As a product of the world’s greatest capitalist endeavor, that mythic and crumbling experiment we know as America, born in the consumptive shadow of a shopping mall, I come pre-programmed with my idea of what a gift should be. It’s a material good, packaged tidily, gaudily wrapped and placed under a tree. It’s not some home-fashioned artifact, a poem or a meal lovingly prepared, but instead something that is mass produced and hawked in a sophisticated advertising blitz that has been strategized with military precision and targeted specifically at the demographic I happen to inhabit. As we age, our notion of a gift might transform from the novel plaything into the gleaming luxury car with a giant bow parked on a snowy drive near some suburban castle. Or perhaps it’s the castle itself.
Whatever the case, the gift is stuff, made by others. And we don’t seek the gift out, but rather it finds us. We are told what to want. Brands win our affinity and then we ask for those brands, regurgitating them in lists to those whom we expect to buy things for us in the elaborate, suggestive mind trick that is marketing.
Those of us who give gifts are mere steps delivery logistics process, wedged between the UPS truck and the intended target. Thoreau said we are the tools of our tools, which is how someone in the Nineteenth Century would indicate our role in the business-to-consumer supply chain. This all goes to say that there is clear evidence that culturally we’ve ignored en masse Linus’s monologue about commercialism in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
But there exists, in some places, cultures and times, examples of purity in the gifting process. There are those who adhere to ancient, hunter-gatherer roots, inhabiting that restless impulse of incipient humankind that drove us from the warmth and abundance of the savannas to the barren, frigid and rocky north. That restlessness to explore, that joy of discovery, that inherent drive to discover and then bring evidence of our curiosity back to those whom we love, the quest for something new, strange, an exotic flavor, a rare and precious item that piques our curiosity and senses, not some mass produced nonsense we’ve been programmed to desire: that restlessness still exists in in the hearts of a few.
And one such person is Lolo.
Traveling is a great way to remind us that where our own culture may have failed, others have manage to survive, thrive and adapt in the face of the global commercial onslaught. I’ve had the great fortune to spend time in Burgundy to work on a documentary about the plight of small wine producers there called Three Days of Glory. And during my travels, I met Lolo, who is the proprietor of La Dilettante, a cafe and wine bar haunted by local winemakers, epicureans and a few tourists in the know. It’s a cozy refuge from the gloriously overwrought, five-course lunches and seven-course dinners one tends to take when visiting that glorious province of Burgundy where so many marvelous restaurants are tucked into every corner of forgotten, stone-walled villages.
Entering Lolo’s cafe, you always have the feeling of coming home. It is cozy and unpretentious. He and his family are genuine and friendly, but not in any excessive, artificial way. He offers light plates of cheeses and charcuterie that he sources himself both from the local market and on long trips across France and Spain he spends searching for the perfect hams and the most sublime cheeses. When he sets a plate of cold cuts and a basket of the world’s most exquisite bread on your table you hear angels ringing their bells just like George Bailey’s daughter in It’s A Wonderful Life. If there is meat that is more candy than actual candy, then it is the stuff that Lolo shares with you in his cafe. I was introduced to Lolo’s cafe by Scott Wright of Caveau Selections, my partner on the film project and someone with a knack and passion for uncovering the real Burgundy and sharing it with others.
I recently had the chance to introduce my daughter to Lolo’s cafe. We had the opportunity to attend a sneak preview of our film at Les Ateliers du Cinéma in Beaune, a film school run by legendary French director Claude Lelouch. At my wife’s suggestion, I brought Bailey along as a sort of combined Christmas and Birthday present. Not a bad gift for a fourteen-year-old girl: a trip to France and bragging rights that come with a series of photos in front of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame for Instagram and Snapchat. She’d seen me march off to France for this film project a number of times throughout the year. “I’m working,” I’d tell her, she didn’t believe it. In truth, making films is more of an avocation than a vocation, and thus the need for a day job with benefits. But the upshot is that she always asked to come along and I had demurred, telling her “next time” so often that it would have been criminal for me to return again without her.
One of the stops on the itinerary, which included shopping in Paris and a visit to the Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, plus a series of iconic Instagrammable locations, was Lolo’s cafe in Beaune. I’d been telling Bailey for years in a poor philosophical translation of Thoreau’s notion of the supremacy of experiences over material goods. This was self-justification: a trip is a superior gift to a thing. An expensive meal and bottle of wine and the transient nature of it and the eventual memory of the flavors is, in my not so original philosophy, on a higher plane than, say, an expensive belt, purse of piece of technological nonsense that will be worth next to nil once the new version comes out. She’s been hearing this lecture since her toddlerdom: it’s the curse of being the only child of someone who reads enough to make him pretentious.
I was hoping that bringing Bailey to La Dilettante for a light meal would be a transcendent experience. We’d seen the sites and eaten crepes and she was developing a hankering for pizza and “McDo’s,” but I thought she needed at least one true epicurean experience. We’re taught to fear stinky French cheeses and scoff at lean, simple meals. Our culture has trained us to admire restaurants for their excessive portion sizes. Smothering items with cheese or bacon or both tends to still be the preferred culinary tactic even after our supposed American food revolution.
But that’s not what Lolo does. His menu is blissfully simple. Along with one of the more carefully crafted lists of wines by the glass, as well as a wall of personally selected bottled wines and beers, each served with an optional story about its provenance and discovery, Lolo’s selections include plates of cheese, charcuterie or a few stalks of wild asparagus. Perhaps it will be a few rows radishes, butter and salt. Everything is market-fresh. And his meats and cheeses are selected on his journeys along the back roads of France. He describes the joy he feels when he comes across a new ham or sausage and he imagines slicing it and providing it to his customers. He views his customers not like a target market or brand prospects; for him they are like his family. He comes from a family of restauranteurs. They refer to their customers as “guests,” implying an interpersonal connection, face-to-face relationships, not some disembodied consumer demographic. And when he finds a new menu item to share on his travels, it’s a thrilling experience for him. “You consume eighty percent of the pleasure when you buy and you think [of] the people [to whom] you will give.”
This gift of flavor, which Lolo has been providing to his customers since opening the cafe, was something I was hoping to present to Bailey, my American teenager steeped in the lore of or brand economy. Well, we all want people to love the same things that we love, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. And never is it more rarely the case than when the thing is loved by the father of a teenage girl. That formula makes the subject immediately dubious. The cherished thing is instantly suspect. We were in the middle of a blitz tour of France. Bailey was wanting McDo’s. She wanted stories of how French McDonald’s were different, better or inferior to our own domestic varieties. She wanted a relatable experience. Instead, she received two cutting boards of translucent slices of meat and suspiciously smelly cheese, and then a few tiny pickled cucumbers.
It took us nearly an hour (and three baskets of sublime bread) to work through the meal, and Bailey didn’t say much. I was worried as we listened to the chatter of voices, mostly French with a smattering of German tourists. I tried not to over-analyze her reactions. She sampled everything, going back for seconds and then thirds of the perfectly ripe example of the notoriously odiferous Epoisses cheese. We finished our meal. We left. Because the evening light was low and golden, I embarrassed her by making her pose extra long for a series of photos outside the windows.
I wondered for a long time if she had connected with that food. For me, cafes like Lolo’s, their authenticity, the sincerity of their owners, the quality and curation of the ingredients and wines the provide are profound, sublime. It’s hard to explain and convey, and the best way to communicate is to share it. I’d showed it to her. I hoped that she understood.
I wondered if she appreciated the range of flavors, the artisanal quality, the ripeness of the cheeses. I thought that she might perhaps be too young to understand. Maybe she was too much of a teenager. Maybe she’d only be able to appreciate it when she was older.
But, of course I was wrong.
I realized this some weeks later when we were reviewing photos with her mom. A lot had happened in between: the screening of the film, another visit to Paris before a jet-laggy flight back home to Oregon, the launch of her team’s ski season, Thanksgiving, her birthday. The memories of the trip were fast fading, artifacts, it seemed, from an earlier life. But when we came across the photo of the plate of charcuterie, Bailey exclaimed, emphatically, pointing at the table in La Dilettante in the photo: that’s the best ham in the world!
She got it. The joy that Lolo first experienced when discovering the ham in some out-of-the-way village in the Basque country as he imagined sharing it with his customers, sliced carefully and presented simply alongside bread and cheese on a board, became a flavor experienced and then recalled weeks later. A great meal, a simple taste is a conversation that starts on a farm, is transferred to Lolo as he drives around the countryside in his role as the chasseur des produits – the hunter of the products – and then passed along to us.
I wonder how long that memory will last. Maybe the experience won’t rank as highly on my daughter’s list of memories as it does on my own. But reading the enthusiasm in her voice, the rare moment of unguarded, unbridled glee as she recalled those flavors for her mom, is certainly evidence of the power inherent in a carefully chosen and presented gift.
You can’t quantify that experience. I’ve had good, lousy and excellent plates of charcuterie at restaurants all over the world, including France and my own home town. All those plates cost roughly the same. I’ve paid more for a plate of cold cuts that come straight from the package. Lolo can’t mark up the care and effort he puts into the curation of the products he sells at La Dilettante. But what he gets for all of that extra work is the feeling of discovery when he finds the perfect ingredient to put on the plate, imagining his guests’ pleasure and thus deriving his own. And we get a photograph, a memory, a story and maybe all three. And that’s not something global brands can manufacture no matter how hard they try.