I call it salmon déjeuner sur l’herbe. And I celebrate the place on this earth for the unworldly, the out of place, the odd couples, the unnatural, the freakish, and the fish out of water. We must remember there’s not just one way to celebrate the earth, and the earthlovers who don’t dance around under the moon may just swimming through the universe sauced, nestled in with colecrop and rosemary flowers, and crowned with Johnny Jump-up.
Édouard Manet’s painting “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” (“The Luncheon on the Grass”) was the talk of the town in 1863 when it was refused by the Parisian Academy’s annual Salon exhibition for its uncanny and offensive content. It was real and not real, familiar and outlandish. It’s hard for us to imagine that these women were seen as prostitutes, for who else would be picnicking on the grass with two fully clothed men? That they were students or artists was worse.
What I see when I look at this painting, though, is a look of boredom and longing. The picnic basket overturned with fruit uneaten, a waste. Every glance is distracted, away on a different trajectory. It must have been a dreadful bore to listen to hours of mansplaining. One woman picks flowers; at least she has been able to escape into the landscape and stretch her limbs. But this one begs us, silent, to choose body over mind. We can read her as any number of allegories — youth, modernity, sexuality, art, even the earth. But most of all it’s about difference. Manet went on to exhibit it in the Salon des Refusés (the Rejects Salon) in an annex of the sanctioned Salon. And although it was booed and hissed, some people liked this fish out of water. He wasn’t alone.
I’ve been thinking about this painting ever since the Nature Conservancy asked me to do a post for Earth Day as part of their picnic campaign this year. The salmon was kind of an accident. Even better for a fish of the earth. I should remind you that the Earth provides food for 7 billion lovely, individual people and you can learn more about this year’s Earth Day on April 22, or even host your own Earth Day picnic along with thousands of others, if you so please.
My picnic, my déjeuner sur l’herbe, is a beautiful Oregon chinook salmon on black rice with flowers and herbs plucked from my garden at the moment winter broke into spring. Try it — a shower of herbflowers on any finished dish. It’s such a joyful and simple way to celebrate the seasons and continuing bounty we receive from our planet. The salmon itself was clothed in an aluminum foil packet and oven-poached in a broth made of white wine, fennel fronds, dill pickle juice, and butter, at 325 degrees. When it was done, I blended a little of the broth in with a small head of frisée, chives, and walnuts to make a fresh green sauce. Can be eaten warm or cold.
Happy Earth Day!