A week away from pizza--it was hard. Every time I passed a pizza place on the island of St. Martin I had to fight the desire to check it out as an act of PQ duty. But it was our vacation, Susan and I, and that included a vacation from anything that would draw us back into the things we were vacating. Let's face it, sometimes you just have to empty out and, frankly, the food in St. Martin (more so on the French side, not the Dutch side of the island) is considered some of the best in the Caribbean.
We designed a great routine: a short visit to a small, humble boulangerie in the morning for a chocolate croissant and a cappuchino or a cup of tea; some serious ocean time; lots of reading (for me, a great novel by Anne Patchett called "State of Wonder" -- remember that you heard about it here when the book awards are announced in the fall) as well as a book on the history of Google called, "I'm Feeling Lucky," (great title--a fun read), along with trying to catch up, futilely, with the bottomless pile of articles from The New Yorker that have been collecting on my I-Pad and in the growing stacks in my bathroom, office, suitcase -- they multiply like rabbits and there's no way to keep up, yet I'm totally addicted… well, you get the picture. Reading, swimming, enjoying time together uninterrupted by deadlines and teaching schedules, and, at the end of each day, eating
dinner at yet another great French or Italian restaurant on the Boulevard de Grande Case (pronounced Grand Kahss) for half of what one would pay for an inferior meal in a fancy big city, or at a Parisian restaurant. Pizza Quest was, for a short "vacated" time, replaced by Regeneration Quest, fueled by some of the finest food I've had in a long long time. There is some serious culinary talent on this island.
I don't want to bore you by flaunting the details, like showing home movies but, for example, at our favorite restaurant, La Cottage, I ordered the four-course lobster degustation (tasting menu) that consisted of classic lobster bisque, topped with puff pastry -- kind of a retro dish, yes but, like great pizza, it never gets old, especially when served with skewers of deep-fried lobster "lollipops" -- like tempura'd lobster, ready to be dipped into the bisque to provide the all important crunch factor; followed by a course of grilled lobster pieces in a flaky sugar cone ( the French term on the menu, cornet, sounds so much grander) garnished with pieces of fresh mango and soft ginger, and then topped with a dollop of coconut and lemongrass whipped cream (not whimsical foam, but real, substance-bearing whipped cream); followed by another course, a fresh spring roll, filled with steamed chunks of lobster meat, floating in a perfectly, subtly seasoned broth of Chinese vegetables, all floating atop a bed of baby bok-choy (there's that crunch factor again); soon after followed by the main attraction, a roast of lobster served with a gratin of polenta, Parmesan slivers, fresh asparagus, and some sort of creamy, outrageous lobster-scented sauce -- kind of like bisque redux, a recapitulation of the whole four movements of the dinner. The meal also included the requisite, yet always surprising, amuse bouche (aka, a "small-bite" starter of whatever the chef feels moved to make, this time it was a two bite ceviche-like piece of local fish served in a citrus sea and carrot foam -- yes this time it was really a foam, which sort of disappeared like magic as soon as it hit the tongue), along with a wonderful palate cleanser of lemon ice somewhere near the end of the meal. And, because it was a special night for us, a plate of four unusual cheeses, including a new Hall of Famer for us, a soft brie, rolled around a substantial paste of black Perigord truffles and butter, and then wrapped and aged for a few weeks so that that the cheese was so infused with truffle essence that I can still taste it now, days later, even though I'm back on the mainland.
And then a long cherished anniversary tradition, the always wonderful Grande Marnier Souffle, that most romantic of all desserts, but with a few special chef touches such as an orange macaron cookie and, little bits of crunchy, citrusy crumbles on the side. Sorry, but I'm kvelling….
All of this I wrote partly so that I could relive it and drive the memories ever deeper, but mainly to say the following: neither man nor woman lives by pizza alone -- though this man probably could. There are quests and there are Quests and there are gifts of the earth (and thus, ultimately, gifts of the Universe, that is, gifts from God) that reward us, unearned, just for being human, for having lived, for having sought meaningfulness. We talk here, on this site, about creating and recalling taste memories, and of how pizza serves as one such symbol of memorable possibilities and how those memories kindle and point to the hope of an ultimate goodness. Mel Brooks tells the story, in one of his 2,000 Year Old man routines, of how cave men discovered God: the biggest, meanest cave man, a guy named Phil who, day after day terrorized his fellow cave dwellers, was suddenly struck dead by a bolt of lightening. The others gathered around the fallen body, looked up to the sky, and declared, "There's somebody bigger than Phil!"
Once in a while, as we continue to gather memories that benchmark the higher and deeper realms of possibility in a world filled with sorrow, struggle, pain, suffering, and thankfully also joy, hope, and goodness, we all need moments that remind us there's something bigger; bigger even than Pizza Quest.