June 4, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
The other day, having traveled to a midsize American city that shall remain nameless, my dining companion and I encountered the following description on an online restaurant menu:
Tender day boat scallops, lightly cajuned, pan seared with pancetta, caramelized leeks, sweet roasted red peppers, mint and pickled lentil medley, drizzled with a fava bean puree and organic pea shoots.
I was thrilled. I don’t mean that I wanted to eat it; there were like thirteen different components that I wouldn’t have wanted alone, let alone in combination. But I loved that the dish existed, in this moment in the world, in this place, and that, like a perfectly crafted poem, it managed to illuminate the human condition in a few deft strokes.
As the late Maya Angelou wrote, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” Certainly, this dish was ambition incarnate—it was like the Macbeth of restaurant dishes—and certainly that was a big part of its appeal. There were seven parts (not counting seasonings) used, some ten different techniques employed, with more adjectives than you’d find in an Elizabeth Bishop poem.
Then there was the word “cajuned.” I had never heard this word used—in fact, with the exception of “Irishing up” a coffee, I had never heard of any ethnographic descriptor like this applied to food—but figured it meant something blackened and spicy in the manner of Paul Prudhomme.
The mishmash of buzzwords and techniques, things trying so hard to be sophisticated—it all sounded so unappetizing, so random. And yet, more thought and work had gone into the planning of that dish than most of us put into anything. The writing of that description had taken planning, and thought, and real effort.
Putting something into the world, in all earnestness, is scary. Your conception of beauty will never be everyone else’s, your sophistication may seem tasteless and dated to someone else. Maybe you are both right. I copied the menu description and, cruelly, sent it to my friends. I tried to work “lightly cajuned” into conversation, which is challenging. I tried to strip that collection of words of its unsettling power. But the menu won, in the end.