The Blind Elephant Omelette
The title above appeared, in its original form, written on the cover of a manila envelope. Also written so as to be read before opening was a dedication and a "Charge to the Reader," together with a process note on publication. The dedication was to one Phil Rieffeo, "in appreciation of his appreciation of the process and form of theatre de la cuisine, the sharp kitchen knife distinction between real nourishment and what fills the belly." The "charge" was prefaced with a philosophical wisecrack: something must always be given, and something paid, and then there is still the charge. One must give the time of day.
In our sated sophistication, many of us are all to eager to cut ourselves off from the mass of humanity whose daily concern with basic conservation, filling the belly, is not to be gainsaid. We are enjoined, therefore, to regard cookbooks, injunctions for the preparation of food, as closely analogous to sacred scripture--indications for feeding the psyche and practicing the arts of clearing consciousness. What they have in common, together with musical scores and mathematical formulae, is the general absence of descriptive language, or in any case a focus upon injunctions as an ordered set of commands. Do this, then this, then that, like so. Otherwise, we could not reasonably expect to wind up with an omelette.
We must, therefore, be prepared to give the time of day for the practice of the exercise. And what we must pay is attention, otherwise we miss lines and the sight gags sail by. The "charge" is not of cash register "ting" nor bugle blast at a football spectacle or John Wayne rerun. It simply seeks agreement from the reader--that before opening the envelope, and the exercise begun--one agree by intent to carry it through as far as possible toward completion, realization through action, putting into actual practice whatever shred of teaching contained within. In the most direct sense, this means cooking an omelette. Here it should be said that in the preparation and serving of a "Blind Elephant Omelette" one need not first obtain a blind elephant.
Remember the Sufi story about the nine (or four, or twelve) blind men end the elephant? Well, of course in that story, it was the men who were blind, and not the elephant. But the gist of the teaching in both stories is similar: perception of partial truths, with a little joke for those who take it for granted that the truths they see as whole, self-evidently, will be seen as such by all. The stories thus mildly urge compassion for others with perhaps diminished capacities, a gentle gibe at those who would divide the world into wise-guys and fools.
The "Blind Elephant Omelette" is really an egg dish, meant to be eaten and enjoyed. The text contains all the information necessary for its preparation and presentation--making it clear that the latter is as important as the former. It is the sort of dish that should be prepared and served by the chef him-or herself, ideally at a midnight feast. It is not intended for commerce--indeed, the tradition scowls with a deeply creased brow should even a bite of the "Blind Elephant Omlette" be offered up in exchange for coin or currency. It belongs, rather, in the repertoire of teahouse hospitality.
If eaten by the chef alone, the Omelette is delicious, but the theater and the joke are lost. At least three others should share the feast, and the joke only works upon the innocents, since it stays the same, although the actual contents of the Omelette may be as varied as a kitchen's assortment of leftovers. When four eat the Omelette, it is sliced in the skillet with two cuts, and served in quadrants. When serving the Omlette to additional feasters, an ancillary game may be Played. Perhaps a few brief words about this unnecessary game should be written here, by way of clearing up confusion before it starts, for the essential acts of confusing and making distinctions are very much part of the process of the Omelette exercise. The game is attractive to the conceptual mind because it deals with representations of absolute, eternal truths, of the sort that can be known and told.
The game goes like this: guesses or wagers are made as to how many people might be served from the one Omelette pan with each additional cut. The maximum number of Omelette servings for "n" cuts, as the mathematicians have their way of saying it, is known for this or any other universe that could possibly contain Omelettes. It has been published, by the way, in a brilliant book by a wonderful man, the Handbook of Integer Sequences by N.J.A. Sloane (Academic Press, New York and London, 1973) as Sequence 391, where it is called, "CENTRAL POLYGONAL NUMBERS N(N-1)/2+1, OR SLICING A PANCAKE," with references to the technical literature.
With no slices, the Omelette, or the "pancake" is whole, in one piece. With one slice, there are two pieces, maximum, and with two slices we have at most four pieces--although we could settle for three pieces, the sequence counts the maximum number of pieces, or servings possible, and hence is concerned not with opinion, belief or whimsy, but with an order of verity. So now, with three slices how many pieces can we get? The answer, obviously, is seven: just make the third slice so that it crosses two arms of the cross cut with the first two slices (there will be a triangular piece in the center). With four slices, we can serve eleven; with five slices, sixteen pieces; and with six slices, twenty-two. Naturally, the pieces are not all of the same shape and size. But so it goes. If we want to serve, say, 192 pieces of Omelette, there is just no way we can get them with fewer than twenty cuts--although with nineteen slices, it is written, 191 pieces of Omelette can be had.
Returning to the simple social scenario, in which the foursome at the midnight feast enjoy a "little something," cut crisscross in the pan like the astrological symbol for Earth. As Nigel Pennick points out in his book, The Ancient Science of Geomancy; Man in Harmony with the Earth ( Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1979), the circle quartered is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "city," as can be seen in the plans of Peking, Teotihuacan, Baghdad and Winchester, England, the latter following the plan of its preceding Roman military campsite, as do Colchester, Chichester and Gloucester, too. Last things first: the Omelette, then, when served, would be set down in the center of the table, at the site of the city's omphalos--its geomantic center, or at the crossing of the Roman cardo and decumanus (east/west, and north/south, respectively), which is to say, at "headquarters." The Omlette pan itself is set down, family style, upon a trivet or slab of wood. The top of the Omelette should be puffy and golden brown, which can be achieved by finishing off the cooking under a broiler, and serving instantly before it all collapses. A polished sense of syntony is requisite; it goes without saying that the easiest way to heighten drama of the spectacle and at the same time minimize the disappointment of Omelette-eaters arriving to table for a cool and deflated dish, is to seat everyone first. A superb and gracious ruse is the serving of champagne. Few ears miss the tell-tale pop of the bubbly's cork. The Omelette can be toasted as it goes under the broiler flame, the anticipation thus delightfully heightened as well.
The idea for serving is simply this: for four people, say, there are four principal ingredients gracing the Omelette. Unlike the classic French omelette, which may be folded over its choice ingredients, the "Blind Elephant Omelette" is rather more in the line of what in Spain is called a "tortilla," utterly unlike the item so-called in the New World, however. If it were baked in a steep-sided souffle dish instead of being fried and broiled in a cast iron pan, it would be a souffle; but it is not a souffle, however fluffy. Each of the four quadrants in the pan contains one of the four principal ingredients of choice. Now, there are two different ways to slice the Omelette it the pan, before serving a quadrant to each of the feasters. One way is to slice between the different ingredients: thus, in our exemplary recipe, one feaster would eat eggplant, another mushroom, a third olives, and the fourth onion.
An alternate way to slice the egg in the pan serves each person with a different combination of two ingredients, such as olive and eggplant, eggplant and mushroom, mushroom and onion, onion and olive. These all go well together, and have been experienced in manifold combination pizzas. With the larger and more complex variations of the Omelette, however, the subtle correctness of sequencing and combinatorics is the mark of a master Omelettier.
When such a master begins to produce an Omelette, the chicken coop is constructed so that the hens will be happy, well-watered and not overcrowded, fed with grain and grasses, with plenty of greens for the deep golden color in the yolks, serviced with a stylish rooster, given adequate light and running room, roosting space, clean straw for the laying and the rest. No real egg chef can be satisfied with any eggs except those that come from chickens he knows, and knows what they have been fed. We need not dwell, then on the question of the freshness of the eggs--for four people, three are required, as James Joyce had Buck Mulligan crack three in memory of the Blessed Trinity in a tower by Dear Dirty Dublin: three Divine Bodies in One Divine Essence, or was it Three Essences in One Body, or fried in Three-in-One oil? But let's cut this silliness short and proceed to a methodical list of ingredients.
OM The aubergine, eggplant. There is no comparison possible between the bulbous purple product in the supermarket and the fresh fruit picked from the vine with all its pranic juices still in flood. If it can be arranged, go out into the garden at eleven-thirty at night to pick the eggplant. Long, skinny Japanese eggplants can be sliced once lengthwise, then in "quarter moon" slices about one-quarter inch thick. Large aubergines have the stem end trimmed. One of the best knives to use is the J.A. Henckels "Friodur" nine-inch serrated.
Some macrobiotic chefs say the eggplant is among the most Yin of foods--in part because it soaks up so much Yang oil. Salt the slices lightly and set them aside until they sweat, then blot, don't rub, the beads of moisture--this will remove most of the bitterness if the fruit is store-bought. Should one be using an eggplant with an old and leathery dry skin, then of course it should be peeled, working from the trimmed end to the rounded one minimizes slips and peeling the back of one's thumb. Then standing the aubergine on its flat, trimmed end, slice it lengthwise. Each half is then placed on the large flat side--the general principle for slicing vegetables--and three to five slices are made lengthwise. This results in four or six slabs of aubergine for each lengthwise half. Two or three of the slabs (a quarter of the whole eggplant) are then turned 90 degrees and sliced lengthwise again, then cut crosswise until diced. Each of the four quadrants is thus diced. The eggplant is then put in a sauce pan with a bit of water and a spot of butter and brought to a boil, covered and left to steam until it is limp. Eggplant must be cooked, quite thoroughly. Another way this may be done is on a cookie sheet, under direct flame from the broiler, until the pieces are actually charred. A combination of boiling first, then sauteing in butter with a sprinkle of curry powder is nice, so long as the eggplant is well done before being added to the Omelette.
RA Basil, sweet basil, the king of herbs it is called—from the Greek, basileus, meaning king, lord and master, or Zeus/Ahuramazda among the gods or specifically the king of Persia, at Athens the second of the nine Archons, the wren, the queen bee, or in general the most distinguished of any class, as in basileus egkephalos, a morsel fit for a king. The little leaf tips from the fresh herb are used, crushed in a mortar and pestle routine, not cut. Failing fresh basil, frozen may be used. Dried is third choice, and if it comes to that one might as well use oysters, which give very much the same color green if the their guts are full, but smell utterly different (as do the dry and the fresh basil, which is the thrust of this point).
HAUM Cheese: any good orange cheese, but not Swiss, which takes on the character of rubber cement when cooked--and need we caution against Velveeta, which will not be known as one of the most blessed products of the cheese makers. Canadian Black Diamond and New York Martin are superb, but the wrong color--a good trade-off is double Gloucester. One wants the flavor of sharp cheddar and the color of mild. The cheese should not be fresh.
AIM One pink Bermuda onion: peel and slice vertically, then trim the root and the sprout ends on each half--this way one saves slicing oneself (odds on, over time). Cold water is good for tears, but shouldn't be necessary if the knife is sharp and the slicing swift. Onion cutting is the un-Zen exercise of kitchencraft. Strict Tibetans will not have them in the dish, but Egyptians will not be without them. In the middle East the receipe is enhanced by making it a "double onion" dish. But the Persian Sufis compared the inner qualities of men to walnuts and to onions: the nut with its sweet inner meat despite the hard shell apparently coming off the better as one layer of the ego is stripped off, revealing just another layer, and another under that, until at the heart of the matter there is nothing at all. In reality, this merely indicates the two principal divisions of the vegetable kingdom: the onion is a monocotyledon, along with orchids, grasses and lilies; tulips, among the angiosperms, have but one shoot upon germination; while walnut trees and much else, including the rose, have two, dicotyledons thus called.
HUM The heart of the Omelette is the yolk of the egg, yellow, golden, the color of the sun, third-generation, M-spectrum star, with the middle of its visible light (as viewed by our species) in the range of yellow 555C or so angstroms. Three eggs, a splash of half and half, a slab of creamery butter in the pan. Fancy French chefs, whose criterion of haute cuisine is to have the same dish turn out exactly the same way each and every time it is prepared must have their special omlette pan in which to melt this butter, and in which nothing else is ever cooked. We prefer to accept the principle of change and altered expectations and go for traces of elemental iron (GLAUM) in the diet. For this reason, use a cast-iron skillet--nine inches is a good standard size for serving three or four people. Never wash it out with detergent unless it has become so scuzzy rotten as to require steel-wooling and complete re-seasoning (heating and soaking with sweet oils). Some iron actually gets into the Omelette and into the belly and liver to make red blood corpuscles--not so with the French omelette pan for all its anemic exactitude. Consider the structure of iron: Fe 26 has just the number of protons, neutrons and electrons to manifest a replete filling of its energy shells at the atomic level--that is why, when old stars burn out (such as Betelguese, presently, in the constellation Orion) they leave a cold core of solid iron.
KLEEM Tomato; nothing like the vine-ripe, deep red--unbeatable with basil, and freshly ground Javanese lampong pepper.
HRIM Black olives, NOT machine pitted, since the flavor is in the interaction between the pit and the brine; but we can't risk biting down on a pit, so the best are imported Greek olives, scraped from the pits.
GAM Cilantro, also called Chinese parsley and coriander, the fresh green leaves of the herb, the only acceptable substitute for light green Chinese snow peas, threaded.
GLAUM Iron has already been covered, so going by the colors, what is left is mushrooms. And it is true, quite possibly as sacred truth, that blue was the color Vishnu turned in a tradition that was older than he--as old as Indra and the first of the Vedas, the Rg, that came sown into the plains of India from the high Himalayas, storehouse of snows, with the early Indo-European Aryans, singing the praises of Soma, the sacred mushroom in some 119 hymns. But as R. Gordon Wasson argues that Soma was probably Amanita Muscaria, called hari in Sanskrit, flaming red in color--whereas the psilocybe varieties, both in central Asia and in the Americas, are identifiable in the field by pinching the flesh, which turns blue in twenty minutes or so. Also in heavenly Hana. Maui no ka oe!
The tomato and onion, eggplant, olive, mushroom each fill a quadrant of the pan, with a little butter on the bottom, egg & cream binding it together, and cheese on top. A few minutes on a medium burner, until the egg begins to puff (which it will do faster if covered), then under the broiler for finishing off--but before the cheese chars. The herbs have to be mixed in the egg, but a sprig of basil is a touching garnish. Served with champagne: Schramsberg Cremant, or their Blanc de Noir are acceptable substitutes for vrai champagne, from among the California sparkling wines.
The game is the feedback to the chef, from each feaster, according to which quadrant was served--or the two tastes.
Ask a blind elephant which one of the fully-sighted human beings fondled trunk, tail, belly, legs, etc., respectfully. No problem—the elephant could identify each one: by the smell. Which is why we smell our food as we bless it. Wouldn't you smell someone feeling your tail if you were blind and had the proboscis of a pachyderm? We are one body...thick-skinned or thin.
Kurt von Meier