Let them eat cake! Or my philosophical justification for a 14-course Reveillon.

The Orangerie at Versailles

For Christmas Eve, my cousins and I are busy planning a Reveillon de Noel for 20 or so people.  A Reveillon is a traditional French celebration on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, which generally comprises a 14 course tasting menu.  Our present inclusions run the small-plate gambit of mint pea soup, freshly steamed mussels, coconut-lime sorbet, a fruit and cheese course, and a Buche de Noel.  It's pretty ridiculous and  pretty fun.  Much of the time, I might be a bit overwhelmed by the fanfare and process of it all (washing and plating between courses, having everything timed just right to keep the festivities moving, etc), but not now, not at Christmas among a group of people whom I love and want to celebrate. I've had a few raised eyebrows when I've mentioned it, and comments along the lines of "It seems like a lot of trouble," and "Is that just a tad bit excessive?"  Of course it is!  Precisely! 
Buche de Noel

My response: "Yes, isn't it great?"  LOTS of things are LOTS of trouble.  Life is full of "a lot of trouble," but most such troubles have a bit more practical significance (e.g., going to the DMV, negotiating insurance coverage, waiting for Comcast to come get your wireless set up, cleaning out gutters..., ..., ...) and much less aesthetic significance. 

It's not part our Puritan and Prairie cultural inheritance to go to such lengths for the mere aesthetic and folly of it all.  Such experiences don't yield a tangible commodity or increase in market value.  They don't lend themselves to a higher resale rate.  In his thoughtful book Second Nature,  Michael Pollan examines the tension between the American Manifest Destiny mentality and historic Continental ideals of garden, positing that fenceless suburban lawns are to some extent the upshot of a desire to reign from sea to shining sea and disdain for private leisure. I think there is a parallel tension between Americans' approach to frivolity, food, and garden.  We have a hard time justifying "wasting" time, expense, and energy on something merely lovely.  We have a hard time whiling away an evening over a long meal, just because there is a warm breeze and the candles are reflecting against the glass.  So we appease this cultural mentality by rushing through our processed lunch and then feel better about ourselves for staying late at the office and hitting the gym early.  (I'm aware that many and most of my friends don't mirror this cultural stereotype, but nearly all of us still seem to need to make sacrifices before our cultural god of productivity in order to let ourselves off the hook for genuine leisure.  We still poison our insouciant cage-free egg brunch with guilt over not working on our to-do list).  

It's my observation that we as Americans also take this approach to gardens and landscapes.  We can justify the expense of "foundation plants" and even "annual color," as they increase our property value and curb appeal.  We will buy perennials if we think they are a one-time fixed cost wager.  We may invest in hardscape but not in the intangibles.  We can jump on the bandwagon of growing our own food when we see the cost of organic radishes at Whole Foods.  But we have a hard time bedding out bienniels of Foxglove and Doronicum because we don't think a cost analysis on their bloom time weighs in their favor.  Is Lunaria annua going to be a static fixed cost in my landscape that I can count on?  Do I know whether this ephemeral Myosotis is going to naturalize? Absolutely not, but it's lovely, worth a try, even if we don't know for sure how it's going to yield a return.

A friend recently told me a story: He had guests over to his home and fairly elaborate, beautifully designed garden.  As they were walking around the guest asked disconcertedly,
"What do you call this? What is all this?"  
Friend: "It's a garden."  
Guest: "But what is it for, isn't it expensive?"  
Friend: "It's just for this, and it's very expensive."  The guest was a fairly young, relevant, hip guy, who understands good design in the form of his urban nerd eyeglasses and Apple products, but he was totally baffled by the sheer effort of that lovely space; he didn't have schema for understanding the garden...shouldn't it do something?  

Certainly, gardens do add value to our homes and our property, they often produce food we can eat and share (though many of us have rued the $25 tomato, once we've accounted for the cumulative expenses spent).  Still, a garden for the sake of a garden is an inherently frivolous endeavor.  It's a lot of extra work for no apparent reason--especially in the details.  In every good garden, even the most innovative, efficient, and sustainable ones, there should be an element of "just because."  There should be moments that are not FOR anything else, except just that moment.  Perhaps this fleeting frivolous element is part of the mystique and psychological appeal of gardens.  They punctuate the passage of time and break up the mundane daily grind.  Gardens take us out of the realm of "survival" and into the realm of rest, which is ironic given the continual labor and tending they require.  They are the result of leisure and effort and provide us with leisure, much as many other forms of art or a classic liberal arts education.  And, as with other forms of art, it doesn't mean that there is no fiscal value rendered and that there is no additional message, edginess, or communication beyond being "pretty."  It also doesn't mean that a well-designed garden shouldn't pay much attention to function or pragmatics.  Yes, we need to consider that muddy corner outside the back door.  Still, a huge matter in the world of a garden and in the world of a soul is to celebrate and enjoy ars gratis artis: art for art's sake.  (As a caveat, I don't think this sort of intentional and conscientious frivolity is at all the same beast as passive, wasteful consumption.  Whereas passive consumption is often an effort to check out from the present moment, to escape our daily guilt-and-stress-ridden toil, the kind of frivolity I have in mind requires the opposite stance: we offer up creativity and toil in order to expand and experience the present moment).

Just because I can, I'm going to suspend my need to feel useful.  It's not as though most of us don't do anything consumptive and wasteful (how many hours in front of the TV do most Americans average in a year?).  Why not be intentional about "wasting time?"  Why not own it and make it lovely, and not ruin it by feeling guilty for it?   So I am going to learn how to make meringue mushrooms to decorate my cake and serve salmon roe on 20 Chinese soup spoons: I'm going to go to the trouble for no other reason than a lovely evening. 


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