Esmerelda Van Twinkle, the protagonist in my novel The French Revolution
, is a morbidly obese pastry chef at a series of ultra-hip San Francisco gourmet restaurants. Esmerelda's my favorite character because (A) she's got boatloads of attitude, and (B) she gets to work with amazing food all day. And if there's one thing most people can agree on, it's that amazing food is a good thing.
(Side note: lest anyone think I'm picking on people with weight problems, allow me to volunteer that I've been battling my weight for pretty much my whole life, and attempted to explore the ins-and-outs of that uphill mind game through Esmerelda's story.)
Thinking up blisteringly imaginative foodie concoctions is way harder than you think. It seemed that whenever I devised a particularly inventive dish for Esmerelda to develop — squid truffle paste, or candy-cane venison stew, or emu casserole slow-cooked with periwinkle nutmeg and served with gingerbread pretzels — the New Yorker food edition would come out with something better. Consider their profile of superchef Grant Aschatz working on a "dessert involving strawberries, Niçoise olives, and essence of violet," or New York chef David Chang's "smear of black nori purée on the bottom of the bowl; then a layer of sea scallops and chanterelles and possibly clams; and then, spooned on top in front of the customer, a soft heap of foaming dashi (kelp and dried-bonito broth), made intentionally unstable with just a little methylcellulose, so that in front of the customer's eyes the bubbles would burst and dissipate into a fishy liquid, at exactly the speed that foam from a wave dissipates onto sand."
Which is pretty much untoppable.
Still, I tried. I sent Esmerelda to a secret culinary boot camp where she learned secrets from a reclusive kitchen demigod. I created a stunning rise to national domination on the back of tongue-lathering, saffron-sprinkled oatmeal cookies, which was necessarily followed by a crushing fall to ignominy at the hands of her mentor. Later, after much soul-searching as a cashier at a copy shop and, later, an up-and-coming New York bagel joint, Esmerelda's creative synapses start firing again at her own restaurant, where she begins churning out breathtaking dishes once more: jalapeno chutney pie, Fluffernutter cake layered with raspberry jam, baked bananas infused with pineapple reduction sauce.
Fun, isn't it? There's something miraculous about food — especially French food — and, of course, this brand of food is vastly different from classics like pork chop and baked potatoes. The combinations are brain-ticklingly wild, so crazy they might actually work.
But the only way to know for sure is to taste them — and until then, our imaginations are left to wonder.