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Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Reading and writing consumed the vast majority of my creative energies two decades before I embraced any kind of culinary inclination. I tore through books at a young age, and prior to learning keyboard skills would dictate stories for my mother to type.

Some of the most pivotal texts I've ever read - who's covers have been taped together many times and still reside on my shelf - found me in elementary and middle school. My father proudly, if somewhat grudgingly, helped me drive those volumes and the dozens collected since to and from Vancouver, BC during my university years.

The excerpt below is from one of my all time favorites, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, which I first read in third grade. I remember being completely transfixed and transported through the entire volume - and vividly recall reading this scene for the first time. If foreshadowing happened with any intention in the real world that moment would have clued the reader in to my future passions.

"I then entered a dining room, decorated and furnished in severe taste. High oaken sideboards, inlaid with ebony, stood at the two extremities of the room, and upon their shelves glittered china, porcelain, and glass of inestimable value.

The plate on the table sparkled in rays which the luminous ceiling shed around while light was tempered and softened by exquisite paintings. In the center of the room was a table richly laid out. Captain Nemo indicated the place I was to occupy.

The breakfast consisted of a certain number of dishes, the contents of which were furnished by the sea alone; and I was ignorant of the nature and mode of preparation of some of them. I acknowledged they were good, but they had a peculiar flavor, which I easily became accustomed. These different aliments appeared to me to be rich in phosphorus, and I thought they must have a marine origin.

Captain Nemo looked at me. I asked him no questions, but he guessed my thoughts, and answered of his own accord the questions which I was burning to address him.

'The greater part of these dishes are unknown to you,' he said to me. 'However, you may partake of them without fear. They are wholesome and nourishing. For a long time I have renounced the food of the earth and I am never ill now. My crew who are healthy, are fed on the same food.'

So,' I said, 'all these eatables are the produce of the sea?'

'Yes professor, the sea supplies all my wants. Sometimes I cast my nets in tow and I draw them in ready to break. Sometimes I hunt in the midst of this element, which appears to be inaccessible to man, and quarry game which dwells in my submarine forests. My flocks, like those of Neptune's old shepherds, graze fearlessly in the immense prairies of the ocean. I have vast property there, which I cultivate myself, and which always is sown by the hand of the Creator of all things.'

'I can understand perfectly sir, that your nets furnish excellent fish for your table; I can understand also that you hunt aquatic game in your submarine forests; but I cannot understand at all how a particle of meat, no matter how small, can figure in your bill of fair.'

'This, which you believe to be meat, professor, is nothing else than fillet of turtle. Here are also some dolphin livers, which you take to be ragout of pork. My cook is a clever fellow, who excels in dressing these various products of the ocean. Taste all these dishes. Here is a preserve of holothuria, which a Malay would declare to be unrivaled in the world; here is cream, of which the milk has been furnished by cetacea, and the sugar by the great fucus of the North Sea: lastly permit me to offer you some preserve of anemones, which is equal to that of the most delicious fruits.'

I tasted, more from curiosity that an a connoisseur, while Captain Nemo enchanted me with his extraordinary stories.

'You like the sea, captain?'

'Yes, I love it! The sea is everything. It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is 'Living Infinite,' as one of your poets has said. In fact, professor, Nature manifests herself in it by her three kingdoms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. The sea is the vast reservoir of Nature. The globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who knows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquility. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, their power disappears. Ah! Sir, live - live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognize no masters! There I am free!'"

This passage and its surrounding book gave me the same sensations then as sushi training has in the last two years; a lush, immersive fascination, dizzying arrays of new terminology, and a connection to the ocean even from far inland.

Verne places this scene early in the book, playing with the senses through the use of cuisine to introduce the reader to the ocean's wealth and Captain Nemo's love of it. What better way to conjure what cannot be seen with ink on printed page than through food; the sight and smell of a sumptuous feast, the mouth-feel of foreign textures, the tastes of distinctly marine produce. Everyone eats, so anyone can imagine the sensual immensity of this moment for the protagonist.

The scene has you diving, both into a meal and Captain Nemo's underwater world.

With regards to the author's use of language, as an eight year old I was completely dumbfounded about the species he could be mentioning, and all the more excited by what I had to learn.

Considering it was written in 1870 - originally in French - the lexicon is understandably difficult to grasp at times. I read this work with dictionary in hand, and have provided for you links on the words with which I initially struggled. You'll be surprised how many are creatures commonly known in lay-mans terms.

"My dinner was ready. It was composed of turtle soup made of the most delicate hawksbills, a surmullet served with puff paste (the liver of which, prepared by itself, was most delicious), and fillets of emperor-holocanthus, the savor of which to me seemed superior even to salmon."

Food and writing have found a passionate companionship in my adult life. While this post is a bit outside of what I usually provide you, I wanted to give further insight as to my motivations in producing this blog. Solely working behind a sushi bar cannot sustain me, nor could eating and writing about food, I need a balance of the two. The greatest thanks to those who consistently take the time to read what I pen and support this project. I notice and am deeply grateful.

A fascinating side note: Jules Verne used the name Captain Nemo as an allusion to Homer's Odyssey. During his travels Odysseus lands on the island of the cyclops Polyphemus. In an attempt to hide his identity when Polyphemus asks his name, Odysseus says he is "Utis," which means "no man." In latin this translates to "Nemo."

Akin to Captain Nemo, Odysseus wanders the oceans on a seemingly impossible quest. Now take a moment to realize how brilliant the animators at Pixar were when they chose the name "Finding Nemo" for their smash hit in 2003.

*All images by French illustrator and artist Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, produced for Hertzel publishing in early editions of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.