Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dinner with Norpois (II): Performative Pineapple-and-Truffle Salad

My mother had been expecting the pineapple-and-truffle salad to be a great success. But the ambassador, after spending a moment exercising his penetrating gift of observation on the dish, ate the salad with complete diplomatic discretion and vouchsafed no opinion on it. My mother urged him to have some more; and as he did so, instead of offering the expected compliment, he said, “I cannot refuse, ma’am, since you have clearly issued an ukase.”

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 31

If boeuf mode en gelée is a metaphor in Proust’s writing to insinuate the pompous and grandiose styles of many political figures such as Norpois, Proust seems to indicate his own confusion over how these “preposterous utterances larded with mixed metaphor” and “epigrammatic brevity” (30) could be appreciated or comprehended. The narrator later infers that it is all about the nature and operation of power which indeed define criteria and standards of taste:

The only deduction I could draw was that, in politics, it was a mark of superiority rather than inferiority to repeat what everybody else thought. Each time M. de Norpois used certain expressions, which were as trite as the newspapers in which he read them, and which he spoke with emphasis, one could sense that, by virtue of having been uttered by him, they became an act, and that this act would not go unnoticed. (31)
Such a deduction by the narrator is a prescient reverberation of J. L. Austin’s notion of performativity which refers to a phenomenon in which when one says something, something happens. For a performative sentence to be effective, a specific context is necessary. In addition, the articulator of such performative comments and the audience must have a tacit understanding or a certain unconscious agreement in which the speaker is given the authority while the audience’s presence suggests acquiescence and the validation of the authority.

The theoretical concept of performativity is observed by the narrator. However, instead of dwelling upon the mere effects of performativity, the narrator goes even further by analyzing the intermediacy between the audience and the speaker before the performative utterances take place. Namely, the narrator seems to point out that behind various utterances of performativity, there is a hidden affective or inter-relational space that is left unnoticed.

Such an affective and relational “space” is being depicted in the Norpois dinner party when the ambassador is urged by the mother to have another serving of the pineapple-and-truffle salad, a dish she regards as her great success as hostess. Evidently, the inquiry from the mother cannot be defined as performative simply because the “inquiry” itself cannot guarantee something will happen. However, in terms of the relational context and the dinner dynamics, Norpois decides to have another serving, “I cannot refuse, ma’am, since you have clearly issued an ukase” (31). If the authority from the mother as a hostess and the acquiescence from Norpois as a guest make her utterances “performative” and the guest does have more salad just as the hostess wishes, the performative sentence cannot detect and offer explanation to the affective undercurrents shrouded in the iteration. Norpois’s comment may show the guest’s dismay in being urged to have something that is not particularly interesting. The comment from Norpois, on the other hand, may influence the mother whose affective status suddenly dropped from the joy out of pride to the shame out of Norpois’s unspoken rejection which could be sensed obviously from his unenthusiastic verbal acceptance. When the contours of affects are being observed, we can sense the hollowness of performativity in which the unpredictable affective turns and the unstable relationality expand our understanding from simply defining the effectiveness of a certain “truth” articulated from performative sentences. To a degree, the mother’s “performative sentence” is seemingly ineffective. With a certain understanding to the affective flows between the mother and the ambassador, performativity sentences can only be performed without showing the implicit and unstable power operation between the speaker and the listener.

Now, after making this pineapple-and-truffle salad, I am wondering whether this dish, like the mother’s ineffective utterances, is also a hollow performative. It might be too far-fetched to apply performativity, the knowledge derived from speech-act theory, to the salad which can neither talk nor walk. However, if we consider various perspectives of our perceptions such as smell and taste, we will realize that foods do talk to us and walk to us.

In a way, it’s an easy task to make pineapple-and-truffle salad: simply peel and chop a pineapple and stir in finely sliced black truffles and, as in my version, some truffle oil. It was my first time to taste truffle and it was quite amazing! This salad is performative because, even though my version makes up for a paucity of truffle with but a few drops of truffle oil, the pineapple is still full of truffle aroma. If the pineapple lacked the strong fruitiness it happened to have on this occasion, the fruit would easily have been taken over by the strong truffle. Again, in my version, the aroma from the truffle oil, like incense, replaces the existence of the real sliced truffle. As a result, the whole dish is “truffly” without even the physical presence of truffles. This pineapple-and-truffle salad is hollow performative because even though it is so pronounced with truffle aroma, there need not be real truffles. Similarly, Norpois’s and the mother’s comments and inquiry could be “performative;” however, as with the presence of truffle oil, the speech is full of potency while the real substance is absent.

When thinking about the origins of truffles and pineapple in Proust time, I could guess why the mother would expect the dish to be a great success. It was supposed to be a success simply because both pineapple and truffles were considered delicacies. It is widely known that truffles are expensive (read my experience of shopping for truffles at Dean and DeLuca to see how a little knowledge cannot cover a lot of expense). The unusual process of acquisition is a good part of what makes them expensive. According to Food Lover’s Companion, “This exceptional fungus grows 3 to 12 inches underground near the roots of trees…never beyond the range of the branches. The difficult-to-find truffle is routed out by animals that have been specially trained for several years. Pigs have keener noses, but dogs are less inclined to gobble up the prize” (708). From the French Caribbean, add in the difficult-to-get pineapple—a colonial fruit reflecting social status and power in the continental aesthetic of exotic food—and one might well imagine, as did the narrator’s mother, that pineapple-and-truffle salad should have impressed the ambassador, who some regarded as a commanding figure having exquisite taste. Françoise, of course, saw him otherwise—as a demanding fellow with a taste for things expensive.

Pineapple-and-Truffle Salad
(Adapted from Dining with Proust by Jean-Bernard Naudin, Anne Borrel and Alain Senderens)

1 fresh pineapple
1 small fresh truffle
1 can of truffle juice (or, in my version, several drops of truffle oil)

Remove the skin of the pineapple and cut the flesh into thin slices, removing the centers.

Rinse the truffle in cold water, dry and slice thinly.

Interleave the pineapple and truffle slices in glass salad bowl, and pour in the truffle juice (or a bit of truffle oil). Cover the bowl with cling firm (food wrap). Chill for 2 hours, gently moving the bowls occasionally so that the pineapple absorbs the truffle’s delicate aroma.

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