Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a friend about what might be called “fear of feeling too good.” Both of us had observed how peak moments, when delight fills us to overflowing, can be dogged by a censorious voice: Be careful, the voice says. Don’t get carried away!
Sometimes people speak it aloud: I thought he was enjoying it a little too much, said of someone seized by laughter or dancing with ecstatic abandon. This is too good, spoken at the instant a still-laden plate is pushed away. I was afraid to lose control, an all-purpose explanation for the choice to bring almost any pleasure to an end.
We were thinking of a recent evening of music, guided visualization, reveling in feelings, sounds—and even playing with our food. A colleague and I led it, and things came together in a remarkable way: every moment felt co-created, the usual boundaries between musician and audience dissolved. Nearly everyone dove in heart-first, like children plunging into a cool pool on a hot, dry day. There were thrilling moments when I felt so full of happiness, I thought my heart would burst. Everyone in the room fell in love with everyone else. And although I had moved very little—a few steps across the room, or swaying to the music in my seat—in the end, I felt aware of every cell in my body, and all of them were buzzing at some off-the-charts frequency.
From here on (or until something even more powerful comes along, desire being an ever-renewable resource), this will be my benchmark for the sublime.
Conventionally, the idea of the sublime carries a connotation of loftiness. Sublimity in art is often illustrated by majestic painting of the Alps or the Grand Canyon. Many of the associated words carry a dual connotation of pleasure and anxiety, suggesting that the fear of feeling too good is rooted in immensity’s power to unmask our insignificance: awe, veneration, grandeur, magnificence.
But to me, its core meaning has to do with connection and completeness. In the presence of the sublime, I feel as if I come into focus, fully aware and fully integrated in body, emotions, intellect, and spirit. Receiving on all channels usually connects me with other beings, rather than feeling small and alone. Often, an image comes to mind of my place on what in Hebrew is called the shelshelot neshamot, the chain of souls, the linked flames that burn in all humans vouchsafed a glimpse of the sublime. In that encounter, the feeling that arises is a deep realization: Ah-ha, this is what we were made for. Now I see it.
For those who suffer from fear of feeling too good, the antidote is close at hand. One common approach to curing phobias is called “desensitization”: gradual, titrated exposure to the object of fear, one step at a time, until the fear loosens its grip and can be managed. The person who fears flying is first escorted to the airport, then into the jetway, then into a seat on a grounded airplane, and so on.
For the fear of feeling too good, I propose the opposite: sensitization. Immerse yourself in a sublime experience, allowing yourself by degrees to open more and more of your sensory apparatus to the experience, until your cup runneth over. And you can do it in the privacy of your own kitchen.
Surely, the foremost candidate for sublime foodstuff is chocolate. It has the mouth-filling completeness created by the right mixture of sugar and fat, and thanks to one of its salient characteristics—melting at body-temperature—it delivers a deeply erotic sensation of connection, seeming to merge with, rather than lay on, the tongue. At times, I have loved chocolate with that devotion that makes it almost impossible to comprehend the small and strange segment of humanity that doesn’t. But the way chocolate clings to the mouth weighs down its claim to utter sublimity, because it cannot achieve the very special property that is hinted at in the chemical definition of sublime, shimmering evanescence:
Sublime. Chemistry: to volatilize from the solid state to a gas, and then condense again as a solid without passing through the liquid state.
For that, you need the fruity, acid, double edge of lemon. Here, then, is a recipe to cure the fear of feeling too good. Start with a small spoonful. Let it melt slowly in your mouth. In the balance of sweet, rich, and sour, you will experience the dialectic of sublimity, toggling attraction and withdrawal. It will seem to evaporate on your tongue. Take a sip of water or tea to clear your palate, then do it again. Repeat the sensitization experience as many times as it takes, until the voice that says, This is too good has switched to a simple M-m-m-m.
When you’ve conquered the fear of feeling too good, you can still enjoy this sublime confection. Try it on toast. Layer it between slices of cake. Use it as the filling in a tart.
If I want to make a very special dessert for an honored guest, the transcendent lemon mousse based on this recipe is inevitably my first choice. Swirl together equal volumes of lemon curd and unsweetened whipped cream, leaving a few streaks unmixed. Mound individual servings of the mousse onto plates coated with pureed berries sweetened to taste and diluted with a tiny bit of red wine. Serve it with palmiers, shortbread, or other plain cookies on the side. Provide fainting couches for your guests.
Above all, remember this: when you hear the voice saying, This is too good, don’t stop.
Lemon Curd (about 3 cups)
3/8 lb unsalted butter
3 lemons (preferably Meyer)
3/4 cup sugar (approximately; more if lemons are very sour)
4 whole eggs (or if you like it even richer, substitute 2 eggs and 4 yolks)
(This recipe is amazingly easy to make with a food processor and a microwave, and these labor-saving devices don’t impair the quality at all. But if you prefer to do without them, follow the alternate directions at the end.)
1. Remove the yellow peel from the lemons with a potato peeler, avoiding the white pith underneath. Put the peel and sugar in a food processor with the steel blade and pulse till the lemon rind is thoroughly minced and incorporated.
2. Juice the lemons and strain out the seeds. Put the butter, lemon sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a microwave-safe bowl and cover tightly. Cook at full power approximately four minutes, till all is melted and beginning to bubble. Uncover and stir till smooth.
3. Lightly beat the eggs in the food processor (no need to clean it first). With the motor running, pour in no more than one-third of the lemon-butter mixture and whir until well-combined. Then pour and scrape the contents of the food processor into the remaining lemon-butter mixture in the bowl, whisking constantly so it doesn’t curdle. Return, uncovered, to the microwave. Cook at full power two minutes. Whisk. Cook two more minutes and whisk again.
4. When done, the curd should be as thick as a custard sauce, and a spoonful dropped back into the bowl should stay mounded. If it’s not properly thickened, return it to the microwave a minute at a time until it is. If it seems lumpy, return to the food processor and whir briefly till smooth.
You can easily double or triple this. Use a big enough bowl, increasing the cooking time as needed. I freeze it in two-cup batches in sealed bags and it keeps a very long time (as long as you forget it’s there).
Alternate low-tech directions:
1. Grate the yellow peel of the lemons with a potato peeler (not the white pith beneath the peel).
2. Juice the lemons and strain out the seeds. Put the butter, lemon peel, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Heat and stir until all is melted and beginning to bubble.
3. In a bowl, beat the eggs well. Pour in no more than a third of the hot lemon-butter mixture, whisking like mad so nothing curdles. Then pour the contents of the bowl into the remaining lemon-butter mixture in the saucepan, whisking constantly so it doesn’t curdle. Bring to a bare simmer, whisking constantly, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you do. (If you have trouble keeping the flame low enough on your stovetop, use a double-boiler, stirring the mixture atop a pan of boiling water; better to cook slowly than to scorch.)
4. The mixture is done when it as thick as a custard sauce, and a spoonful dropped back into the bowl stays mounded.