July 6, 2009
I know a woman who once placed a homemade tart on the front passenger seat of her car. It was a Provencal recipe made with roasted red peppers. She set off for a social event where the tart would be unveiled and eaten. The woman was racing along when she was forced to make a sudden stop. The tart went flying, landing on the accelerator. She had to keep driving. She vividly recalls crushing the tart again and again into the pedal and car floor.
Perhaps you cannot fully appreciate this story. If you have never made a tart from scratch, perhaps this means nothing. But to any cook, it speaks of tragic desecration. The tart is the acme of culinary perfection. It takes years of trial and error to master the form. Some people never get it right despite monumental effort and patience. In our world, many women never get the chance to try.
Tarts are not important. But, they are among the most important of unimportant things. Everything from field and orchard is at home in pastry. “So many simple ingredients can be made to look exotic by being dressed up in a pastry crust,” said Julia Child. It’s true. If you sliced up an old shoe and arranged it in concentric circles on pastry, it would look appealing. With a light glaze, it might taste good.
The homemade tart is cheap and filling. Store-bought models look fine, but taste stale. Ironically, those who make pastry for a living are considered to be doing something worthwhile. But, the housewife who spends hours getting this tart art right is an elitist or a dolt. The store-bought tart has professional credentials. The homemade one is a sign of decadence or stupidity.
Monks in the desert can live on honey and locusts. Most of us cannot. “Good living is an act of intelligence,” said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “by which we choose things that have an agreeable taste over those which do not.” He was French. We tend to think differently. The non-industrial tart is inefficient.
But, even tart failures are a form of accomplishment; they lead to later successes. Far better to make a tart and fail then to buy a tart and eat. I made a red-white-and-blue tart for July Fourth out of raspberries, blueberries and custard. The crust was cracked. The custard was thin. But, it was one minute step on the road to tart perfection. One day, some talented cook will unveil a work of such consummate skill and beauty, it will transform the world. It will be the Platonic Tart, the essence of tart-ness, the ideal form. It is toward this Heavenly Tart, we must labor in obscurity.