Bouillabaisse in the mist (2011.8.1[Mon.])


Yet more rambling on Paris. I am by no means a gourmet, and rarely feel compelled to write about food, but in this month's column I will make an exception. The dish is bouillabaisse. Some of you must be thinking, "Surely he must mean Marseilles!" And ordinarily, that would be the case, but it would lack a single, important factor. Which just happens to be the theme of this essay.

    The perfect meal is not defined simply by the dishes served; the ambience of the restaurant, the tables and chairs, the scenery outside, the music, the season, the weather and time of day all play a part. And living in Kobe has spoiled me for another critical element, on which I refuse to compromise: conversation partners with whom to share laughs and banter. Other might hope for a special someone of the opposite sex, but the tension in such situations can make one forget the enjoyment of the meal. And, alas, I have no such boon companions in Marseilles....

    In July 2010, on the last, sultry day of the European Evo Devo Meeting, after saying goodbye to researcher acquaintances and students, I took the Metro Line 14, switched trains at Bercy 6, and made my way to the Pasteur station. Normally after such a meeting, dinner would be no more than a leisurely meal talking evolution with a few friends. But, sadly, my work for the day was not yet done. A manuscript for a review I had co-authored with Dr. S. from the Pasteur had come back from the referees*1, and the re-submission deadline was looming, with only days to go. And as luck (good or bad, I cannot say which) would have, I happened to be in Paris.

    On learning of this coincidence, my colleague emailed me, "Great! Come over to the institute and we can work on it together." The review was on muscle development and evolution, and I was in charge of the evolution side. Many of the reviewers' comments touched on this area, which meant of course that I had to be involved in the response. I sacrificed a half day of the meeting (or, more accurately, played hooky), and holed up in my hotel room working out the kinks in the text. But the problematic part was the figures, which I had hastily put together in Illustrator just before the initial submission deadline.

    I suspected that the invitation to "work on it together at the Institut Pasteur" in fact meant that Dr. S wanted me to redo the figures on the spot. And that is exactly what happened. Oh well. We decided to do what we could then go out for a bite. I cobbled together the images as best I could, and realized I was getting hungry.
"We're all going out for dinner tonight, right?" I asked.」
"No – we're going to have to do an all-nighter."
"You're kidding!"
"Yeah, I'm kidding. What do you want to have?"
"Seafood. In a bouillabaisse!" I replied.
I couldn't help but remember one CDB Joint Symposium when Ms D from the KRPD had obviously enjoyed a bouillabaisse one dinner, so being the simple person I am, I couldn't resist the temptation. My stomach was already churning out special bouillabaisse enzymes in expectation, like one of Pavlov's dogs.

    "Bouillabaisse, huh? That's a bit out of season – could be tough," he said. But he suggested we try the same restaurant I'd gone to two years before. And when we arrived, the sign by the door said the special of the day was none other than bouillabaisse! It must have been a reward for the day's work. "You're a lucky guy!" said Dr. S. So in we went, the two of us co-authors plus two of his friends, and spent the beginning of the meal talking all about movies.

    Until the main course arrived, we had been debating about the title of a Sigourney Weaver film. "What was that called again? 'Lovers in the Mist'?"
"No, I think it was 'Monkeys in the Mist.'"
"The Thing in the Mist?"
But the first bite of the main attraction made me recall a certain bouillabaisse-themed movie....

    "This reminds me of a film that, beside the bouillabaisse connection, also helped shape my idea about what makes a hero: 'Our Man Flint' [1966], which was a real dog of a movie from the 60s. Flint figures out that how the villain is poisoning people by identifying garlic, saffron and fennel in the mix, in exactly the same ratios as in the dish. He deduces that the bad guy must be from Marseilles, and heads off to search for him there in his private jet. Great stuff. He orders a bouillabaisse at one famous restaurant, and after taking a single bite, he says, 'This isn't it,' and heads off to the next, until he finally discovers the villain's hideout." I had to laugh, not just at the ridiculousness of the B-movie parody, but that I would still remember it at this age.
     But Dr. S took it right up, "That was James Coburn, right? He died just recently. I remember that movie – very fun. His best work."

    Wow – someone who understands! It takes a rare spirit to say that Coburn's masterpiece is Flint, not 'The Magnificent Seven.' And bouillabaisse is to France what something like o-den or yakisoba is to Japan (although saying this will probably make somebody angry). It isn't easy to find other to enjoy it with in the same spirit of kitschy hipness. And the laughs are the best spice of all. There are lots of stories and trivia to tell about Flint, but sadly there's no way they'd fit in this short essay.

    The meal was, well, great. There's the rich broth of course, but it's the eel that really makes it. Like Coburn's acting. Could've been a bit fresher, I suppose; maybe you really do need to go to Marseilles. Oh well, even a little off, eel tastes good. That's just how eels, and B movies, are. Anyway, the whole thing feels right – it's summer after all. And, hey, this bouillabaisse is good! Right S? Huh? What have you been eating? Is it good? Whatever... What was the title of that movie again? "Gorillas in the Mist"*2? What were they thinking? That's way too literal...

    And that is how we passed an entirely mist-free Parisian midsummer's night. A splendid time. I finally had the chance to enjoy the revered bouillabaisse out of an adventure story from my youth, in beautiful Paris, and to digest the whole thing effortlessly. All thanks to Dr. S. It was well worth the wait....

*1 Recently published as Sambasivan et al. 2011. An eye on the head: the evolution and development of craniofacial muscles. Development 138: 2401-2415.
*2 The actual title was Gorillas in the Mist, which was rendered as Love Beyond the Mist (Ai ha kiri no kanata ni) in Japanese. So later we figured out that Dr. S had been correct. My first guess of "Lovers in the Mist" was based on the Japanese title.