Faith in Food

The following was offered as a meditation at Grace Church, Salem’s Celtic Service on Sunday, June 26.

Those of you who know me well, might find it surprising to hear that as a child I was an extremely picky eater.

This is not to say I had allergies, or dietary restrictions or even that I was uncomfortable with extreme textures or flavors.

No, my issues, in hindsight weren’t gustatory at all. They were spiritual. I was afraid and proud.

In all honesty, there were more things I wouldn’t eat than I would. Every sandwich had to be deconstructed into its constituent parts for individual inspection, every menu parsed for offending ingredients. It was virtually impossible to eat at someone else’s home.

We all deal with food everyday. Whether we’re rich or poor, strong or struggling, good or bad, or more likely negotiating the spaces in between, we’re all making choices about what and how we feed ourselves.

And I believe these choices reflect our values, our aspirations, the communities we identify with and by omission the communities we do not.

All our hopes and fears are right there on our dinner tables, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I don’t want to draw too broad or literal a stroke on this point, but as the circumstances of my life broadened. As I crossed borders – both literal and figurative – made myself vulnerable to the hospitality of strangers, and found myself in the position of offering hospitality to proverbial friends not yet made, my personal preferences ceased to be relevant.

If this thing has been called good by another, and is being offered to me as the same, who am I to reject it and call it unacceptable?

There are any number of extreme meals I could draw upon at this point to illustrate my meaning – goat’s head in Mongolia, elaborate feasts in France, simple suppers in Salem, a sip of water on the way to Santiago.

The meal, instead, I want to talk about is a fairly common one. In fact, it’s the one we’re all about to share together: the great thanksgiving, holy communion, the Lord’s Supper.

For a long time this was a meal I was not comfortable with. I did not understand its appeal. I did not view it as my own. I worried about the propriety of its execution. I feared its effectiveness even as I doubted its authority.

From my seat as disengaged voyeur, these were easy judgments to make. I hardly needed knowledge or experience, only preference and argument.

Once I removed myself from that self-imposed place of isolation and scarcity, though and finally accepted the invitation to come to the table itself and taste and see, my judgments, differentiations, “pickiness” ceased to be relevant.

And what I’ve found is true in this sacred space is also true out there in the “real world.”

When we accept the invitation to get up and go, to try something new, to make a stranger, a neighbor, a friend. Transformation is inevitable. In ourselves, in the world, in the elements that brings us together and sustain us.

Indeed, transformation is fundamentally what food does and how we relate to it; we change it and it changes us.

Through claiming and sometimes simply renaming the fruits of the earth as “food”, we make ourselves vulnerable to creation’s transforming power: chemically, relationally, spiritually.

To close I’d like to read a poem by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, whose work was influential in my own journey away from pickiness. Officially, the poem’s called “Love III,” but I like to think of it as the reluctant dinner guest.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

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Food is analogue?

There’s a problem I’ve noticed when foodie folks start talking about the future of healthy sustainable eating.

We’re not always using consistent language.

The conversation usually starts with food in the context of a fundamental element as necessary for life as air, water or sex.

But then the discussion quickly moves to policy or health benefits or social identity and the meaning of the word “food” seems shifts too. No longer is it simply an essential and life-giving thing that all of humanity shares, but a highly marketable thing that all of humanity can be sold.

We often call out the big multinationals making big investments in food science for transforming our most popular comfort foods into cost-effective edible chemicals, but I’m noticing the same thing is true for the kale and quinoa set.

Instagramming foodies lobbying for listicle placement to fill their restaurant, get a book deal, or perform an aspirational identity for the whole wide world are using the universal, humane appeal of food for their own financial/social benefit as well.

There’s of course nothing essentially wrong with that, especially in the context of a capitalist society like ours.

Except perhaps when one considers that our society is now starting to confront the consequences of some pretty serious food-related issues: chronic obesity, food insecurity, skyrocketing health costs.

Our relationship to food culture, I believe, both reflects and affects the most significant issues facing our species: income inequality, social solidarity, the very future of the species. . .

What if when we started talking about how to eat healthier we didn’t immediately shift the conversation to name-brand diets or rare so-called super foods? What if when we talked about the pleasures of food we didn’t just talk about extreme taste or expense?

What if food that is good for you was also just simply good and impossible to avoid?

I’d like to think 2016 is the year we start to make some headway in shifting this conversation, and I’d like to think it’s going to have a lot to do with the United Nations naming 2016 the year of the pulse (e.g. lentils, beans, legumes etc.)
http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/

Imagine if all those Instagrammers got inspired to capture the diverse beauty and possibility of lentils in all their varied forms.

And if big multinationals put all their supply channel planning behind making sure thousands of legume varieties are  available to us wherever and however we shop.

The only possible problem I foresee with this transformational moment is that pulses are cheap and therefore useless for social differentiation or profit engineering.

That’s not going to stop me from eating as many meals of beautifully nutritious and delicious pulses as high-priced tasting menus or value-priced convenience meals.

Maybe you’ll join me?

 

 

 

You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Sometimes I get an idea in my head about doing/creating/eating something and I just won’t let it go, until I get it out of my head and in to the world.  It keeps me up at night, it peppers my conversation, it directs my reading.  It might be a trip, a pop-up community event or a menu.  Most recently, it was goat braised in goat milk.

I first read about this subversive dish in the cookbook Eat With Your Hands by Zac Pelaccio, chef of NYC’s Fatty Crab (I once ate a fat sandwich there. . . yum!).  I loved the idea of so flagrantly breaking dietary law (mixing meat and milk is explicitly forbidden by the bible), exploring new protein (it’s not everyday goat is on the menu), and sourcing the relatively exotic and hard to come-by ingredients (I was heartened by a vague memory of seeing goat milk for sale at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Lee’s Summit, Mo.).

Of course, all things only become things by taking a first step, and then another, so I started making a list.

– Gather friendly, adventurous dinner guests
– Secure an interesting, welcoming location
– Pick a date
– Write the rest of the menu
– Shop. . . which necessitated its own list

I don’t normally shop at big supermarkets, preferring regular trips to one of my two small neighborhood markets.  Their respective clientele reflect what I suppose are my two closest affinity groups: food snobs and the homeless.  They know me and I know them.  I can be in and out quickly, on my way here or there, but they don’t always have everything just when or how I want it.

Occasionally, then, when I need to do a big shop for a big event, I almost desire those wide florescent-lit aisles containing every packaged food-stuff the average American household might need.  It could be so convenient, especially if I talk myself out of walking there.

Invariably, though, I’m not shopping for the average American household.  I’m shopping for the proverbial goat.

I did look at the local supermarket’s meat counter for a package of goat — sometimes a supermarket in close proximity to an immigrant community can surprise — but alas not this time.

Instead my research led me to the Al-Hoda Market (also apparently known interchangeably as Al Barah) in Cambridge’s Inman Square.  I read in the Globe that this Halal butcher kept his own trip of goats in New Hampshire that he slaughtered in accordance with the instructions of the Koran.  If I were so blatantly breaking biblical law by boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 34:26), I probably should hedge my bets and make sure one of the prophets was on board with my plans.

I called ahead to make sure they had goat in stock before hopping on the bus, the train, the other train, and walking a number of blocks in search of my kid.

Upon entering the small sparsely stocked florescently lit market, I was greeted with “salaam alaikum” (aka “peace to you”) by a young man hiding behind the counter, which I returned in kind (this phrase I first learned from binge watching some years ago that trailblazing Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie”).

I inquired about the goat. Yes.  What part did I want?  idk? For stew?

Summarily, I was escorted behind the counter and down the stairs to the basement meat locker, leaving the store upstairs un-kept. I waited just outside the freezer door as my muslim butcher rustled around, eventually emerging with an entire goat carcass.  He wanted me to point out the part I wanted; I demurred and deferred.  He eventually took the goat over to the bandsaw and sawed off some stew chunks and sent me on my way.  I’m still not quite sure, what “part” I ended up with, but it was preposterously inexpensive.

Back home, I marinated my kid over-night in chilies, ginger and garlic, before transferring to the Le Creuset the next evening, adding more chilies, ginger and garlic, onions and carrots too, then dousing in the milk of its mother.

Many hours in the oven passed. Collagen melted. Chilies mellowed.  The milk curdled.

Just before serving, and after removing the fort tender goat chunks, an immersion blender brought all the spicy, fatty, fragrant bits together into a silky, exotic sauce, a perfect compliment to the game-y goat and light bulgur.

At the end of the night, none of us were struck by lightening for our flagrant disobedience, but none of us, I think were keen to repeat the experience any time soon either.

Happy to have had the experience, I could once again sleep through the night, dreaming of the next idea to make a list for. . .

Small bites

When you work amongst food editors, the office potluck takes on new meaning.

Image
Photo courtesy Becky Gissell

See those yellow and green pinwheels in the forefront?  They’re supposed to be rotolini ala crema de fave, stuffed mini pancakes with fava bean cream. my contribution to today’s cicchetti office potluck.

A sister imprint has a book out on cicchetti — aka Venetian tapas — so we thought we’d experiment.  (Read more about cicchetti the tradition and the book at quarryspoon.com).

I say “supposed to be” because I didn’t actually start cooking until 10.30 pm and had found my neighborhood market lacking in robiola cheese, fava beans, even edamame.  So instead I used goat cheese and spinach to make the vibrant filling around which I wrapped prosciutto and egg pancakes, which in my version turned out to be more like paper-thin crepes.

In all, I probably followed 50 percent of the recipe. The rest was innovation and experimentation.  I made it up as I went along, with the resources I had at hand.  Refusing to give up in the face of lacking fidelity to the original.

Not a bad life lesson, I think, and one which I had applied earlier in the evening as well.

The reason I didn’t start cooking until 10.30 pm was that I had decided to participate in the Paul Madore Chorale’s annual summer sing.  http://www.paulmadorechorale.org/concerts.html

It’s a grand tradition where volunteer musicians — singers and instrumentalists — gather each summer Monday on the second floor of Salem’s Old Town Hall to sing choral masterworks.  Think: Faure’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria.

Many bring their own scores carried through a lifetime of singing this repertory, though there are scores there for the borrowing as well.

There’s no rehearsal to speak of, or pursuit of perfection.  It’s about reaching out to remember the not quite forgotten.

Last night we say Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I not only had never sung before but had no idea what it was about.  While much of the dramatic score is familiar from movies, I got the distinct impression we were not singing about Jesus.

And indeed, at the interval, I sussed out that we were singing medieval Latin drinking songs!

In taberna quando sumus When we are in the tavern,
non curamus quid sit humus, we do not think how we will go to dust,
sed ad ludum properamus, but we hurry to gamble,
cui semper insudamus. which always makes us sweat.

I only managed to get half these words out, but I tried and I learned and the next time some fancy-pants starts talking about Carmina Burana I’ll smile inside.

I tried that once.

the gleaner’s kitchen

One of the perks of being a food editor is that I get to invite myself to interesting dinners.

Glamour is not always on the menu, but eccentricity most certainly is.

Friday night was a prime example.

A colleague heard an interview on NPR with a Tufts University student who has been getting a lot of publicity for his “Gleaner’s Kitchen” project.  He’s a dumpster diver, a free-gan, who routinely feeds people garbage and dreams of creating a space, The Gleaner’s Kitchen, where the food is free and the creativity is ripe.

He has a really wonderful way of talking about turning “waste into wealth,” subverting systems that disrupt access to food, and participating in traditions of gleaning and feeding people the predate the supermarket.

My curiosity was piqued, so I got on the gmail and secured a dinner invitation for myself and a few friends.

It’s always a little nerve-wracking going to a stranger’s home for dinner (which I find myself in the routine of doing rather often and highly recommend).  The assumption, generally, though is that while conversation might be halting and seasonings or servings might be foreign, a host is not going to serve garbage to his guests.

Garbage, of course, was exactly what everyone knew was Friday’s menu raison d’etre.

This garbage though was name-brand and high-end.  It came from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, establishments which throw away thousands of dollars of groceries every night for various reasons, spoilage not necessarily being the primary one.

The Gleaner’s Kitchen in its current incarnation is a Tufts University affinity house.  My friends and I Friday joined ten or so “Crafties” for their regular Friday evening feast.  We had lamb ribs, and sauteed vegetables, curried lentils and rice.  Kick-Ass cupcakes and pear cider.  It was quite a spread, all completely edible.  I still haven’t gotten sick.

It also was a menu informed not by what we wanted, but  by what was available.  This philosophy of cookery has been getting a lot of play for its seasonality recently, but it’s especially interesting to think about it in terms of economics.  That version might be even more ancient than the seasonal/local variety.

After my garbage dinner I don’t think I’m going to become a full-time dumpster-diving anarchist free-gan any time soon, but I am intrigued by the idea of taking a closer look at the waste I and my community leave in our wakes.  With curiosity and ingenuity, there might just be wealth there.

tipple tuesday

Periodically, once a month, on a Tuesday, from 6.30-8.30, I host a little cocktail party I like to call Tipple Tuesday.

The idea is for a casual midweek gathering that doesn’t commit anyone to more than a drink and three peanuts.  It’s not dinner, but an excuse to see and be seen, to gather, meet, update, and report.  Two hours of civilized moderation.

Usually, I try to have a house cocktail on offer, an experimentation with some trend or culture that’s caught my fancy, and a complementary nibble (e.g. szartloka and kielbasa or gin and tonic and Indian fried veggies).  Guests never know what to bring and I never know what to tell them.  Lack of provisions helps to break things up when the two hour window elapses, so a meagre spread is part of the appeal.  Nevertheless, a bottle of wine is never unwanted nor was the homemade sushi platter, when it appeared.

Truth be told, these things can become pretty stuffy and insular: the same people talking about the same things.  Without some effort, the naval gazing can be epic.

This Tuesday’s tipple was, I think, especially successful in sidestepping this inevitable difficulty.  The menu helped a lot: beer cocktails and pickled eggs.

I had two varieties of beer cocktails on offer, one light and one dark.  No one had had a beer cocktail before,  and no one was particularly keen to intentionally mix their beer and liquor, so everyone was in uncertain, experimental, trusting territory.  Generally, the most productive and creative place to be, I’ve found.

Similarly, I’d made an effort to expand the guest list, with invitees new to this coast, this country, and/or this event. In varying proportions, there was a healthy mix of familiar faces and exotic ones.  Everyone had the opportunity to be in the company of a comfortable familiar, a distant relation, and a new friend.

The other truth to be told, is that these things usually don’t break up within the specified two hour window.  While this night I didn’t find myself fixing dinner for everyone as I often do, hangers-on were present well into the evening.

And that’s perhaps ideal, representing a porous community with individual schedules, responsibilities, and proclivities. How boring if everyone did everything everyone else did?

An empty plate

This piece is cross posted on North Shore ArtThrob.

Food is a profoundly powerful vehicle: for vitamins and minerals, of course, but also for social conventions, cultural values, and personal proclivities.

In Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, playing at the Salem Theatre Company through December 17, the food as vehicle conceit is alive and well.  “A comic tragedy in seven courses,” Hollinger’s play takes us to the world’s greatest restaurant in Paris in 1961.  There’s only one customer and he’s determined to die of hunger.

Through a menu of seven courses, the STC’s dynamic cast brings vigor to a script that is perhaps more clever than caring.  And when they finish serving their final dish of adjectives and adverbs, we’re still hungry, if not for bon mots and repartee, then for calories and company.  In my case, that meant it was time to plan a dinner party.

A few days after the preview performance I attended, I created a menu inspired by the menu that served as a framework for the play itself.

As an opening act we had an absurdist soup: garlic with butternut squash and saffron.

The soup was followed by an existentialist entree: chicken a la Ritz with poached eggs in a spinach souffle.  (The chicken came to the table first, but I poached the eggs in advance.)

The farcical salad? The French multi-purpose cream filling, farce, served on toast accompanied by mixed greens.

And to close, I conflated the surrealist cheese course and tragic dessert by serving a goat cheese sorbet.  (“Tragedy,” of course, being derived from the Greek “goat song.”)

Like the play itself, my menu abounding in nuance and wit, ultimately lacked a certain intuitiveness.  The only reason these courses came together was to conform to a predetermined outline and they fit together more as a consequence of their intellectual capital than distinct flavor profile.

All of this is not to say, that either lacked any degree of satisfaction, however.

strangers aka friends we haven’t met yet

It goes without saying that our Thanksgiving invite lists should include close friends and family.

Perhaps it is worth saying though that strangers and potential enemies were present at that first Thanksgiving too.  It was about adventure and risk, not safety and tradition.

This Thanksgiving I did not join my parents for a steak dinner in their adopted Florida hometown.  Instead I headed up to the snowy wilds of Vermont where I joined a friend and her parents for nightly fires and international travel chatter.

On the drive up, we learned that this year’s table would not be heaving with international students from the neighborhood Ivy League; indeed, it would be quite intimate, just close friends and family. . . unless we could find some strangers at the last minute.

Our limitations were that there were only three extra scallop shells for coquille St. Jacques and our strangers needed to be Dartmouth certified, no townies.

Also a bit of a challenge describing our adventure to the six year old New Yorker in our midst: you should never talk to strangers and never, ever go home with them, but we’re going to go pick up friends we haven’t met yet and bring them back to eat with us; how exciting!

In the end, we were ultimately unsuccessful.  We spoke to dozens of students:

  • The Occupy Dartmouth kids, who think the thing the movement needs is a corporate sponsor.
  • The chemistry professor fresh off a plane from Mumbai, wheeling his rumbled luggage
  • One-of-each: a yankee, Indian, and Asian having a fancy lunch at the new hotel

But everyone already had plans, was utterly horrified by our craziness or had friends who lacked a similar taste for adventure.

It all got me thinking about the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14) from the perspective of the guests: accepting invitations and preparing yourself for the occasion are the best ways to deal with the fickleness of people with too much power.

Putting the garden to bed

Maybe you have the same dream I do: living in a commune of sorts, with food production a priority and civilization within walking distance.

It occurred to me last night that I’m living the dream.

The Annex garden has been put to bed and the bushels of tomatoes in various degrees of ripeness bequeathed to the 14 Curtis kitchen, along with some apples from a previous day trip.  It became my job to figure out how to feed the community with our bounty.

Apparently, the only thing anyone ever thinks to do with green tomatoes is fry them.  There aren’t a lot of traditional dishes to re-interpret, my preference in all things. Instead I found reference to a green tomato soup, on a message board with some not altogether encouraging reviews.

Regardless, I knew I was dealing with tomatoes that spanned the color spectrum from chartreuse to crimson, so I’d surely be able to find some balance and others lacked. 

My shopping list:
Smokey kielbasa from the Polish deli.
Crusty french bread from the bakery.
Spanish cheese from the cheese shop.
A crisp NZ white from the wine shop.

After returning from my visit to the baker, vintner, and monger, I started a veggie stock, sauteed the kielbasa with a couple minced onions, and added the now chopped tomatoes to stew, followed by a couple tins of beans.

Throughout the evening neighbors and friends stopped by with wine, books, and stories.  We each adjusted our bowls of soup to the likings of our palates with creme fraiche and sriracha, until we moved on to the free form apple tart as it came bubbling from the oven.

Who needs to move to rural Maine or the French countryside?  The dream is alive right here and now.

 

 

a professional nourisher

Since hanging up my hiking boots and earning my compostela I wear many hats these days: campaign manager, magazine editor, chef.

It’s this last turn as a professional nourisher that has perhaps brought the most excitement into my life.

Last Tuesday, for instance:

The brief: prepare dinner for 25, including 15 visiting curators in training, three vegetarians, one contemporary Tawainese artist, and one gluten free.

Last year I had the pleasure of supping with the touring first year Winterthur Fellows as they stopped in Salem on their grand tour of New England’s superlative houses and museums.  Consequently, this year as chef, I knew my charge was to do more than fill the bellies of these bright, young minds or overwhelm their developing sensibilities with the extravagances of my table.  Weary from long days of museum touring, they needed an inspiring, allusive menu; food which carried an unfussy narrative of context and creation and sated a hunger for community and discourse which growled deeper than their stomachs.

Like all good solutions, mine would be derived from the limitations: if I couldn’t serve meat, I’d serve vegetables and if I didn’t want to be extravagant, I’d be thoughtful.

Then it was simply a matter of connecting the dots amongst the surprisingly large number of Salem urban farmers.  I gleaned from neighbors’ container gardens, negotiated a CSA share, and had Salem Community Gardens’ executive director deliver a day’s harvest to the house.

The night before the fete, I took stock of my urban harvest, mounding the swiss chard, counting the beets, admiring the tiny french radishes.  Disconcertingly, I still had no idea what I might create in a few hours: quiche? terrines? canapes?

A night’s rest would be required. . . in the morning all would be mostly clear:

To start, we’d have the roast tomato and goat cheese toasts that I’d written about in the July Issue of ArtThrob’s Street Guide.

Then a variation of veggie chili using whatever seemed appropriate from the harvest.

Finally, Julia Child’s sablee, an old standby.

Though not as many courses as I’m used to tackling, the multiplications of measurements and the preparations of various vegetables presented their own challenges and so I was thankful for the museum interns who stopped by the house throughout the day, offering their services.  Of course, the management of these art historians preparing to get married in the morning presented their own challenges: to assign a task to one with no professed culinary skill, one must think three steps ahead and create contingency plans while explaining how to hold a knife.

Regardless, when our illustrious guests arrived, signs of assembly lines, improvisational spicing, and burnt cookies were no where to be found.  Instead we had beautiful platters of deep red and orange tomatoes, an inviting bar, and a cornucopia of local, seasonal produce that fueled conversation late into the night and the seeds of which I hope will bear fruit in dining rooms, museum galleries, and classrooms around the world for years to come.