It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The pleasures of dining alone

I have a crush on the juice of vitis vinifera because it delivers much more to our lives than aroma, flavor and 90+ ratings. It brings the joyful sound of friends connecting at the dinner table. What is more nourishing and life affirming than sampling the appetizers, savoring a newly discovered wine, exchanging a few jokes and pleasantly easing our way through a multi-hour, relaxing dinner with our closest friends? And with the clinking of glasses and the toasts of health and good wishes, wine also provides an underappreciated cohesion to that fundamental, spirit-lifting gathering.

Furthermore, if conditions are appropriate and its quality warrants it, the dinner wine can be discussed and analyzed, praised or criticized, either of which adds yet another dimension to the occasion. Wine, therefore, can transform the basic function of eating into a special dining occasion. All things considered, it seems that wine, therefore, is man’s quintessential communal beverage, and with that thought in mind, it is best enjoyed with those whose company you value.

Ah . . . but I must confess that there are times when I’m not with others—when I’m “doing my Lucullus thing” and dining alone. Lunchtime at home is the typical venue, and I’ve either prepared something from scratch, or have enhanced last night’s remnants with a few savory accompaniments. Inevitably my culinary effort becomes wine-worthy, so I pour myself a glass from dinner’s half-empty bottle. Alone and undistracted by conversations with others, I have the unhurried and heedful moments to quietly assess and fully appreciate the qualities of the wine in front of me. Its clarity, depth and brightness; the clean and enticing aroma of citrus and herbs; its crisp, palate cleansing acidity. A wine of purity and . . . .

Lucullus? Lucullus, you’re wondering?

Lucius Licinius Lucullus was a Roman Consul and General, circa Julius Caesar’s time. Even though he was a particularly effective military commander, Lucullus is remembered more for his extravagant lifestyle after he retired to private life. His wealth—variously flaunted—included several luxuriously designed and appointed villas with fabulous, ocean-fed fish ponds, as well as lavish Persian-inspired gardens. (Ideas picked up during his military campaigns.) In addition, and on a more altruistic scale, he owned and housed an exceptional library collection in Rome which contained that era’s finest manuscripts and books; they were available for studying by any and all—but particularly philosophers and literary scholars.

However, Lucullus is forever associated with his over the top, lavish-in-every-respect, gastronomic, entertainment events (think “Lucullan feasts”) that he hosted for Greek Philosophers, visiting foreign dignitaries and influential Roman politicians. Moreover, even though he enjoyed feasting on the best of everything with his dinner guests, he also apparently maintained that same hedonistic lifestyle while dining alone.

According to Plutarch, one evening while dining at home—alone and without guests—he apparently felt that something was amiss in the kitchen; the evening’s dinner was ordinary at best. And so, eager to apprise him of the shortfall, Lucullus summoned his nervous Chef and immediately chided him for the lack of imagination and magnificence in his meal. Wishing to explain why, the chef responded that he thought it was unnecessary to produce the usual level of excellence inasmuch as Lucullus was not hosting anyone special that evening. Big mistake. Lucullus, appalled at the insinuation, barked, “Are you not aware that tonight Lucullus is host to Lucullus?” Adding, furthermore, that this is precisely when extraordinary efforts are required. No word from Plutarch on where the Chef’s next job was.

Lastly, while dining alone—with our without the bonus of a live-in Chef—can provide a few, beneficial moments of introspective solitude, there is no question that dining with family and friends is the better pathway to an enriched and healthy life. With that in mind, and with 2012 just a few days away, I hope your New Year will be happy, healthy and prosperous.  Further, I hope that you will pour some love and affection, and uncork one of those special bottles that you've secretly stashed for special occasions.

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