Raclette is my religion

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 10.01.2020

Raclette changed my life. You have no idea. I was twenty-six years old when the holy aroma of raclette first wafted into my nose, but in a way I was no age at all. And then, right there, in sight of the Cheese itself, I was reborn. But let me back up just a little bit.

In the United States, food is often, like nearly everything, seen as an individual interest. Our society hangs on the principles of forging your own destiny, reaping your own riches, and being judged on your own deeds rather than those of your parents. (This, anyway, is what we tell ourselves.) We are taught to distill, from the wide, wide world, a handful of things by which to identify ourselves. These “things” are all-important because you do not inherit them. You chose them. What’s your thing? It could be anything! Baseball, nightclubs, boardgames. Politics, sandals, interior design. Telling people off for not using public transport. Celebrity gossip. Maps.

If your thing is food, then you are a foodie. Foodies discuss ingredients, loiter around farmers’ markets, and sing odes to kale. These are the people who go on recipe blogs and actually read the verbose nonsense that always comes before the ingredient list. (“A crisp fall day is perfect for Aunt Carol’s amazing pumpkin soup! Mmm mmm mmm, yummy! Soup for the soul! It all began when Carol’s great grandfather was thrown into debtors’ prison in 1831…”)

Food belongs to the foodies because, under American culture, an individual understanding of the work behind the success entitles you to a fuller enjoyment of the success itself. This is what foodies do. They integrate, into their personalities, opinions on ingredients, preparation, seasoning, texture, taste, and style of consumption. As such, they claim ownership of food culture.

I’m no foodie. I take excellent care of my appetite and it has grown accordingly large and wonderful, but foodies are a very specific American phenomenon. Being one is a statement. Food was never my “thing” back home, so it did not become my thing in Europe, even as incredible tastes passed through my lips: pints of pure Guinness in Dublin, fresh pastéis de nata in Lisbon, stroopwafels in Maastricht. Fabulous morsels, lovingly devoured, but nothing more: the culture around them was not my culture, and I ate them all in the imported context of a hungry expat, without a second thought as to their how, when, and why.

Then, Luxembourg. Then, raclette.

The grounds for my divine amazement are not just the Cheese itself. Obviously, the Cheese is paramount to the whole experience: eating it, as an isolated action, is comparable to being blessed by the pope. But the entire raclette meal is like coming face to face with the real deity, in a sacred ether whose holy stench stays on your clothes for days afterwards. The first word of raclette scripture is: “Raclette is an entire meal.”

Does it seem mundane or perhaps obvious? Well, imagine me, coming from the United States. The foodies have taught me one main lesson: the more complex the story of a meal’s creation, the more worthwhile it is to eat. Meals are made good by a trick of the oven, a secret ratio of spice, an unusual foreign tradition, a rare ingredient, and so on (things that, incidentally, make easy anecdotes for the foodie to impress you with). And to make something that qualifies as a meal at all, you must at least follow a recipe, artfully mix ingredients, and put a lot of work into it. Cheese that you melt, at the table, yourself? At best, that’s a side dish. Certainly not a meal.

But it is. I asked. And they told me, back when I was twenty-six, that the Cheese was the meal. I almost raptured myself on the spot. What struck me is how raclette is taken very seriously, even though nobody can aggrandize themselves with claims of a fancy preparation process, or take credit for rare spices. We know where the food came from and how it’s made. We are here not to play games about our interests, but to share and honor the taste. And the taste is Cheese.

Every congregation of raclette worshippers, furthermore, has its own interpretation of how the Cheese is to be accompanied. Behold, the supporting foods on the table, framing the Cheese like angels around the baby Jesus: olives, pickled onions, cornichons, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumber salad, baby corn, bread, sausages, potatoes. Crucially, none of these require arduous work to prepare, either.

Then, the nomenclature: “We are going to do a raclette.” It is not “I am going to cook a turkey,” for instance, which would automatically embed various roles for everyone: one person shall prepare a turkey, which the guests shall eat and (unless the turkey is literally on fire) compliment. Raclette is more democratic, its outcome more certain: “We” are going to “do” a raclette. It is a ritual. But it is also not like the sentence, “Let’s get takeaway tonight.” That is a negotiation, an issue of paying a restaurant, ordering from a menu, passively receiving the work of others. Raclette worshippers have agency and they know their fate. The raclette is going to be “done.” It is merely a question of when, where, and with whom.

If this were America, Cheese would be my thing now. But it is not, and raclette is so much more than anybody’s thing. Gathering to consume the Cheese is a damn miracle. It transcends all posturing, flattery, and judgment. It is community. By chance, I experienced my first raclette on my first ever day in Luxembourg, and it was obviously a sign, a spontaneous, pasteurized baptism. Let there be light. And let there be Cheese.

Jeffrey Palms
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