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March 1, 2008


Filed under: Philosophy — Mr. Henry @ 11:10 am


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.wellington.jpg

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?


Is this “concept entrée” all a caterer’s ruse to make things less likely to screw up in the kitchen?duchampnude-descendng-a-staircase.jpg

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.joan_of_arc_miniature_c1450_1500.jpg

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.


  1. Mr. Henry, I am in your corner. While deconstructing a traditional dish may have the advantage of allowing those who don’t cook to finally know what they have been eating all their lives, it does nothing for the food. If apple pie became a pile of apple slices sitting in a pool of spiced, thickened apple juice and topped by a disk of crisp pastry, no one would go to war to defend it… whoops. Maybe there is a purpose to deconstruction!

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — March 2, 2008 @ 7:42 am

  2. Indeed, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts whether you are talking about a dish such as Beef Wellington or a candidate as in Barack Obama. Princeton grad students might want to dissect the position statements of the candidates and judge the candidacy from that perspective but we know that a laundry list of positions doesn’t make a president and a plate of food is far more than a list of contiguously placed ingredients.

    Comment by Pancake Flipper — March 2, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  3. Hear, hear, Mr. Henry!

    Beef is lovely. A good sauce is a grand thing. Delicate pastry is a delight. But the true flavor and exquisite magic of Beef Wellington cannot be replicated by taking the pieces and serving them individually. Knowing what goes into it is an excellent thing, but they are at their best when completely constructed.

    Beef Wellington in bits and pieces makes me think sadly of the solo careers of The Beatles. Together, those four men had a quality that none had on his own. That’s why Revolver, Rubber Soul and the White Album all have spaces on my rack, but there’s no copy of Ram or Give My Regards to Broad Street.

    Sometimes things – and even people – need to be combined before their full potential is realized.

    Comment by Twistie — March 3, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  4. Mr. Henry can hardly believe the richness of these comments, and he hopes that when blended, they will make a delight for the reader more sumptuous than his post might make on its own.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — March 3, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  5. Mr. Henry is apt to need size 38 jeans if he wallows too much in fatty prose…

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — March 6, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  6. Fat is glorious, particularly when it’s in the right places. It’s treacly sweets that do you in.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — March 6, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  7. Mr. Henry, sometimes I think I should just turn over the writing of my blog to you. Either that, or invite you and Mrs. Henry to dinner (a very Baltimore evening of crab cakes and The Wire, of course). This is just one of many times you’ve written a post that’s so similar to something I’ve written or thought (my post on cubism – from last December – is here and one on pointilism is here).

    My posts are cursory at best, and you and your commenters do the subject more justice…but what a relief it is for me to know that I’m not alone in the way I think!

    Comment by kitpollard — March 7, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  8. Very nice posts, Kit, in particular the one on pointilism.

    Though Mr. Henry likes to grouse about the travesties of deconstruction, he would love to be able to enjoy daily the kinds of truly inspired deconstructions invented by Thomas Keller, ones that recombine traditional ingredients to achieve new delights both for the eye and for the palate.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — March 8, 2008 @ 11:21 am

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