We eat that fish, and the fish is delicious. Then she discusses the fish with the chef, its preparation, its presentation. We are at a Michelin one star restaurant in Quimper, Brittany. It was the sea bass or dace, flesh soft and delicate. She praises the chef for his insight, presenting this fish of delicate flesh on a complementary bed of crisp romaine and frisée. The greens support and contrast the soft white flesh. She compliments him for the discrete touches of herbs and butter. She is Martha Rose Shulman, a young woman but an already legendary cookbook author of The Vegetarian Feast, a groundbreaking gourmet vegetarian cookbook. She subsequently authors many other popular cookbooks, mostly vegetarian. She wrote The Vegetarian Feast when she lived in Austin, Texas. She moved to Paris then and sublet the apartment of Paolo Picasso, Pablo’s son. She supports herself as a food writer, and by making a popular dinner once a week for a small crowd, as a rent party. The walls are heavy with signed Picasso posters. She has befriended my son, Nikolai, who works off the books for Andrée Putman, the trend-setting designer. I am teaching on exchange in the Languedoc, at the University in Montpellier, and take frequent TGV jaunts to Paris.
Ms. Shulman has a hankering to investigate the cuisine of oats in Celtic Bretagne. She invites me to come with her in her sturdy, comfortable Peugeot 403. It’s a privilege to do a food trip anywhere in France, and with a well known food writer it’s doubly rich. We head out for Brittany. I note that Jack Kerouac’s family comes from Brittany, “Ker” meaning the farm or land and “ouac” being the designation of the landholder or farmer—Ker’ouac. This, I realize, is similar to Welsh Celtic designations, like Caer’philly, the provenance of my favorite Welsh cheese.
Our first stop is in Tours on the way North. Martha’s fifteen year old nephew has been exported to France to spend the year of his potential delinquency with a French family in Tours. They are generous and hospitable. The kid seems nicely tamed. He is into bike racing in a big way. They put us up for a night so we can see him compete in one of the many junior bike races staged all over France. We drive to some point on the route and watch him wheel by in the pack. It is a thrilling few seconds. Equally thrilling is the breakfast conversation. The master of the house is a psychiatrist. On the door of his office he flaunts a poster, a portrait of Freud assembled from drawings of nude female bodies deftly drawn so their pubic bushes serve as Freud’s beard and coif. The talk over an American style breakfast of bacon and eggs is about life in France since World War Two. The psychiatrist whines about the situation. “I don’t know what has happened. It’s all the Russians have moved in. The Poles, the Jews, the Africans.” He must know that the boy comes from a Jewish family, as do Martha and myself. The boy tells us about going with this family to a beach in Normandy, renting a cabaña, setting out blankets, umbrella, but after looking around the shrink’s mother said, “We can’t stay here, Marcel.” “Why, mamma?” The shrink was slightly annoyed. “Look around. There are Jews on this beach.” Anti-Semitism is a strange affliction. How did she know? Could she smell the lack of foreskins? She couldn’t have been looking at noses. The French themselves are celebrated for their prominent noses. Cyrano de Bergerac is the world’s greatest play featuring the nose. Luckily the boy had enough equanimity to let these moments wash off him.
We first went to Normandy, to see Mt. St. Michel, which like much beauty is best viewed in the middle distance, reflected in the tidal flat. From this distance it is all serenity. It sits across the skim of water like a gothic apparition, as if its beauty unscathed has settled there from a more perfect, more gorgeous planet. Then you get close and are assaulted by the souvenir stands with their models of the abbey in all sizes, banners that you would take to a football game, t-shirts, postcards, posters. The tschottske buying pressure is on, so many merchants trying to survive out there in the tidal flat, pressuring the tourist to buy a thing that he can throw into the closet and whip out for the next yard sale.
Martha inquires wherever we stop about the preparation of oats, and it seems wherever we stop we are in the presence of megaliths, of menhir, of dolmen tombs, stones placed on the land with mysterious intention. These echoes of the Stone Age have a mystifying hold on me. Maybe I’m a stone age guy. I stand awash in the pearly light of Bretagne, in the midst of lines of these thousands of great stones that once in prehistory were hauled here from far away. They have been standing at Carnac, tipped up vertically in parallel lines maybe since 4500 B.C. From the back of my skull I feel as if I’m regressing into the past while through the eyeholes the parallel lines draw me forward into whatever sessions are coming. The people who placed these megaliths knew what they were doing. They set them so carefully by the thousands to monitor the horizons. Why would people haul massive stones with nothing but manpower over great distances to make the Stonehenge? Was this a response to the night, to the power and sweep of the Milky Way? To the processes of sunlight? How do they measure solar, celestial phenomena? One story local people tell is that the stones were once a Roman legion now ossified, frozen in place. These processionals of mass have an urgency for me. Their force transcends their weight, as if they have a potential incandescence that translates weight into light and lightness. Now a residue of stone consciousness persists at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca, the kissable Blarney Stone in Cork. The Israelites tipped up stones all over the Negev, faced them East, and called them the house of the Lord. These Brittany megaliths sponge the light during the day, and measure out the moon and stars at night. You don’t have to see them. The blind surely take in their presence. They comb the danger out of storms. They count the wind. Yipes! I wax metaphorical here. Could be stoned. Long before I came to Brittany, or saw Stonehenge, when I lived in Italy, in Puglia, I remember coming on a megalith in the center of a tiny town called Uggiano La Chiesa. So far South, I thought. I’d been looking at plenty of sophisticated, complicated Italian art and architecture, but this grabbed me equally. I don’t know why. Like I said, maybe I’m a stone-age guy. I squatted in the dust of the small roundabout and stared at this anonymous monument against oblivion. I watched it in the grinding midday heat and sun. People had erected the megalith here millennia before Rome. Was this the spike that held the heel of the boot, The Salento, in place in the Adriatic? It rested here indifferent to worship. It took a while to pull myself away from it, and this simple stone stays in my mind imprinted as strongly as any painting by Piero or Antonello or Raffaello. The Michelangelo slaves emerging from their stones are powerful partly because they echo the megalith. These pieces manifest an intelligence, a megalithic knowledge to which we no longer have access. What trace will the current technology leave? Will these inundating terabytes of information leave even a residue?
Every time Martha inquires about the preparation of the oats the people with great patience and geniality explain that they boil this cereal. “We boil the oats, Madame. Sometimes in water and sometimes in cider (the preferred local beverage, hard or sweet). We eat this with cream and sugar.” Everywhere we go in Brittany, to restaurant or farm, the people boil the oats.
Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.