It’s a dinner party. Wine passed down the table. Angels have appeared at Abraham and Sarah’s door, and as good hosts the old couple provide food and drink.
And the LORD appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, and said: ‘My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.’ And they said: ‘So do, as thou hast said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: ‘Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.’ And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. (Genesis 18:1-8)
Marc Chagall in Abraham and the Three Angels (1960-66) envisioned a gathering where a carafe of wine waits on the table as angels chat about the business of heaven, rumors between divine creatures, and of course, something about two cities named Sodom and Gomorrah, but no, I don’t think here, not within this frame; I think they talk about the fruits of the earth, about less pleasing accommodations they have had elsewhere, and maybe a shared splendid vacation, even if it was on the job, to Santorini or Rio or Dublin. Off to the side, Abraham looks a bit anxious, nervous like any maître d’hôtel who’s attending to his guests, hovering by the side, wanting to drop in with a suggestion or caution, but no thinking the better of it and waiting on the wings, knowing the show is not his. Meanwhile, Sarah appears confident and happy as she begins her walk into the dining room carrying a bowl of goodness–a bowl of fresh fruit? Soup? Salad? What about a reindeer tartare with cream, lingonberries and green leaves? There’s a joy of the table here that belies what’s to come, and yet maybe that’s the best any dinner offers. Consider Passover as depicted in Marc Chagall’s Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (1931).
And HaShem spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household be too little for a lamb, then shall he and his neighbour next unto his house take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating ye shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; ye shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats; and ye shall keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk. And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof. And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire. And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste–it is HaShem’S passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am HaShem. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to HaShem; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. (Exodus 12:1-14)
“The Name” aka “God” calls for a sacrifice–a lamb, sheep or goat, to be killed as night falls and its blood to ordain the door of a house, a threshold, while the rest of the animal roasts over a fire. Fergus Henderson would make sure that the whole lamb never lasts the night but gives its all and the people honor it for giving its all. Lambs’ Tongues, Turnips and Bacon and Stuffed Lambs’ Hearts and Devilled Kidneys and a Lamb’s Kidneys in Their Suet and Lamb Shanks Eben’s Way and Lamb and Barley Stew and Braised Shoulder of Lamb and Kid and Fennel.
Our night’s host and chef eagerly flips through the pages of The Complete Nose and Tail which he bought at Topping and Company bookstore in St. Andrews after a lovely battered fish and chips with mashed peas at TailEnd. Blood splatters the pages as flames lick shank and brains as he pours a glass of wine.
A blend of tempranillo and grenache, this Rioja Santiago Crianza has a dark palette of oak and berries with a suggestion of black tea. Our host could also serve an Italian wine.
A wonderful presentation of the Negroamaro grape from Podere Don Cataldo. This grape from Southern Italy exhibits dark, earth from the forest with clove, cinnamon and a dark berry burst. Certainly, a French wine could be offered.
This organic wine from southeastern French delivers a pleasant mix of spice and jam with definite notes of black cherries and smoke. As the smokiness clouds our host’s mind, thoughts drift where they often do, to scotch. Why not? As Hannibal Lecter would say.
Ah, the Arran Malt finished in a Sauternes cask–color: golden sunlight; nose: citrus, vanilla, a hint of spice; taste–honey and apricots, and oh so smooth and refreshing; finish–another dram please. As our host swirls tastes, memory begins to review all the preparations. Guests have been selected and mailed an invitation noting the day and time and cordially requesting our presence. Attire has been kept at semi-formal to encourage seriousness of intent but not stiffness. A nap before arriving has been suggested, and of course not to eat before leaving for the party. Prompt arrival is a must. Now neurons and synapses turn to the table–the Passover Seder Set with Plates, Dishes and Wine Cup must be set out.
Originally designed in 1930, made in 1975 by Ludwig Yehudi Wolpert, the set tells the story of execution, salvation and feasting. The stories of Passover recount the exodus from Egypt and guests read and sing the tales from the Haggadah, a menu if you wish, of words putting back together struggle and home. As with Seders our host has attended, guests will sit around a low table, in this case a few coffee tables and sit on plump, soft floor pillows. Memory now gives way to imagination in our host’s mind. When guests sit, we’ll think about our families, about fathers and grandmothers and great-great aunts half-forgotten, think about where we’ve come from, and all the struggles that have been endured, and that we’ve survived in order to be here this night. A glass of wine is raised, quaffed and then an array of raw vegetables featuring onion, celery, parsley and boiled potato go into a bath of saltwater, then into the mouth. Eating our tears our host will say. Bread is broken, then a second glass is poured and then the question asked. “How is this night different?” Maybe we’ll recite Tomas Tranströmer’s poem Alone.
Then, we’ll drink the second cup of wine, dip our hands into saltwater, and then take up the bread, break it again and bless it in our hands, remembering it has come forth from the earth, come into our hands. We’ll listen to Carolyn Forche’s Poem for Maya.
Dipping our bread in oil tins
we talked of morning peeling
open our rooms to a moment
of almonds, olives and wind
when we did not yet know what we were.
The days in Mallorca were alike:
footprints down goat-paths
from the beds we had left,
at night the stars locked to darkness.
At that time we were learning
to dance, take our clothes
in our fingers and open
ourselves to their hands.
The veranera was with us.
For a month the almond trees bloomed,
their droppings the delicate silks
we removed when each time a touch
took us closer to the window where
we whispered yes, there on the intricate
balconies of breath, overlooking
the rest of our lives.
With these words still fresh in our mouths, we gently pull dandelions out of the earth. Take off the leaves, setting them aside for a salad. We wash roots in cold water, then boil and simmer until the thin tubers are tender. Drain, season, then place between two pieces of dark bread and eat. We recite Emily Dickinson’s For Each Ecstatic Instance.
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.
This part of the menu affords our host musings on perfection and the beginning of life and how we endure the rest. For chefs in a restaurant, perfection resides in the ability to perform the same plate over and over, and certainly that approach beckons to boiling water and an egg, and after many attempts, our hosts heats water, whites and yolk this way: boil water in a small pot, lower egg in with spoon, cover and turn off heat, set aside for ten minutes, return, pour hot water out while pouring cold water over egg, crack egg and peel off shell–eat. And now, a hard-boiled detective.
We use our mouths to eat, we use our mouths to speak, and supposedly, not at the same time. Leon Kass cites these time-honored rules in The Hungry Soul.
An act of speaking should not be “contaminated” with food: “It is neither polite nor safe to drink or speak with one’s mouth full.” Those to whom we speak should not be showered with particles of food; neither should they be compelled to witness our half-chewed food. Yet, at the same time, because eating itself is private, human eating together requires speech: “continuous eating should be interrupted now and again with stories.” Without conversation the belly rules the mouth, and the table becomes not different from a trough. (146)
And of course, if a table becomes a trough then we become pigs, the same as Odysseus’ men turned into swine by Circe, no better than how Agamemnon is cut down at the banquet, no different than the animals we kill, cook and eat. What Kass and others want to create is a sacred moment of time that affords a status to humans equal to their potential as conscious, rational, possibly divine creatures. Here is one view that Mircea Eliadae offers on constructing the sacred within time.
Sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable. From one point of view it could be said that it does not “pass,” that it does not constitute and irreversible duration. It is ontological, Parmenidean time; it always remains equal to itself, it neither changes nor is exhausted. (69)
Of course, our host thinks, grace. Another glass of wine wills itself into a glass and our host chooses Simone Weil’s words on grace from her notebooks published as Gravity and Grace.
We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention. (1)
Not to exercise all the power at one’s disposal is to endure the void. This is contrary to all the laws of nature. Grace alone can do it. Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. (10)
Now we fill a cup for absent friends, step out the door and sing into the night.
Our host turns to the past again and remembers friends he would sing this song with, late at night, when only a few of them still hugged a bottle and each other, they would step into the front or backyard, stand and stagger in a circle and sing “Ring of Fire.” it felt right, it felt silly, it felt like nothing was more blessed, more sacred than that moment. The final cup, the final thoughts. Eavan Boland, Atlantis–a lost sonnet.
How on earth did it happen, I used to wonder
that a whole city—arches, pillars, colonnades,
not to mention vehicles and animals—had all
one fine day gone under?
I mean, I said to myself, the world was small then.
Surely a great city must have been missed?
I miss our old city —
white pepper, white pudding, you and I meeting
under fanlights and low skies to go home in it. Maybe
what really happened is
this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word
to convey that what is gone is gone forever and
never found it. And so, in the best traditions of
where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name
and drowned it.
And then it’s done, a last cup of wine and a promise that next year, this same time, we’ll do it all again. The door bell rings, our host smiles and walks to the door to let us in and begin. Bon appétit!