Symphonie Fantastique

The French have a funky name for those mixed salads with more ingredients than just greens and dressing—salade composée. The term also refers to a particular kind of well-arranged salad you’d find in a summer recipes cookbook, sitting there all anatomized, telling you plainly exactly what it is until you shove a fork in its maw to shut it up. It’s easy to imagine the salad sitting tall in its black tie outfit, stoically suffering blasts of discordant violas and trombones furiously beating against its ears. I imagine it reminds the salad of the culinary Berlioz who composed it in the first place. The salad, of course, only really remembers the finishing touches: the arranging, the service, the black pepper. In short, everything that came after the salad was recognizably a salad. What’s really interesting is what happened before its memory was born, when our Hector began by slicing a cold tomato. 

One tender slice, like a softly plucked guitar string reverberating for a moment longer than it should, reveals the flesh and the juice. Four uptempo cuts turn the open fruit into bass clefs. In the early days, a sizzling garlic reverie offered up its delightful halitosis-chic fragrance, roasting its way into the salad’s harmony clove by clove. Nothing more than a fleeting passion led our composer to add the round mozzarella cheeks and pine nut teardrops, but, being the way he was, Hector needed nothing more for everything to coalesce, for the music to begin flowing. He called for the Irishwoman and she came. The vision of the salad poured out and mingled with the aromatic fumes and life became a vivacious ⅜ waltz as Hector and Harriet dissolved and danced between the countertops like a butterfly’s reflection on a moonlit river. 

And the fighting started. They quarreled like blackbirds and raged like armies on black earth but mostly they chased each other with rolling pins and wooden spoons in ⅜ time. In the midst of the clamor, over the crackling pan and the thunderous boil of water, he yelled out, “the potatoes, darling!” << les patates, chéri >> she called to him as they trod along the harrowed country fields, she armed with a shovel and he with a sack. For hours they dug up the roots of countless broad green leaves. It was how it is with potatoes—always another russet hiding behind that clump of dirt you just shoveled out of the way, always accidentally slicing open a potato with the pointed end of the spade. There are two things the grand corpus of potato-digging literature does not prepare you for. One is the sweat. The other is the sheer quantity of worms. Worms of all kinds: iridescent, stubby, frivolous, any adjective you can imagine. Every shovelful of dirt has dozens of the little contortionists, flipping and flopping into treble clefs and trills. For what could’ve been endless tuberous days and sleepless spud-laden nights they dug in silence until pregnant clouds rattled their warning; the pot was boiling over and rolling pin was hitting cutting board. Harriet abandoned the kitchen and Hector fell headfirst into the salad-vision, struggling mutely against the dream as his hands with mantic rhythm wove it into being. 

The salad assembled its own memory, as if peeling potatoes, chopping eggs, and boiling green beans with an invisible baton. Hector prepared his cleaver like a guillotine over the head of lettuce and let the blade fly. As the knife fell, he saw not the lettuce but his Irishwoman, head split in two and the timpani seemed to roll dully in the hallucinogenic kitchen air. Then came the finale; after all, plating is everything. This part the salad remembers clearly: each of the ingredients getting a quarter of the wheel, the eggs and nuts reclining leisurely on top, and all this floating on a bed of bloodstained lettuce. Hector marched out, again led by the ghostly salad-vision, and with a flourish left the plate at the table with three women. He heard their col legno laughs as each of them became Harriet and shimmered back again. “How composed,” they proclaimed mockingly. Hector retreated to the kitchen and collapsed amid his cookware and cauldrons; the women at lunch began the demonic rites that go along with eating a memory alive.

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