My friend Richard is a genius. The nature of his genius will become clearer at the end of this post. First, let me say a few things about California, and Berkeley in particular.
When our ancestors abandoned the security of Europe and stumbled beyond the Mississippi following the lunatic visions of Joseph Smith, or racing as fast as thirsty cattle could carry their wagons ahead of the law and debtors’ prison, they forgot a few things on the long journey west. And what they did remember were pieces of patchwork: meaningless, disembodied and quickly mislaid by their feral offspring. But humans need culture; to tell them who they are; to allow them to live happily together; and, in the best possible cases, to show them the marvelous, unexpected limits of human achievement. In the last case, even with the intercession of genius, it often takes more than a few generations to create something profound.
Those near relations of ours, who dropped their cultural inheritance like used tissues somewhere on the trail from Boston, were only recently scratching out a meagre living in the San Joaquin or Salinas Valleys, dying of whooping cough, and crying themselves to sleep after ‘Pa’ had told them they would have to shoot Old Yeller. Or, like my own close relations, fishing for sharks in the Gulf of California in the quixotic struggle to ‘strike it rich’ in the days before synthetic vitamin A. So you wouldn’t expect much from California today. But Berkeley? Berkeley? Seriously.
Admittedly, the strong local weed and clumsy application of 19th-century utopianism were bound to hold things back, but I expected, at this stage, Berkeley would have produced at least two good restaurants. We ate at Gather which embodies perfectly the blind, Californian eclecticism that outsiders, and particularly Europeans, find so liberating, until they have to live with it for more than twenty minutes.
When Californians didn’t need to worry so much about rabies or diptheria, they turned their attention to rebuilding a few of the things that make life worthwhile, if not possible. Hmm… Where to start? I seem to recall that my great-grandfather had a small library, and a collection of French portraiture, but we had to sell those when cousin Silas got the gangrene and couldn’t farm no more. But with the money I earned pan-handling, I bought this didgeridoo, and I invented a dance cobbled from the vague memories of a Javanese Gamelan production I saw as an undergraduate. We are as close to Asia as to Europe, after all, and this seems to make sense.
Culture requires a language that suits. Of course, it will never be perfect; like the small bright spots that illuminate pieces of a vast reality, physics, chemistry, biology, and which are all synonyms of each other. The French have their portraiture, their philosophy, even their philosophy of portraiture, which runs in parallel to, and competes viciously with, its sister German or Italian schools.
But in California, and in Berkeley, this language has been re-developed quickly, and in isolation. If there were a genius who could intercede, and help to make sense of a fathomless problem, here, on the edge of the world, where civilisation has been sadly suspended, his name is probably Ajithkumar; he lives far away, in Fremont, and devotes his intelligence to system architecture for application hosting ‘in the cloud’. I doubt he wastes much time with the philosophy of portraiture.
And so Gather assembled the best local ingredients, in the hands of the best local cooks, to create an eclectic blend of vegan charcuterie juxtaposed with meat-heavy dishes such as pork belly and hamburger, to cater to a clientele who exist only in the fever dreams of a weed-addled executive chef. Admittedly, some dishes, on their own, were delicious. Some ingredients, on their own, were also delicious. But the combination was a mystery. And the wine list made us all want to cry: old-world varietals, combined in new and exciting ways under the guidance of a recent graduate of the University of California at Davis’s Oenology department who felt he could improve upon the millennia of French (or Italian, or Austrian) viticulture by serving a sunny, ‘fruit-forward’ Malbec on its own. Malbec, known as Côt in Cahors, was, until recently, only seen fit for export in bulk to Russia for Orthodox religious ceremonies on a budget.
We nibbled at the bright plates and wondered how to make sense of a cuisine that married the purest vegetarianism with an incoherent blend of sour wine and fried flesh. Perhaps there was a statement that brilliantly captured the absurdity of ‘vegan charcuterie‘ or the heartbreaking betrayal of an ethical convert to vegetarianism who now had to share his table and cutlery with gruesomely braised pigs’ feet.
During a long pause in the conversation, as I peered daydreaming through an untouched glass of cloudy wine, Richard remarked, while I picked up a forkful of apparent flesh from the charcuterie board, and as my expression fell when I realised it was thinly sliced, Japanese eggplant.
‘Man, you just kissed a dude!’