I was fortunate to grow up in a household where the food wasn’t always good but there was always plenty of it. The elders routinely held court at our annual gatherings to brag about their culinary triumphs and political insights as the more vulnerable among us nodded through pretended bites while feeding dogs under the holiday table.
How much of my dad’s hideous “Christmas Tradition Succotash” did those brave animals consume while I listened to why we should have never abandoned Vietnam, or Richard Nixon for that matter?
Then came the inevitable dreaded order, “Have more ‘Tradition.’ ” I would discretely glance at the nearest dog, already listing like a sinking ship. “No, thank you.”
“Then go help the other girls.”
That dismissive escape meant servitude in our large kitchen brimming with large personalities, mostly distant female cousins checking their hair, and aging aunties arguing about fruit cake, meringue, or Jimmy Carter.
One creation that inspired only respect was the soufflé prepared each year by a friend of the family whose appearance at our table always left a mark. She was often married, though never for long, and had no children. She would, however, not hesitate to interrupt conversations about offspring of any kind by producing from her wallet photos of loaves of bread she had baked and to which she was still much attached.
She would engage me in conversation above my pay grade regarding books, movies, or art history, a special passion of hers, as she whipped a dozen egg whites in a large copper bowl while I washed dishes. “Everyone is coming from somewhere, there is no single perspective,” she would say, moving with ease from Caravaggio to Shigenobu to Bresson, praising the wealth of diversity in human experience to argue against a single way of seeing the world and the illusion of universal truth.
“But that’s not the case here,” she would assert, referring to soufflé. There was only one way, one truth, and there were no “lies” you could tell a soufflé that would not fail to betray its integrity or your own.
For the less fortunate or more philistine among us, the soufflé is an 18th-century-era egg dish baked in a deep and steep ceramic ramekin until it doubles in size from the steam generated within. The name means “to breathe” or “to puff,” which is what egg whites will do once properly folded into a savory or sweet base in the untrammeled heat of your oven, delivering a taste and texture otherwise unobtainable — if you are pure of heart.
A slow, smooth roux with yolks, cooled before going any further. Egg whites whipped in a copper bowl if you’ve got one, a pinch of cream of tartar in less noble metal. No protein in the whites — not even a hint of yolk, oil, grease, or anything else — or you will fail.
As with love, she said, don’t stop too soon or go too far.
She had mastered the soufflé in the way one might master something simple-sounding but difficult like making rice or mashed potatoes, meaning it was a keystone — a foundational skill upon which to build greater things.
That could be a handful of local herbs and foreign cheese, some bitter fruit or creamy shellfish, or her devastating blend of sweet corn and Mexican chocolate laced with the grand Old World orange liqueur Grand Marnier (after the bottle had made a circuit around the kitchen aunties and cousins, of course).
By this time of the evening, there was always some argument raging in the dining room fueled both by wines and rationales of diminishing quality. But regardless of any defilement of Nixon’s memory or praise for Reagan’s rising star, all was silence when the soufflé arrived. We watched in mournful awe as the golden crown rising twice the height of its ramekin slowly deflated before our eyes. At the same time, its bewitching aroma filled the room, and we dutifully passed our plates around an otherwise divided table.
I tried making soufflé for years but after enough soggy messes and scorched bakeware, I decided it wasn’t for me. Almost everyone who once sat at that table had long since gone to their final reward and perhaps this effort should too, I thought.
But then there was another table to manage.
My wife and I lately hosted old friends and young for a gathering that rapidly became a Holiday Exchange of Anxieties where all manner of outrage, disillusionment, and paranoia were revealed in a welcoming, Champagne-fueled, atmosphere. There was, in my view, a strong binary component to the discussion that tended to undermine some positions while fortifying others without advancing the greater cause.
“The ‘greater cause?’ And what is that?” I was asked.
“The one universal truth,” I said. “It’s in the oven right now.”
Even the egg-haters among us held their spoons at attention when that perfect golden crown came to the table, double the height of its vessel, wrapped within the invisible veils of Mexican chocolate and Grand Marnier.
“Let us not stop too soon nor go too far,” I pontificated, referring to the varied fallacies that had infected the atmosphere of our talk. “You must simply follow the rules of the soufflé, and once you’ve got that, you can add whatever and see if it’s palatable. But you can’t lie to the soufflé.”
We had lovely antique dessert plates laid before us but for some reason ate right out of the steaming ramekin, sharing an old dish from an old table.