Just try to keep your focus

by Allan

Think of a familiar phenomenon: you’re listening to a really good pop song.  What is it about this that makes it so great?  On the one hand, it’s nostalgia; this is that song you used to listen to, back in the day.  This is what filled your dorm room speakers; this is what your father forced you to listen to on his record player; this is what was on the radio when you lost your virginity in the backseat of a Japanese hatchback that you wished, just for comfort’s sake, was an American sedan.  On the other hand, it’s hope; this song makes a future possible.  This is the moment that the tide turns; there is light at the end of the tunnel; things are going to be different from now on.   You get lost: is this tune making me reminisce in a sad and melancholy way, or is it making me yearn for tomorrow (in an equally melancholy way)?

Good foods beats music, on this score, for being rooted in the present.  You can eat less-than-ideal food that evokes memory, and you can eat less-than-ideal food that prompts reflection on what comes next.  But we all know that ideal culinary experience that resides, intrinsic, without any of these additional associations.  You know these experiences as much from your lack of knowing them: you’ve forgotten them, they didn’t fit into your existential life narrative, your novel-esque story.  (Why are there no pictures of the falafels Simon and I ate in Paris?)  You will, if you are unlucky enough to have a chance, look back on your life and realize that the best episodes were those that you can’t now make sense of, those that you’ve foregone, the ones that didn’t make it into the vacation pictures, the episodes that are just foggy patches now, just ideas that you have about what a person’s past could or should be, nothing concrete, just a faint image of what seems most noble, even if it never happened, but we can’t recall.

The best food — the best x, for all x? — is like this.  Neither memory nor expectation, it’s pleasure in the broadest possible sense.   It’s that which rejects history for fiction, that which rejects the novel for the short story, that which rejects prose for poetry; that which rejects poems for encyclopedia entries; that which rejects the large for the small, the whole for the part, the total for the absurdly and the unavoidably and the wonderfully incomplete.  That’s every bite, dish, and meal: the briefest and most directionless of things.