Napoleon

Voulez-vous Manger Avec Moi Ce Soir, Monsieur le Empereur?: Chicken Dinner Napoleon-Style

The world of food is one of limitless potential for creativity and innovation, yet it’s common to find that any given person’s favorite dish is a simple one, though they may harbor a weakness for pot au feu or Puebla mole. Napoleon, for example, fancied himself the predestined emperor of the world, and so could have eaten any number of delicacies at any time of the day or night. But no, his favorite dish, at least according to The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, was a simple roast chicken. “[He] had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy” (3). I have to agree with him on this even if I’m not quite on board with the whole world domination schtick. For this dinner, I made roast chicken the main course and focus of the meal, and then took advantage of some artistic liberties to fill in the rest. Luckily for me, I was not preparing this meal in a soggy, miserable army camp on the banks of the English Channel like poor Henri, but instead was in one of my favorite places in the world: my grandmother’s house on the California Central Coast, in Cambria. But hey, you gotta give a girl points for effort.

It was one of those serendipitous weekends when things just come together on their own. My grandmother called me to say she and her boyfriend would be going up to Cambria for the weekend and couldn’t I come to? It happened that I could (there aren’t many things I wouldn’t move around in order to go to Cambria with her). Then, even more luckily, my dad was able to come up as well. I figured one of my book dinners would be a fun way to celebrate being able to come together so spur of the moment-like, even though so much of The Passion is about being separated from the places and people you love. But one big theme in this novel is taking advantage of the present as its the only point in time you have any control over whatsoever.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment (19).

I only recently learned how to make roast chicken from my new chef roommate, so for once I was able to make something without a recipe. It’s amazingly simple. Just salt it, put some thyme on it, tie it up like some Sadeian submissive, and roast for 45 minutes.

DSC_0001While that was in the oven, I prepared the side dish of sweet potatoes and fennel, sprinkled with olive oil, salt & pepper, and herbs de provence. I love this dish. It’s so freakin’ easy and the fennel and sweet potatoes complement each other so well. It’s instant comfort food.

DSC_0015While I did that, my dad (one perk of making dinner for others is sometimes they help!) blanched and peeled peaches from Cambria’s Farmer’s Market for a cobbler. Like I mentioned, roast chicken was the only thing actually mentioned in The Passion but I figured that sticking with simple, country fare with basic ingredients was still appropriate.

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One of the things I love most about making food with fresh ingredients is the naturally vivid colors of certain ingredients like sweet potatoes or peaches. At a loss for certain ingredients generally found in cobbler crust, my dad substituted granola from the local Corner Bakery. It’s one of my favorite granolas because it has macadamia and pine nuts in it, and it made an excellent topping.

DSC_0062Finally, it was time to eat. We all sat down, opened a bottle of Venetian wine, and got to it. There weren’t many instances in the novel where characters got to sit down and enjoy a meal with good company. Henri sure didn’t get to partake in the delicious chickens he roasted for Napoleon, whose appetite never waned even in the vast frozen wastelands of Russia. Even in such desolation however, Henri never lost sight of the overall goodness and beauty of life, an attitude which unfortunately makes him more of a martyr than anything else. I’ll end this entry on a happy note, though the ending of the novel was somewhere between sadness and contentment. I read this book twice, almost immediately, and loved it both times. I’m looking forward to doing more Jeanette Winterson books on this blog.

Our ancestors. Our belonging. The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole (62).

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DSC_0071P. S. Just so you understand the context when I say I had the pleasure of cooking this meal in my favorite place in the world, just check out the view from the kitchen… I mean, really.

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As I Consume, I Also Am Consumed: A Study of Passion

I often find myself thinking about how I am going to fill up the time I have left in my life, not in any melancholy way, but rather in a practical one. This generally happens when I’m sitting at a stoplight or on a lazy Sunday afternoon where I’m flat broke and afraid to leave the house for fear I’ll spend money I don’t have. What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Not just in the grand scheme of things, but also in the small, everyday things. One thing I know I’ll always do is read and it was in reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion that I realized a simple truth. It doesn’t answer all my questions about the time ahead but it does provide a sort of key. In this book, there are many different manifestations of passion: monomaniacal, self-sacrificing, and hedonistic are some examples, but what each of these has in common is that they lend a sort of impetus to the character’s lives. Their individual actions are often trivial, sometimes unalterably life-changing, but always fueled by passion.

The story is told directly from two different perspectives, that of Henri, and that of Villanelle, and yet there is another character whose passion brings these two together: that of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. We never see the story from his perspective and yet it is all the more poignant seeing him through Henri’s eyes. Henri is Napoleon’s personal chef of sorts when he is with the army, serving him roast chicken (apparently Napoleon’s favorite dish) at all hours of the day and night. In Napoleon’s case, his passion for chicken emulates his passion for the world. Imagine him looking at a globe instead of a covered dish of roast chicken as “he [would] lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). His appetite for chicken is his appetite for conquering the world, just as unquenchable, just as unreachable. He is the Ahab of world leaders. His great white whale is Europe, and in just the same way, his monomania consumes him until there is nothing left but a good story.

The passion of Villanelle is similar to that of Napoleon in its veracity, but whereas Napoleon sought to conquer whole civilizations to slake his passion, Villanelle’s desires are more earthly and attainable, and yet more transient. Hers are the passions of experience, of carnality, of youth. She seeks to enjoy everything, and she finds both her imprisonment and her freedom in this. Her passion has her teetering wildly on life’s knife-like edge, “somewhere between fear and sex” (55) at all times. Unlike Napoleon however, whose passion is like a wildfire that burns fierce and bright until it suddenly finds itself unable to sustain its ferocity and dies, Villanelle’s passion is tapered to a point, like a blowtorch, driven to unbearable heat because it is focused on one area at a time. Her description of kisses demonstrates this:

I like such kisses. They fill the mouth and leave the body free. To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure. Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment (59).

I like that idea of Passion split strand by strand. It’s the idea of indulgence, but controlled enough to prolong the consummation of whatever pleasure is the end goal, like a tasting menu that builds up to some magnificent pièce de résistance. This is the secret to Villanelle’s flame: that she is able to protract the completion of her passion to such a degree that she never runs out of fuel or burns herself up.

Henri’s passion is of an entirely different breed than that of the latter two. His is passion tempered with rationality and self-sacrifice, which is ironic considering of the three Henri is the only one to end up in a madhouse, though happily, it would seem. Henri is the martyr. He gives all of himself to the people he loves, first to Napoleon and then to Villanelle, who loves him back in her own way but cannot reciprocate in the manner Henri needs. He is carried along on the fast-moving Lethe-like rivers of other people’s passions until he almost loses himself. There is a moment when he gets a taste of the more destructive and violent strain of passion when he kills Villanelle’s creepy, abusive husband. He describes it as follows:

Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse (68).

Unlike Villanelle, whose being has been virtually fireproofed in order to sustain the strength of her passion, part of Henri is burnt up in this act. It is after this that he relinquishes any hold on Villanelle. He very calmly takes responsibility for the murder and is sent to prison, and then to a madhouse. This madhouse becomes his haven, the four walls of his cell confine his existence in a way that comforts him. And it is within these walls, where Henri sometimes looks out his window to see Villanelle rowing her boat by his window, his small passion all but smothered while hers still burns with white-hot intensity, that the story ends.

In my story, I am sitting at my desk at a job that I am explicitly not passionate about. I am currently looking for the means to change this. Obviously, I do not want a passion that consumes me completely, like Napoleon’s, nor do I want one that is inextricably linked with the passions of others, carrying me with them, bumping and scraping along. I hope to find a passion more like Villanelle’s. Hers is one of freedom, of wild joy and insuperable curiosity. At the same time, I can see the selfishness of this, as one can never pursue only enjoyment and adventure if other people are in the picture. True freedom is total independence and true freedom is lonely. Maybe some day I will find a happy medium that will, like I mentioned initially, give a sort of impetus to the everyday. I need to find a passion that will become a catalyst for a meaningful life.

Next: A chicken dinner Napoleon would have left off savaging Europe for.