up until very recently our house was well-stocked with caperberries. this fairly unlikely state of affairs was brought about by a cohort of mine having one afternoon stumbled upon an unattended delivery truck back of a gourmet foods store and, in what i am sure was a paroxysm of harried acquisitiveness shot through with incredulous gratitude at such good fortune, subsequently come out of it in possession of a very large, very nice jar of dijon mustard, two bottles of cidre pétillant (i am of the impression that in spite of living in a province where all things are labelled in French, should something be above a certain price, one is simply verboten to translate it, golly. we are not hill people after all; discernment is not beyond us), and a case of what turned out to be caperberries.
much to his personal discomfiture, as it turns out he despises the things, whereas i, happily as it turns out, do not.
fast-forward 2 or 3 years and find me finally dispatching the last of the 24 bottles, a couple of which i admit i did not personally see to but passed on to interested or merely curious parties. if you’re unfamiliar, caperberries are very much like capers , and in fact come from the same plant capparis spinosa, but whereas the capers we know are the immature buds thereof, caperberries are as the name implies the berry or fruiting body. they have a similar faintly mustardy taste, either more or less pungent depending on who you ask, and are about the size of a biggish red grape, with a little stem. some are off-put by the occasional unexpected presence of crunchy little seeds inside, but i think it is easily managed if you see it coming. do not feel abashed if you’ve never encountered them; it is a rarity that anyone to whom i speak of them has. approximately as rare, i trust, as is the experience on the other hand of being confronted by someone who insists on talking to you about caperberries, to say nothing of sending you home with a jar of your own.
they must not be very popular.
perhaps the only instance, in fact, in which i have come across them in my day-to-day, and which i realize tonight always springs to mind when i am asking myself at what point to add the caperberries to whatever it is that i am making, is that scene in Hannibal where Anthony Hopkins feeds Ray Liotta part of his own brain, lightly sautéed in butter with shallots and , yeah, caperberries.
there is a long tradition associating culinary refinement with moral corruption, indeed all refinement that eschews asceticism for sensuality, and short of actually getting into it (because brother, i could go on), i’ll say that my interest has been piqued recently by christianity’s (very uneven, granted) history of positing a zero-sum relationship between the promise of the afterlife and the at times heretical audacity to enjoy the earth’s bounty whilst in and of it.
Hannibal, of course, is the aesthete par excellence, or arguably ad absurdum, separated by mere decrements of humanity from Dorian Gray* in his descent into the pleasures of the flesh. and i see it as a means of imposing a still greater remove that Thomas Harris has Lecter use caperberries in lieu of the perhaps more accessible, more familiar caper, in his preparation. his cannibalistic gastronomy, or to put a finer point on it, the epicureanism of his cannibalism, becomes the haunting, “unhealthy”** detail in which the devil figuratively resides.
* i take this back. which i know means i could just not write it at all, but i feel like it is a point worth making, rhetorically, in order to provide a pretext for the correction – Hannibal Lecter is actually wildly† different from Dorian Gray, in that unlike the typical aesthete, and certainly the dandy, Lecter’s concern with beauty is meant to be complex, negotiated and profound, as opposed to affected or superficial. Jonathan Romney calls him “a nightmare mix between Ted Bundy and George Steiner,” which makes the point, if being a bit of a stretch in my opinion, because i can’t ever imagine Steiner being so smug an S.O.B. as Lecter, even though he’s probably got every right. maybe the smugness is Bundy? and the murdering?
anyhoo, whereas Dorian Gray is fairly literally putrefied from the inside out by his excessive preoccupation with artifice and sensual pleasure, there is a sense with Lecter (which as i understand it is fleshed out more explicitly in the Harris’s Hannibal novels than in their somewhat uneven film adaptations) that he is completed by his interest in beauty. it is his capacity for evil that allows him to be truer to beauty – remember that he (mostly) kills and eats only the annoying and vulgar, and through cuisine makes something beautiful and refined of them, before incorporating them, thus being both literally and spiritually nourished by this interest in beauty. right? weird.
** unhealthy in the colloquial sense, of course – mere cannibalism is crazy and horrifying, but the care and discernment Hannibal devotes is what is truly disturbed, disturbing.
† okay, i know my pun tirade was only like two weeks ago, but that was totally unintentional, or at least unconscious, so i am in good conscience leaving it in. shit.