I recently found myself in possession of a black truffle the size of a small grenade, and my initial, panicky thought was: what do I do? The truth is, the truffle intimidated me. I'm not a food bumpkin, and I've gamely eaten my share of exotic delicacies, some involving reindeer and obscure cacti, but I found it completely impossible to be in the presence of a truffle without worrying about its rarity, status and outrageous Medellín-cartel-range expense.
I stood for a while with the truffle in the palm of my hand, hefting it lightly, experiencing a wave of anxiety similar to what I had felt the day I brought my newborn baby home from the hospital. Like my truffle, he, too, was expensive, rare, fragile and could be weighed in ounces. In both cases, I felt entirely inadequate to the task.
I thought back to the first time I'd ever eaten truffles. I was at an Italian restaurant at lunchtime and a very cute waiter, whose name, I decided, was Fabrizio, stood beside me relentlessly shaving flakes of white truffles into my bowl of pasta until I had to beg him to stop. I left that restaurant hours later, walking out into the fading light feeling oddly fungus drunk. That day, I began to understand the allure of truffles, and yet I wasn't sure I could describe it if anyone asked. Forget homosexuality; maybe truffle worship is really the love that dare not speak its name.
Black truffles, unlike white, may not be at their finest shaved over pasta, which left me in a quandary. Perhaps, I thought now, the best thing would be to make a shrine to my truffle, placing it among garlands of flowers, truffle-scented candles and photographs of French noblemen. Or maybe I should have it laminated and keep it forever, like the "memory glass" from my Sweet Sixteen party, which is filled with rotting matchbooks and faded little umbrellas from virgin mai tais. My instinct was to try to preserve the truffle, to have it freeze-dried and to spend the rest of my life shaving off a single tiny fragment each day.
But my instinct was wrong. Truffles practically ooze impermanence. If one could talk, it would say, "Please use me immediately, for I am the product of the freakish marriage of fungus and tree root, sniffed out by overexcited pigs and destined to last only a short time on this earth."
Eager for a solution to my truffle problem, I stopped in at a market near my house where you could easily knock yourself unconscious walking into a rope of sausages or a ham hanging from the ceiling. Behind the counter, carving smoked salmon into slices as thin and valuable as pages from a Gutenberg Bible, stood a young woman. Above her head hung a jaunty sign: "Yes! The Black Truffles Have Arrived!" I took a number, and when it was my turn, I stepped forward and asked her what to do with my truffle.
"What to do?" she asked me, slightly puzzled.
"Well, how do I take care of it?" I said. I realized that I sounded as if I were discussing a Tamagotchi or a hamster. "Do I store it in the dark?" I persisted, remembering the mesh bag of Idaho potatoes that my mother used to keep in the kitchen cabinet beneath the sink, right beside the Liquid-Plumr. The truffle didn't need to be in darkness, the saleswoman said, but it did have to be kept cold and dry in the fridge. "And how would you recommend I prepare it?" I asked next.
The saleswoman told me that every year when the first shipment of truffles arrives from Europe, the store's owner and his wife lay out a big feast for the employees. They always make scrambled eggs and risotto and several different kinds of pasta. What those foods have in common, I realized, is an ability, when truffles are added to them, to swiftly become backdrop or wallpaper, inconspicuous scenery that supports the star power of the truffle. Bland things and powerful things sometimes go together beautifully. After all, what other possible explanation is there for the success of the marriage between Barbra Streisand and James Brolin?
I decided to invite a couple of friends over for risotto. Before they arrived, I took my truffle into the kitchen and shaved off a few experimental curlicues, releasing an intense, intoxicating, basement-like scent. Once you have smelled a truffle, you long to smell it again and again. (This, of course, isn't true of actual basements, especially the ones in the suburb where I grew up, which were filled with warped Burt Bacharach LPs and rusting lawn furniture.)
Later, when my friends arrived and it was time to part with my truffle, I couldn't bear the thought. With a miserly hand, I shaved some fragments of blackness into the creamy arborio rice. I knew I should have added a whole lot more, but I just couldn't do it. It amazed me that such a luxury food--a symbol of excess and wealth--could bring on such feelings of stinginess.
We sat in blissful silence throughout dinner. None of us could bear to talk as we lifted our forks to our mouths, soaking in the fragrances of butter, onions and basement. The truffle reminded me of an extremely complicated black olive--a black olive that's been psychoanalyzed.
The next morning, I opened the refrigerator and regarded my diminished truffle with a feeling of melancholy. I had used barely half of it, and already I could see the end approaching. (I suppose this is a psychological test of some kind, seeing the truffle as either half full or half empty.) Later in the day, after a suggestion from my neighbor, a woman so thin that no pasta or risotto would ever cross her lips, I prepared a vinaigrette, whisking lemon juice, mustard, olive oil and salt together, then carving off another quarter of the truffle and grating it into the dressing. I spooned the vinaigrette lightly over a bunch of lollo rosso.
My husband and I ate the salad in front of the TV, and though we watched something dumb and American with a laugh track, I felt as if we ought to have been watching something with subtitles and Catherine Deneuve. Never have I appreciated a salad so much, and never have I been so certain that the pieces of grit I kept finding among the leaves were not evidence of poor lettuce rinsing.
Still hungry after the salad, I took the remaining pieces of truffle, chopped them into tiny bits and dropped them into a pan of scrambled eggs just before they were fully cooked. The eggs were delicious, punctuated every now and then with that intense, surprising flavor. I gave not a thought to cholesterol; truffled Egg Beaters just didn't seem appealing.
Now the truffle was gone. Gone. This is the word that nurses say to families when a patient has died. And this was, in a way, like a death. Goodbye, little truffle, I thought as I scraped up the last sad scraps of scrambled egg. I hardly knew ye.
The truffle, after I'd learned not to be intimidated by it, had been a hit. When I went to sleep that night, I lay in bed for a long time, already thinking ahead to next season, when once again the trained pigs of France would begin rooting in the dirt, bringing up these strange and inexplicably wonderful pieces of treasure. And I'd be ready.
Meg Wolitzer's latest novel, Surrender, Dorothy, will be published in paperback (Washington Square Press) this April.