Essential Ingredients


I knew a man, a natural storyteller of considerable girth, who could describe his wife’s rhubarb-custard pie in such voluptuous detail that he would have his rapt audience nearly begging for an invitation to dinner — or at least a leftover wedge of the silky confection.

Say all you want about the cult of personality, youth, and self-branding, food and good conversation are what keep them coming back for more. Read a travel magazine, and in addition to culture and beaches, it’s the destination’s restaurants we want to know about.

I’m reminded of a Detroit newspaper reporter who, upon learning he would be flying to Italy to cover the election of a new pope, began rifling through the clutter on his desk. Asked what he was looking for, he replied without glancing up: “My restaurant list for Rome.”

New foods follow us home from our travels like souvenirs, where the newly discovered tastes join the table with Grandma’s biscuits. Tempering those pleasures are advisories for avoiding this or that if you want to live long enough to explore another city and find more tastes to savor.

Sugar is now being labeled a toxin, lumped in with the likes of nicotine, which I guess lumps me in with the Marlboro Man for having had a small dish of ice cream last night. Still, I applaud New York Mayor Bloomberg’s desire to curtail super-sized soda. Good thing for us: The sweet life is about more than sugar (and corn syrup). For starters, there’s the conversation that goes with dining. There’s a reason why good talkers get invited to dinner. Conversation is at least as important as what’s on the menu.

On Public Radio’s The Dinner Party, a recent interviewee said he hates to be asked at parties if he has any hobbies. Me, I don’t like questions that are obvious attempts to categorize. Worst of all are people who don’t talk. What’s that about? In some instances, silence takes the form of dominance as the talkers in the crowd rally to draw the recalcitrant guest out to see who wins the honor of a prized response. Better to eat tuna casserole in a warm setting than dine on exotic cuisine with an iceberg.

The sweet life, sugar consumption or not, is about the pleasure of place — as in physical location, not an IP (Internet Protocol) address. During last month’s Diamond Jubilee celebration for Queen Elizabeth II in London, commentators wondered how commoners might respond to the all-out display of pomp. One Royal watcher replied that the celebration could be marked just as easily with a simple picnic on a blanket, which costs little. No, it wasn’t a “let-them-eat-cake moment,” rather, it was a recognition of the pleasures of enjoying our own small slice of the pie.

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