Last Saturday at Princeton University’s Prospect House, Mr. Henry was fêted to a dinner in honor of the Art Museum’s 125th anniversary exhibition. The entrée was a “deconstructed beef Wellington” – a slice of filet astride a square of puff pastry accompanied by a bordelaise sauce and several toothsome slices of black truffle. The Duke of Wellington was “but a man.” This was more than a beef Wellington, and less.
It went down easily, not least because right when the Wellington arrived the table chat finally abandoned academic niceties (“Oh, you did your doctorate at Harvard with Cornelius?”) and got down to a heated Hillary vs. Barack slugfest.
To Mr. Henry’s surprise, the graduate students took a dim view of Obama’s popularity among the “young,” a distinction that relegates Mr. Henry to Cro-Magnon status. They insisted on deconstructing Obama’s rhetoric of inclusion until it lay open on the table like flayed game.
Whatever happened to stew, to soup, to edible assemblages honored by tradition and favored by time? Where are the constructions of yesteryear? Why do we feel compelled to deconstruct them today? Can’t we yield to the sure pleasure of a simple enough preparation like beef Wellington, the filet’s aromas and juices neatly captured by its pastry shell?
Or is the real reason for this presumptuousness the practical fact that beef Wellington is difficult to prepare for a room of 120 without drying out the filet?
Do you take more pleasure seeing things in parts? Do you see foods on the plate as images in motion like Nude Descending a Staircase?
Although foods may be cultural constructs, bearers of identity, markers of clan, and applied art, they are also appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Are foods more fetching, more alluring, more seductive, or more artistic when chopped up into elemental components?
Mr. Henry might appreciate a woman’s garments piece by piece, and he would certainly enjoy deconstructing the ensemble, but he appreciates the whole outfit as the higher achievement, the synthesis of beauty concealed and revealed.
A woman robed is more seductive than a woman disrobed because it is the rare woman who feels totally at ease in her skin. Her confidence slumps, and so does her posture. Her defenses take over. She needs that little bit of armor to take her into battle.
And so it is with the deconstructed beef Wellington. The chemistry just isn’t there. The poetry gets lost in the translation.
Where food is concerned, Mr. Henry maintains that deconstruction is something best done with the teeth.