You Got Truffles, My Friends

April 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I first tasted truffles at Vivarois, a three-star restaurant in Paris. The first course was a paté chaud de becasses, warm woodcock paté – roughly equal sized chunks of woodcock and truffle under a golden pastry crust. The second course was a ragoût d’homard, the literal translation lobster stew hardly does it justice – medallions of lobster and similarly sized slices of truffle in some delicate pink sauce with tarragon and cognac.

Truffles show up frequently in the dishes at these fancy restaurants. But why?

The Veblen answer is simple – conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class, 1889. Rich people spend their money conspicuously – in a manner so that others will know they are rich.

Truffles are expensive. They grow underground, usually near oak trees. They cannot be cultivated. The supply is limited to what nature provides (and what the truffle pigs and dogs can find), so the price remains high, very high. Good fresh truffles go for about $500 a pound.

Rich people like truffles, goes the Veblen line, because eating truffles announces to the world (or at least to yourself and those at your table) that you are rich. That’s also why rich people like lobster. Lobster meat runs upwards of $40 a pound.

A more Bourdieu-esque taste of the truffled lobster stew would discern not so much the display of crude financial capital but of cultural capital. In the world of three-star restaurants, food is art. Eating is certainly not the practical matter of allaying hunger and gaining nutrition. As Bourdieu says, it’s about form, about the “aestheticization of practice,” and about the “opposition between the easy and the difficult.” You’re not just eating a good meal; you’re appreciating difficult art, an appreciation possible only for those with sufficient cultural capital.

If only we could do an experiment – vastly increase the supply of truffles and lower the price. It may not happen right away, but an article in the Times holds out some hope. Biologists have decoded the truffle genome and discovered that truffles are sexual.
The precious fungi had long been thought to lead an asexual existence, but Dr. Martin and his colleagues have found that they have two sexes, or mating types.
How much longer before they will be forced to mate in captivity? When that happens, I suspect they will cease to be essentials for the hautest of haute cuisines. The restaurants that serve the rich will move on to some other rare and expensive foodstuff.

That’s what happened with lobsters in the US, though in reverse. Now lobster is a delicacy. But in the early days of the republic, lobsters were plentiful, and consequently they were poor people’s food.
In Massachusetts, some of the servants . . . had it put into their contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week. (Maine source here.)
Truffles in abundance would no longer be special. The appreciation of dishes cooked with truffles would be open to all, it would be easy, not difficult; it would no longer mark the difference between a gentleman and a bum (with a capital B and that rhymes with T . . .).

Truffles in fact are very much like garlic – a strong and distinctive flavor that can be added to just about any dish except desserts. But foodies don’t go all rapturous just because the chef has blessed some dish with generous amounts of garlic.


familyinequality said...

The first time I saw truffles on a menu it was shaved truffles on some kind of steak or meat thing. I really thought they were talking about chocolate. Instead of being embarrassed by my lack of class, however, I now tell the story to illustrate my true intellectual-of-the-people status. But when they start breeding truffles and they get cheap, I think I will look down on people who eat them as wanna-bes!

Anonymous said...

Your blog begs the question of whether there is haute cuisine in River City ... or whether your readership can distinguish their bum (with a capital B) from a hole in the wall that serves truffles.

I admit to some regret in seeing the truffle genome decoded. The thought of artificially inseminated truffles rather than allowing them to "have a go" in dank forests seems like a new form of cruelty that should be protested by the Humane Society or the WWF along with the closely related gavving of geese. Science has once again left us sadder but wiser.