Rain falls gently in a Paris cemetery and I, guarded by a cheap umbrella, walk among this silent village of the dead. Here, in Pere Lachaise cemetery, you won’t find small headstones or paupers gravestones. Each grave is a stone temple–each one seemingly a monument to the vanity of its occupant, as if the conspicuousness of your resting place could make your soul more visible to the eye of God. Here I think of the crumbled statue of Ozymandias, and wonder on the fruitlessness of all human endeavor, beggars and kings all bound for the same destination.
But perhaps this is unfair, for graves do not exist to house the dead, but rather to give comfort to those who love them. And here, in this small cemetery, lie the bones of many who were loved by the world–Moliere, Gertrude Stein, Balzac, and Chopin to name a few.
But, although I have respect for those names, there is one person in particular to whom I have come to pay my respects–a man who, although we are of different ages and have never met, I consider a dear friend.
By the northern edge of the cemetery lies the final resting place of Oscar Wide.
There, beneath a great white statue designed by Jacob Epstein, both sphynx and angel, are the remains of a man who knew more about truth and beauty than most of us could envision in the world.
This was that same Wilde who held a mirror to Victorian England’s trifles and hypocrisy, whose wit had London’s crowds changing “author, author” at the end of his plays, so enticed they were with his words and the magic he could do with them. This was that same Wild who had Salome dancing in the moonlight, seducing Herod for the head of John the Baptist.
This, too, was Wild the “sobdomist”–the Wilde who, once the most loved of England, became suddenly and cruelly hated and scorned when his homosexual love affair with a younger man named Lord Alfred Douglas became public. For loving another man, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in a British prison. After serving his time, he fled to Paris, disgraced in his former kingdom.
At Wilde’s trial, a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas was a key piece of evidence–a poem which referred to “the love that dare not speak its name.” When interrogated about this on the witness stand, Wilde answered:
“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
In these friendlier times, when such love may, in enlightened places, speak its name freely, Wilde’s grave–that same Wilde who died disgraced and poor in a Paris hotel room, muttering his famous last words (“either this wallpaper goes, or I do”)–he rests in a world that once again loves him. Until recently, his grave was covered with the lipstick marks of hundreds of kisses, as adoring visitors came from all over to kiss his grave. Wilde’s descendants, upset by this, had the statue cleaned off and covered it with a glass barrier. Only a few kisses remain, from intrepid visitors who climb to kiss above the barrier, perhaps standing on the grave of Wilde’s neighbor. But what is the true monument–the grave or the kisses? Which honors Wilde more–the lipstick or the marble?
The back of the monument bears these words:
“And alien tears will fill for him/ Pity’s long broken urn./ For his mourners will be outcast men/ And outcasts always mourn.”
An outcast I must be, in a world where outcasts thrive.
On the way out of Pere Lachaise, after stopping by the grave of Edith Piaf, the singer who gave Alice and I our wedding song (“La Vie en Rose), we stopped by the grave of another outcast who, like Wilde, died in a Paris hotel room long before his time–the singer James Morrison.
Morrison supposedly named his group “The Doors” after The Doors of Perception, a book by Aldous Huxley about Huxley’s experiences with mesculin. However, as a poetry scholar educated at UCLA, Morrison must certainly have known where Huxley got his title–from William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is–infinite.”
A more religious man would imagine Wilde and Morrison and all the great men and women of Pere Lachaise watching us, seeing our place among the infinite, bound no more by mortal vision and the fetters of our human eyes, too myopic to guide us to our full potential. But I, like Matthew Arnold, embracing poetry as religion, prefer to think of them as they lived–each a beautiful passage in the book of humankind–the kind that echoes in your head after you read it. The kind that inspires you to dog-ear the page and return to it again and again. The kind that makes our story a book worth reading.
The London of my day was a filthy city, where waste buckets were dumped onto the streets, where baths were rarer than birthdays, where deadly plagues were an inevitable part of life, and where the air of the city was thick with flies and stench. And yet, as filthy as those 16th century streets were, our world was clean. Although we had begun to spoil the Earth in numerous ways, mankind was too few to do our planet loss.
But what horrors we have since brought upon the earth! Our bodies are cleaned methodically each day, but our consciences have been stained. Consider this–the number of humans alive today is greater than that of all those who have died since the stone age. We are a pulsating, multiplying horde, in unsustainable numbers, wielding the Earth like a child’s toy. “As flies to wanton boys” we pillage and destroy pure nature with direst disregard.
And yet, in spite of this troubling future, there is great hope. Never has there been such an awareness–scientifically, culturally, and spiritually–of the things we do to the world. In my era, we could not fathom that a creature as diminutive as man could do harm to the Earth. In this beautiful age, so many are fighting passionately for a sustainable, prosperous future.
Rockin’ Raw, a raw and vegan restaurant on Sullivan St. in the West Village, is one such warrior in this fight, and their weapon is fresh, delicious, ethical food.
Do not misunderstand me. I have oft written about the glory of a burger, and dined upon such things as foie gras and veal and wild boar with little thought to ethics of eating factory farmed food. And Alice can barely go a meal without tearing apart the flesh of some animal. I do this because, despite my reservations, it is too painful to me to imagine, in this ephemeral and paltry existence, flavors unknown and tastes
unexperienced. The miracle of food is too powerful to ignore, especially in an age such as ours and a place such as New York City, where the flavors of the world unite.
Rockin Raw has given me hope that one day these flavors may be experienced without the ethical and environmental cost. All the food at Rockin Raw is both vegan and raw. By vegan, I mean that no animal products were used, and by raw I mean that nothing on the menu was cooked.
Allow me to explain the science, beauty, and complexity of an uncooked meal.
For an appetizer, we began with jalepeno poppers. Deep fried and loaded with cheddar? No. The peppers were fresh and raw, filled with a cheddary sunflower paste, and coated with a flax seed “breading”. I was expecting to cringe when I had the first bite, so dissatisfied I was with prior vegan approximations of “real food.” However, I found that the experience was remarkable. This was not a meal assembled in a factory–it was fresh, real, raw food, assembled through human ingenuity into something familiar and comforting.
For the entree, I had the burrito. How does one make a raw burrito? First, the tortilla: flax seed and sun-dried tomatoes are blended together, flattened, and placed in a dehydrator. The burrito is then filled with mixed greens, salsa, delicious and creamy guacamole (if my soul were tangible, there would be avocados in it), and meat, cheese, and sour cream all made from seeds. Strange and improbable as it seems, I, a man who craves meat, found each bite fresh, fulfilling, and
interesting. I could close my eyes and taste the richness of the earth while still paying tribute to that creation I love more than almost anything–the burrito (I could still find happiness in a world where every meal was wrapped in a tortilla).
Alice had the pasta dish–Tallarines Verdes de La Lala. The noodles were made from raw squash and coated with a pesto sauce. It had all of the flavor and satisfaction of a regular pasta dish, with a kind of freshness and purity that cooked food can never give you.
But I know you, readers. I know that some of you are shuddering with each word, gagging at the word “vegan,” thinking, “that sounds awful,” and dismissing the idea that something raw and unprocessed could ever be satisfying. I am asking you to give it a try. Before you turn away from this thought, here are six reasons you should reconsider:
- If a flavor is new and different and unique, you owe it to yourself to try it.
- Only recently have the creatures of the earth known cooked food. Your DNA has, for eons, taught your tongue to desire things raw and freshly pulled from the earth, and only recently have culture and history hidden this desire from you.
- It is a truth known to all forms of art that restrictions and limitations nourish creativity. If you restrict poetry to a meter, the poet must reach within his soul to fill each syllable with magic. The artist, limited by his media, must make of tinted oil and stretched canvas a poem of color and light. And the chef, limited by the ingredients of the earth, must make poetry from flavor.
- You live in the matrix. You have grown up in a world of processed food, and convinced that this is reality. Swallow the red pill, and learn the truth.
- Raw food is wonderfully filling. In a few bites you will go from hungry to full, and you will be left wondering what it is about the food we eat every day that leaves us so unsatisfied.
- I am not a vegan or a health fanatic. I am an omnivorous lover of steak, burgers, pizza, everything made in a deep fryer, and processed packaged pastries, and I’m telling you that raw vegan food is delicious.
I will leave you with the words of Kahlil Gibran, from the chapter “On Eating and Drinking” from his magnum opus The Prophet–a book that, about 15 years ago, brought a new era of spiritual and poetic awakening to my life:
“Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.
“But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it be an act of worship.
“And let your board stand an altar on which the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man.”
Wine can bring us moments of pure bliss. In a glass of wine you can find a snapshot of Elysium—quintessence and elegance and complexity bottled up exquisitely.
Wine can take us to heaven, but only beer can bring heaven to earth. Beer is the flavor of life—complex, bitter, sweet, filling, fizzing with entropy, bringing warmth even at its coldest, flat and stale before its time.
If you wish to escape—to fly off to Neverland—wine is the way to go. If you want to be here and now, drinking the marrow of life, you need beer.
And if you need to drink beer, German beer is never a bad choice. Germans know something of the bitterness, sweetness, order, chaos, joy, and sorrow of life, and the these things, along with a small dash of hops, yeast, water, and malted barley, are the ingredients of a good beer.
In search of the true flavor of life, I went off to Lederhosen, a German bar in the West Village. I had the Kulmbacher Eisbock, a potent 9.2% ABV brew with that trippe. Kick that sends your tongue into epileptic fits. Another diner promised it would taste like banana bread. I could not find that flavor, but it was intriguing nonetheless. It was a beer Nietzsche would have loved—an uberbeer, stoic and proud, a little bitter, and sure of itself.
Other beers at the table included Schlenkerla, a smoked beer tasting of a fire-heated cabinamong the mountains of Bavaria (much like those mountains painted on the mural overlooking the dining area), and Kostritzer black lager, a pleasant potable, smooth and dark (and a beer with a history—the first Kostritzer brewery was founded in 1543—22 years before I was born—and the poet Goethe lived off their black lager for months when sickness made it difficult for him to eat).
The only thing Germans know as well as beer is the food beer pines for in its lustful dreams. Foods like pickled herring (do not judge beer for this strange attraction—the heart wants what it wants), German potato salad, and sausage of every kind, including the currywurst and bauerwurst we ordered.
Bauerwurst is not like Bratwurst or other things you might think of when you think German sausage; it is more like a close relative of the hot dog—a swollen, juicy hot dog, more wholesome and dignified than its dirty-water cousin. The currywurst was similar to bauerwurst, with some German interpretation of curry added in.
As for my first experience with pickled herring? Do not fear it, as I once did in my younger days. The slight fishiness is offset by the pickling process, and all the improbable flavors mixed together on the plate—mustard, cabbage, and fish—combined to form something pleasant, unexpected, and refreshing.
We live on a quick segment of time—a thin thread of experience emerging from and returning to limitless oblivion. In this flash of consciousness we are given, ephermeral and saturated with wonder and mystery, there is a great debt we owe to ourselves: some new flavor, or sensation, or parcel of knowledge must be offered up to our experience every week and every day and every hour as tribute to the tenuousness of our lives. Our existence is not a gift—it is on loan from the cosmos, and she will one day claim what she has given.
And when this repo man of mortality comes I would not lower my head in shame and cry, “but I have never had bauerwurst! I have never tasted pickled herring!”
I am not a rich man. Sure, there was a time when I had some wealth, due to my share in the original Globe Theater, but that burned down long ago, and I have been dead for 400 years, and all my copyrights have long expired, so my income has been quite limited in the centuries past. Alice and I, a graduate student and a teacher these days, must live from paycheck to paycheck.
And so, to you wealthy readers who prate about luxury, who favor champagne and caviar as a midday snack, who fly to Aruba for a weekend in a private jet to battle the ennui, who live in estates with an “east wing” and go for treatments from your personal Swedish masseuse in your personal spa while enjoying food prepared by your personal chef, I declare that you do not know what luxury is. Luxury is too common for you. Luxury is banal and ordinary. You have forgotten how it feels.
Luxury is a rare and precious thing, and when I cradle it in my arms, oft for no more than an hour, I am sure to admire it wholly and completely, to savor it’s warm embrace, to treasure the moment of completeness it brought me. Luxury, much like our lives, is ephemeral and precious. One must never take it for granted.
Alice and I, poor folk though we are, were seeking out this Sunday night an evening of pure luxury. There were many reasons for this quest, chief among them the celebration of our lives together, in honor of St. Valentine, who, against the cruelty of Roman law held secret services between Roman soldiers and their lovers. We sought as well a rest from the vicissitudes of life—a reward to ourselves for the hard work and the long hours.
Yet I had still another reason for my quest of luxury, unknown to Alice until the moment the truth was unveiled. My true intention this evening—my motivation for a romantic evening and an expensive restaurant and an outpouring of luxury—was to ask of Alice her hand in marriage.
I know what you are thinking. You are remembering something you may have learned in your High School English class—that I had already married—to Ann Hathaway in the 16th Century—and had three children—Hamnet, Judith, and Susanna. A marriage of convenience, I assure you, from a past life, from which all parties have perished through the passage of cruel time. This is a new eon, and I seek a truer love.
Love, unique among luxuries, does not get stale with age. It grows with each day, and new facets emerge. It is not a single luxury, but a journey of luxuries—like a new glass of wine each day, a new experience in each hour together, a new sensation, pure and perfect, radiating through your life, bringing warmth and joy to each corner of your soul.
Alice and I, through our seven and a half year courtship, have known love in many forms—silly, silly love of youth, the tumultuous love full of struggle and doubt as we fight to make sense of our dreams, and the mature love on the other side of the mountain, sure of itself, perfect and complete, readying us for all that is to come.
We began the evening at Vin Sur Vingt, a Wine Bar on West 11th Street by 7th Avenue. We experienced a delightful wine flight in the intimate, romantic setting while two gentlemen played Flamenco guitar (including an ironically serene and pretty version of the Rolling Stone’s “Paint it Black”). We gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes, and spoke of our lives together.
But that was just the beginning. For the place of the proposal I chose Aureole, Charlie Palmer’s famed French Restaurant in Midtown. Normally I am wary of any restaurant within three blocks of Times Square, but my research into the location promised a romantic, classy setting, different from the tourist traps that define the area, and a prix fixe meal of divers, magical experience, to rival the magic of love.
In case you are wondering the word “aureole,” from the Latin for gold, does not refer to a part of the breast—that is “areola”—but to that golden glow surrounding sacred figures in religious paintings. Since I was seeking such a glow in my own life, it seemed like a fitting destination.
The restaurant did not disappoint. Each course that came was a miracle of science—an ingeniously crafted work of art arranged on the plate to dazzle the eye and offer up to the senses experiences never before known.
It began with a complementary amuse-bouche with egg, ham, and caviar bathed in a savory dash of pork broth. Then came the appetizers—foie gras for me, and butternut squash agnolotti for Alice (short rib and hazelnut and a number of other dazzling flavors arranged carefully on each plate), complemented by the Prosecco I ordered when Alice was off in the bathroom.
Then came the main course—Pork Loin with black truffle jus, and aged ribeye. The food was so marvelously arrayed that I insisted Alice take a picture. It was a few moments after the photograph that she noticed the ring in my hand.
And then came the most spectacular, delightful, delicious part of the evening—she said, “yes.”
All that followed was divine, and endowed us with that same aureole that the name of the venue promised—there was indeed a sacred glow about us from that moment on.
Dessert was a chocolate soup and a toffee pudding with Maker’s Mark ice cream each adorned with a candle and the word “congratulations.”
Luxury is all around us. It is in a rich meal in a rich restaurant, in the crackling of a spoon against crème brulee, and in an elegant cappuccino. It is in the feel of satin and velvet under your fingertips. It is in a warm, percolating Jacuzzi that nibbles on your skin. But it is also in the palm of your hand pressed against the palm of the woman you love. Luxury is sharing Darrel Lee mango licorice with someone special while sitting on a futon and watching “The Walking Dead.”
I have Angie (aka “Alice”) in my life, forever, and count myself among the 1%—we few, we happy few, rich in love and luck and luxury, savoring the warm glow (or aureole) that each day brings, treasuring each moment together, and knowing that in the trials of life we shall not stand alone.
The nations of the world are colors on a palette, and New York is the canvas. In our city, home of the United Nations, each country builds a hundred temples to its food, music, and culture. On every corner lives a microcosm of a distant land, a journey of food and flavor, an embodiment of the passion, power, and pulchritude of a culture served on a plate.
When wanderlust captures you, and you long for parts distant and unknown, the MTA can take you there. The flavors and smells of all the world is a subway ride away.
I am prone to fits of wanderlust, and one of my episodes carried me a short distance to Elmhurst, Queens,to a Venezuelan sandwich shop called “Patacon Pisao” (the name roughly translates into “smushed fried plantain pancake”) serves up, not sandwiches, but the resultant offspring of a sandwich if it were mated with a god.
Imagine a sandwich before you. This sandwich of the mind contains, if it is like most of its kind, some meat, cheese, and bread. Perhaps you have added some lettuce and tomato,
along with a condiment such as mayonnaise. Hold this image of a lesser sandwich in your mind, and behold as I transform this vision into a Patacon Pisao sandwich. First, replace the meat with juicy, shredded beef, roasted pork, or any number of delicious proteins. Replace the cheese with fried queso blanco. In lieu of mayonnaise, a mysterious sauce filled with flavors I cannot begin to name or comprehend.
How does it sound so far? Exquisite, perhaps? I have not even begun.
Rid yourself of that tired staple of the sandwich, bread. Breads rain over
the sandwich has worn out its welcome. Instead of bread you have your choice of a deep fried smushed plantain pancake (patron), a corn cake (arepa), or, my favorite, a sweet corn cake (cachapa)–that perfect fusion of sweet and savory of spicy that defines a perfect moment of food.
Wash it down with tamarind or cherry juice, and you will have had an $8 meal to rival the finest of your dreams. And in this dream of food, what flavors will come to haunt you–to smell, to taste, to travel to a hundred paces, to have your tongue speak to you of nations distant and strange and filled with possibility. You will know that to experience the world you do not need frequent flyer miles–you need only a knife and a fork and a metrocard.