"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sex And Gourmet Food In The Time Of Quarantine–Neither Will Be The Same Again

Alex Farmer considered himself a gourmet, and in fact he had a right to that title. Alice Waters and Jean-Georges Vongerichten had once recognized him as one of the best amateur chefs in America, and cooking had become his life.  His Georgetown home became known as the place to eat and be seen, and in his heyday his soirees were equal to any of the Kennedy era.  In recent years he was content to be a gourmet diner, and thanks to a generous private income, he had been able to taste the impeccable creations of English, French, Danish, and Indian chefs.  His travel took him to over sixty countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America; and he became not only an aficionado of but an expert on local cuisine.  There was nothing he hadn’t tasted.  If it was good enough for those who lived in Laos, Burkina, or Guyana, it was good enough for him.

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Only once did he hesitate – Congolese caterpillars in a spicy tomato sauce – but after dancing for hours in the steamy neighborhood quartiers of Kinshasa and many liters of beer, they tasted just fine.  He had passed an important threshold.  After the Zairian chenille,  Peruvian hamster, Thai water bugs, and Rhodesian wood grubs were delicacies.  Of course these one-off local dishes were oddities more than anything else; but most places except the most ignored and isolated like South Sudan and Borneo had at least one sophisticated chef. Whether it was something simple, like fresh grilled Nile Perch from the Niger River, or something more elaborate like the Crab Tartuffe, an elegant dish of crab, morel mushrooms, periwinkles, raspberry coulis, and crisp fingerlings created by Michel Diouf, head chef at the Dagorne in Dakar, a magnificent meal was always waiting.

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Over the years he had learned a lot about cooking, and while he was no longer the sought-after host and maître de cuisine for the Washington well-to-do, and had no interest in concocting the elaborate, architecturally and painterly superb dishes of his younger years, he still was very much at home in the kitchen.  Dinners were never complicated but always innovative and well-thought out.  His sense of balance, presentation, complementarity and color never disappeared.   The young women whom he invited to dinner were always surprised at the combination of simplicity and elegance that he produced; and for him the magic of beautiful women and delicious food together was what he lived for.

Then, unexpectedly he found himself in the COVID-19 Corona lockdown.  Although one was free to shop for food and essentials, all bars and restaurants were closed; and ‘shelter-in-place’ meant long, seemingly interminable days without respite.  Quarantine was no fun for anyone, but for a high-liver like Alex Farmer, it was torture.  Perhaps worst of all was the fact that he had to share his kitchen and bed with the young woman from Minneapolis whom he had invited to Washington but who because of flight cancellations, concern over the increasing virulence and spread of the virus couldn’t leave.

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He was fond enough of her, and the significant difference in age gave him a virile boost, but as the quarantine wore on, the makeup came off, the Kama Sutra forgotten, and all eagerness disappeared.  He had had live-in lovers before, but their life together had never been enforced.  They came and went as they wished to jobs and social engagements, spent a lot of time together but only be preference, not obligation.  This was different.  Two weeks was tantamount to an unpleasant marriage hastily arranged and always regretted. 

There was, of course, the coup in Burkina Faso a number of years ago during which neither he, nor the Austrian lover he had met on the UN mission, nor anyone else for that matter could leave the hotel.  Tanks rumbled in the streets by day and the small arms fire from roving bands of dissidents on both sides of the civil conflict went on all night.  He and Greta were quite happy to spend their internment together, to get to know each other the way international romances always begin, and look forward to the eventual opening of the airport when they could go home. 

Or the time when Pakistani authorities suspended his visa and took away his passport because of an allegation by a disgruntled port worker whom Alex had fired for theft.  While his Embassy lawyers sorted out the issue, he and Usha Ismail, a lovely Pathan from the Northwest Frontier Province who worked for one of the many international agencies active in Islamabad, spent two weeks together.  Although he was ‘interned’ in Pakistan and couldn’t leave, he knew that soon the enforced stay would be over and he would be able to leave; so the time with Usha was free and easy, satisfying, and exciting.

Quarantine in the time of COVID-19 was entirely different.  The Minneapolis girl was neither an Usha or a Greta, sexually alluring, attractive women; but a sexual filler in a particularly low tide. He was happy to have someone to talk to and to go to bed with, but except for those few unique, unrepeatable times in Pakistan and Ouagadougou, he had been unused to monogamy, as temporary as it might have been.  Sex, no matter how passionate, gets old unless the emotional synapses start to fire.  The gunfire, the vampire bats in the tree around the pool at the Independance, the foraging for food in the hotel kitchen after the staff had fled, had them firing like a Tesla coil.  The summer heat of Islamabad, the Murree Hill Stations, the funky restaurants in the Afghan quarter of Rawalpindi made up for sexual diversity.

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Here, trapped with Laura from the Midwest, there was neither allure or excitement.  The days simply pushed on.

The most surprising thing of all about the Corona quarantine was not Alex’s sexual boredom but his lack of interest in food.  He could have prepared his famous cockles and wild berry remoulade – even in difficult times his fish monger could get any seafood on demand no matter how unusual the request; and wild berries were surprisingly always available at the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market – but why bother?  He could have ordered fresh, organic foie gras from a small enterprise in Mendocino, and prepared it with his own Porto glaze served with Chesapeake oat grass and sea moss; and yet he began preparing comfort food – mac-‘n’-cheese, bacon and eggs, canned Little Italy canned ragout and microwaved pasta, peanut butter and jelly, ham sandwiches, meatloaf, and cheese casseroles.

Admittedly he had not been raised in a gourmet family.  His mother was pretty much of a can-of-this-can-of-that cook and his father was indifferent to anything but meat and potatoes; but Alex never realized how childhood never really ever loses its hold; and how quickly acquired tastes recede so quickly out of notice.  His architectural creations of sea urchin and foraged wild grasses within a perimeter of watercress coulis were nice fictions, pastimes, and totally unnecessary.  Who was kidding whom? What was wrong with hot dogs and baked beans?

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So quarantine affected the high points of Alex’s life in different ways.  He saw the flim-flam of gourmet cuisine for what it was; and appreciated the special love affairs with different women as unique and unrepeatable.  Anyone who says that romance is a fiction, that circumstances have little to do with true love, and that long-term sexual intimacy is the Holy Grail is simply whistlin’ Dixie.
Thank God for COVID-19; for without it Alex might still be building his little bowers of wild grasses and edible stalks; or settling down.  Everything has an upside.

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