[The following series of posts was originally published by Ace on a previous site over the period from February 21st -March 1st 2004.]
“If you find you are having trouble writing, and nothing seems real, just write about food. It is always solid and is the one thing we can all remember about our day…. When it comes to food, people are definite, concrete, explicit.” -Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
This particular quote from one of my old writing textbooks came to mind when Yoko responded to [the entry] “Valentine” by saying that she wouldn’t mind reading more of my writing about food. (Natalie Goldberg, if you’ve never heard of her, is a writer, poet and Zen Buddhist; the book was published by Shambhala Press, and I found it pleasant to read irrespective of the observations she makes about writing.) I responded to Yoko that I was afraid if I wrote any more about food my readers would think that was all I ever thought about! But who cares? Passion is passion. It will out. Sometimes it’s fun to just succumb to it.
[Someone once asked me] where I learned to cook. I had to stop what I was doing and think about it, because like so many other things in my life, the ability assumed its proportions slowly, without any seismic shifts. My first answer to her was, “I learned from the best: Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties housewives,” because that was the first set of images that came crowding in on me when she asked: my mom Opal, Weaver’s mom Noël; pot roast and linoleum and Thanksgiving turkeys with bacon on the outside; rinsing leeks under ice-cold water in a white ceramic sink; trading tips with Weaver herself and the Empress and my sister-in-law Bella, who all learned the same way. After a moment, though, I added, “And I studied it somewhat on my own,” because that was true, too, because I remember roughly the time and place where I decided that I liked cooking and wanted to learn more.
I had Home Economics twice, once in junior high, and once in high school. In junior high I think it was a mandatory part of the curriculum, and the time allocated to it was split 50/50 over the course of the semestre with Sewing; in high school, it was one of only a couple of choices that filled a certain notch in the General Education requirement, so it got a lot of play. In neither case do I remember it involving a lot of cooking. (Or any economics, for that matter, discussions of household budgets and stuff. That could be my spotty memory, though.) Ovens, there were: ranges, sinks, whole practice kitchens full of mismatched dishware and cheap aluminum pots. But what the teachers spent most of their time talking about was Nutrition, vitamins and minerals and the Four Basic Food Groups and how many servings of what you needed a day to be healthy. And that was an intellectual exercise, water off a duck’s back for a kid. We were talking about six servings of vegetables, but we were standing in front of pans of hot oil and sifters of powdered sugar frying Pillsbury biscuit dough to make doughnuts. And after school I’d walk home to my house, pop open the fridge and make a plate full of saltines spread thick with margarine and sprinkled with Maggie sauce, or cut huge slices of orange New York State brick cheese and eat them with inch-thick chunks of greasy pepperoni. Wash it all down with Pathmark powdered iced-tea and watch “Star Blazers”.
…Still though, there was something there, some germ of an idea trying to make itself heard to me. During high school Home Ec, it found its expression in the dynamic between three of the other students, Tom and André and Marc. Tom and André were good old-fashioned burnouts, cig smokin’, metal-listening level 4 types who sat at my table because it was far away from the teacher and because I was an endless mystery and source of hilarity to them. Tom was the handsome, relatively clean one; André was the butt-ugly, frizzle-haired, leering one. Marc, on the other hand, was very different. He was short and round and pudgy and young, and somewhat squeaky, and he was serious. He wanted to be a chef. That blew everyone’s mind. It was like this bolt of lightning in the darkness that left us all blinking and confused; I had barely ever thought about the idea of the profession called Chef, much less thought about it being something that someone around me would want to pursue, or be able to. I was too busy worrying about my grades.
The teacher was very excited by Marc. It seemed like he cooked more than the rest of us did, or was else was trying to pull something off slightly more complicated than we were during those few times we did cook. I wound up on his team once or twice, as did Tom and André. They let him do all the work, which I never heard him complain about, and they made fun of him, of course, because they made fun of everyone, and he was an even easier target than I was. But the thing was- they never refused to taste what he made. They might laugh at him, heckle him, mess around with his ingredients if they were in a particularly malicious mood, but they never made fun of the food.
That left a subtle impression.
“There they found a little house with a smoking chimney and an open door, and as they came to the doorway, Duffle called out, ‘Hey, brothers! A visitor for breakfast!’ And immediately, mixed with a sizzling sound, there came to Shasta a simply delightful smell. It was one he had never smelled in his life before, but I hope you have. It was, in fact, the smell of bacon and eggs and mushrooms all frying in a pan.” -C.S. Lewis, The Horse and his Boy
In the meantime, interspersed with all of this, foundations were being laid in other ways. My Mom’s cooking was nearly devoid of the ethnic cuisines I take for granted now (and my Dad never cooks at all; he flatly admits that if there wasn’t someone around to make his meals for him, he’d starve) but my parents had the wherewithal to travel, and to eat out at a variety of nice places, places they happily took myself and my three siblings along to. They always let me order anything I wanted to try, and they never abused me or made me feel bad if I didn’t like what I ordered. So I could try fried crawfish or sautéed calf’s liver or frogs’ legs Provençal or whatever made me curious without fear of repercussions. And the process of getting older inevitably made me look at everything with new eyes, too. I remember the first time that my parents went away to Florida long enough that I had to use the money they left us to go grocery shopping, the dawning realization that Hey… I don’t have to select from what’s already in the house whether I like it or not. I can get what I want. (And it wasn’t ten tons of junk food, so maybe some of that Home-Ec nutrition stuff sunk in after all.) I remember Opsimath leaning in the doorway of the kitchen as I wrestled with oven mitts and a heavy plate full of Shepard’s Pie, framing me with his hands and squinting one eye, saying, “Artist… writer… actor… cook… What kind of man reads Playboy?”, and how I grinned from ear to ear, aware that there was an adultness to being able to cook, the heady potential for sophistication.
(I remember visiting Nickykaa in Oakland and deciding to show off by making salmon dill cream pasta for him and everyone else, then nearly blowing a vein as he and the Khan shook cayenne pepper all over their plates of it without even tasting it. They had to stop eating and explain to me that the addition of cayenne pepper before tasting had been agreed upon as OK by their household standards, because cayenne added heat without changing the flavor of the dish.)
I didn’t put it all together, though, until one night in the kitchen of my house in Ivory Grove. I had gotten home late from work, because I always got home late from work, and confronted a meal Weaver had left for me that I wasn’t particularly interested in eating. I was tired from concentrating, burnt out from my workload, depressed from hearing again and again about how the jobs in my industry were moving overseas, about how the jobs that were left were becoming computer-based, from projecting into the future and seeing the utter collapse of my ability to make any kind of reasonable living and not being sure what to do about it. I decided I wanted pasta and I put a pot of water on to boil; I pulled out a sauce pan and added garlic and onions and tomatoes and olive oil and meat, made my own from-scratch sauce. And it was standing there alone in the light from the range hood, my bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, staring down into the good smelling steam wafting up from the rich red mixture that it finally clicked. I like this, I thought. I like to do this. It’s analog. It’s not on a deadline. It’s not on a schedule. It takes time and care, uses all of my skills, involves all five of my senses. It’s half science, and half art, and it makes something real, something everyone can appreciate, something nobody laughs at. Something that has intrinsic value, because you need it, and it keeps you alive. Doing it well earns me respect.
It makes me happy. And it will never change.
I want to know more.
And by coincidence, it was a wonderful time to want to know more, because Ivory Grove Cable had just added the Food Network to their roster, with David Rosengarten’s “Taste” and the Two Fat Ladies and the ubiquitous Emeril LaGasse and the syndicated English-dubbed run of my all-time favorite, “Iron Chef” (and I ate at “Nobu”, and I saw Masaharu Morimoto when he came out of the kitchen to take a breather. Writhe in jealousy!) So that became the default television viewing for the household, and the tables and cupboards filled up with cookbooks, and I learned to my delight that not only was cooking a hell of a lot of fun just in general, for all the reasons I detailed above, but that the exploration of it could shine a light on art and history and sociology and biology and culture and all those other topics I’ve spent my whole life studying in a way that nothing else could. Pursuit of it, pursuit of excellence at it, not only increased my knowledge, but really did increase my sophistication. And I have always hungered for knowledge and for sophistication, just as I have hungered for food. So I picked up my 12-½ inch Cuisinart copper-core skillet, strapped on my Wüsthof Trident chef’s knife and tramped resolutely on to Glory.
“Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Blunt the knives and bend the forks! That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates- Smash the bottles and burn the corks!…” -Dwarven clean-up song, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Not every meal can be a spectacular success, of course. The failures we have as cooks are often hilarious, and usually a lot more memorable than our successes. Weaver’s most famous screw-up, for instance, happened when she baked a pumpkin pie to bring to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dessert, and only discovered once it had been cut and served that she had forgotten to put any sugar in it. That probably would have been funny enough by itself; what put everyone else over the edge, though, was when all heads turned to discover me sitting there, blithely eating it anyway. (At the time, I made the observation that Weaver cooked a lot of historically accurate medieval recipes which often tasted very different from their modern counterparts, and thus I had no way of knowing that it wasn’t supposed to taste like that. In reality, I also knew that if said anything even the slightest bit derogatory about it, I was going to hear about it for the rest of the weekend, and probably for the rest of my life, so I had decided I was damn well gonna like it no matter what it tasted like, and that was that. Ah, marriage.)
Iris won the Area Effect award one afternoon in that same house, years earlier, when she pulled a white hot casserole dish of Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese soup out of the microwave and got a steam burn that made her bobble it. The resultant explosive crash sprayed Cheddar Cheese soup all over the floor, all over the cabinets, all over the two of us, up the walls and actually onto the ceiling. Neither one of us was hurt. The bowl didn’t break. But all we could do was stand there looking around the devastation and watching gravity reassert itself. Finally, I stammered, “Jesus! It’s like somebody let off a cheese grenade.” Then we both started to laugh. And clean up.
My failures tend to be of both varieties. I cook a lot of things that smell like Paradise but turn out to taste like nothing in particular, and every once in a while I complicate matters with clumsiness, or equipment failure or a bad substitution, or some other foul-up. This morning’s breakfast was a good example. I got up deciding to make oatmeal with apples and sausage and maple syrup, a pretty standard weekend breakfast dish for me; I have a tin full of John McCann’s Steel-Cut Irish Oatmeal that I reserve for weekends because of the extended cooking time it requires. I discovered that I didn’t have any sausage, so that plan quickly got modified to oatmeal with apples, raisins, walnuts and maple syrup. Then I measured the oatmeal out, but not the water, so I wound up with far too much water for the amount of oatmeal I was cooking in the pot. I grabbed an apple from the fridge, a varietal called “Cameo” that I’d never purchased before (it was on sale) and my Williams-Sonoma apple corer. I placed the apple on the cutting board, laid the corer on top of it. I gripped the corer with both hands and loomed up over it, heaving downwards, and the Cameo decided to sell its life dearly by breaking all twelve of the corer tines apart and punching them up through the outer steel ring.
I had to get a knife and hack the apple apart to extricate the tines from its flesh. When I did, I discovered that the tines were grouped in twos, and held in their arrangement by the interior steel ring, the one that creates the core, making it theoretically possible to reassemble the corer. Thus began the delicate engineering process of trying to do that without slicing open all of my fingers on the sharpened sides of the tines, or letting the oatmeal boil over. My first attempt failed when the tines propelled the inner ring slingshot-like across the stove; I heard it strike metal with a strangely muffled “tink”, and after glancing around for a few moments, I ascertained that it had, of course, gone directly into the oatmeal pot. I fished it out with salad tongs and tried again. My second attempt took longer, and involved some hammering with the plastic-covered handles of my kitchen scissors, but was successful: everything snapped back into place as if it had never been broken. I threw the parts of the apple that were still usable triumphantly into my cast iron pan along with the raisins and walnuts, added a few drops of corn oil so they wouldn’t stick, and fired up the heat.
What I had forgotten was that the last thing I’d made in the cast iron pan was a pepper and onion spaghetti sauce. And one doesn’t usually wash a cast iron pan; one wipes it out carefully, and re-oils it. That’s how it builds up a patina. So soon I was treated to the delicious Saturday morning smell of apple walnut raisin peppers and onions. I added a little bit of the maple syrup to the pan to see if that would help, then threw up my hands and just ladled it onto the oatmeal anyway. There was a lot less of the taste of spaghetti sauce in it than there was of the smell of spaghetti sauce in the air, but it was lurking around in there as a background tang, and I didn’t eat very much it.
“Bernard Shaw once warned us (he was speaking of mass entertainment) to be sure to get what we liked; otherwise we might begin to like what we got. There is the point- not that processed ‘cheese’ is so bad in itself (though it is) but that its convenience, neatness and cheapness give it so many advantages that it may elbow real cheese aside and in the end compass the death of our cheese-palates. Let us not be fooled…. Give our American children the processed corpse of milk and they will grow (I dare not say mature) into processed men, all package and no character.” -Clifton Fadiman, “In Praise of Cheese” (foreword to The Complete Book of Cheese), May 1955
At the risk of going off on a berserk socio-political rant, there’s a final point I think is worth making here, and that point is this: like anything else that you love, the ability to cook and the knowledge of food can also draw you inextricably into a wider world. Maybe even a different one.
Here’s some reasons why:
If you know how to cook, you’re inherently taking some responsibility for your own health, almost certainly for the better. A Big Mac or a pepperoni pizza may be attractive, but it isn’t anywhere near as attractive when you know you can make something just as satisfying at home out of cheaper staple foods you’ve already purchased. And that’s a good thing. At the very least, if you know how to cook and you get the pizza anyway, it’s a choice, not a default.
If you start to learn about the ingredients in your food- what they are, where they come from, what is (or isn’t) done to them before they arrive in your hands- it breaks the illusion that everything starts at the supermarket, and exposes the truth: that there’s an ecosystem, and we’re still connected to it; that the business of food is a big one these days, and that the decisions companies and individuals make about what to buy and sell have wider ramifications, for ourselves and our world. The debates about things like genetically modified foods and free trade growing and antibiotics in meat aren’t academic- they start and end with what you put into that pan sitting there in front of you. Stay aware of that, and you’re staying part of those debates. How can that be bad?
A love of the craft of cooking-again, a love of any craft- can also create attitudes that spill over into other areas of your life. If you dig Middle Eastern food, try studying Middle Eastern music and culture. If you crave good tomatoes for your recipes, try growing them yourself. If you know how tough it is to grow good tomatoes, go to the local farmer’s market instead of the supermarket and give your money to somebody who knows it, too. And if you’ve spent three hours baking a pie at some time in your life, think about that the next time you have a choice between going to the local bakery and going to Panera- and then choose the local bakery. Individually owned and operated establishments of every sort- not only restaurants and food-sellers, but bookstores and hardware stores and craft shops- the kind started by owners who want to be part of the community, the kind that give their environment character and make people feel good to be in, go out of business every day because customers would rather pay fifty cents less at Wal-Mart and only have to get out their cars once. Developing the kind of respect for love and care and quality that sits behind a good meal can help you recognize where it exists elsewhere in the world, and where it doesn’t. And then act accordingly.
Am I overstating the case to make these points? To some degree. Maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe your life isn’t going to rearrange itself just because you picked up a wooden spoon and made some pancakes. But you never know. The joy, the wonder of life is that it just might. What have you got to lose?
You’ll always have something to eat while you’re waiting.
- For the seminal discussion of these issues as regards the fast food industry (and the reasons why I avoid patronizing such places anymore) read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. (And order it through your local bookstore, dammit!)
- For a discussion of the role of cafés, pubs and other non-chain restaurants, and their place in the social fabric of communities, read Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place.
- For a look at some people who take the celebration of artisanal foods and the preservation of the culture surrounding them really seriously, visit the Slow Food website.