become everyday food? Can couteaux and other things be appreciated without nights of bread and soup or plain pasta?

gale said...

Sorry - that would be "Joyce." Can't go back and fix comments.