RE-MASTERING THE ART OF MAKING
Sometime, at the end of July, my appetite disappeared. And generally, from morning to night for the past two months, I’ve experienced very little hunger or real yearning for food — no pangs, shakes or headaches. Appetite: gone.
I guess that’s what a thesis does to a person.
In the filming, writing, designing and editing of my thesis, I lacked stomach-space for much else. I’d spent months eating but not tasting. Everything had the consistency of cardboard and was consumed more out of necessity and habit than enjoyment. I’d spent the week before the hand-in hooked to any caffeinated beverage available.
It was not until the hour after I turned in my masters thesis that I recognized the pain in my gut as something other than stress. Immediately, I knew that the dull drone, which flooded my stomach, veins and heart, functioned as more of a primal, carnal urge than the usual three-meals-a-day timer I had been ignoring. Tom asked how I wanted to celebrate the end of my academic year. I told him I needed a burger, and I wanted it Rare. For the record, I totally wimped out and ordered my swiss and mushroom burger Medium Rare, but it didn’t stop a quarter pound of grilled, ground chunk from jolting me out of a work/survival state. Maybe I was completely iron deficient, but by the end of that burger, I was nourished, and not just because I’d consumed more protein than I had in an entire week (I’m not proud of this). With the ever-looming deadline now gone (crossing ‘Thesis’ off of my to-do list was weird), the flavors of food — nutty Swiss, the vinegar bite of pickle, the tang of ketchup and the earthy tones of lots and lots of mushrooms — mattered once more. “Hey friends,” I wanted to say, “I didn’t know how much I missed you.”
And so I started eating again. I became slightly less pale and less caffeinated. That’s simple enough, right? Well, yeah. But there’s another thing. All this stressed-out thesis-writing made me miss out on everything surrounding my plate: the making, the preparing, the gathering, the sharing. The thesis-writing state had prompted the desire to cosy up to my pots, pans and food processor to slide down the drain. Going to the grocery store — one of my truly favorite places anywhere — was depressing. I couldn’t even recall when or where I had last seen my baking tray (turns out it was in the safe hands of my deli man). In the process of not caring about food at all, I stopped caring about what I love about food. All of that inexplicable, unpinpointable stuff. Like how the mixed-up fragrance of my spice cabinet transports me to either my parents’ house or deep into the dead of winter depending on how close my nose drifts to the cumin. Or how, due to a terrible finger-cutting track record, my heart races into my ears every time I slice through a tomato; My own lycopene-ated adrenaline rush.
Despite all of my complaining, the thesis things weren’t that bad. I like having stuff to do. I like being busy, and I like when the busy-ness is thinking-oriented. The shelves inside my head move, shuffle and order themselves. We run in our own world.
But with my year-long project technically over, I have been at a bit of a loss. Under a rock, as one friend and fellow coursemate put it. How do you get going when the thing you’ve been working towards for so long is gone? The past couple weeks have been a challenge. I’m trying to live in the moment and trying to learn that while change is hard, my own head shelves can be filled in other ways: I took up knitting (and for a moment contemplated a Not French Cooking crafting spinoff). I’m reading more. I’m writing more too. But one thing has been slow to reshape — maybe because it’s so, well, unpinpointable — and that’s been my desire to make for others.
The best kind of unpinpointable stuff has nothing to do with tasting or smelling or slicing at all; It is the opportunity to feed not only myself but to feed another, which invokes a levitation-like pleasure. Think of it as transcendental food-making. Look, I realize I’m romanticizing the idea of cooking for someone else. I don’t have kids. I don’t deal with picky eaters (Actually, I am, out of everyone I know, the pickiest eater). And now that I’m finished with grad school and
applying for jobs baking cookies, I’ve got time to put more thought and time into the thing that sustains me. I am, by no means, a domestic goddess. Nor do I want to be. But in order to start moving out of this post-thesis slump, I’ve had to get my kitchen in order. Which is why Sunday was so special.
Tom woke up before the sun rose to go to Brighton for a fifty-mile bike tour. I awoke three hours later with the house and day to myself, a daunting idea considering the schedule I’ve been keeping. I’d wasted the gorgeous afternoon before on the couch, knitting and attempting to keep the overwhelming and anxious stomachache of having not-much-to-do at bay. Gross. I didn’t want to repeat that. So I wandered over to South Kensington to take in the last hours of the London Design Festival. But my interest in chairs began to dwindle. I felt the pull of something else: the intoxicating, yeasty, thick aroma of bread. I bought a loaf. A giant, crusty, fresh round of potato rosemary bread. What to do next? That was easy. It was time to start making. And so I did. I reacquainted myself with the grocery store and I decided not to play it safe; Sunday welcomed two new recipes to my repertoire — a red wine chocolate cake, topped with a creamy mascarpone and a sticky lamb stew that has, unbelievably, gotten better with each day.
When Tom got home, the house smelled good (I think he was a little surprised to see me off the couch). Aproned-up, pony-tailed and floury-faced, I practically levitated across the kitchen floor — mixing and stirring, shuffling the shelves in the pantry and in my head — happy to be back. Happy to have finally pinpointed what had been there all along.
WORD ON THE STREET. SRLSY, WHAT I HEARD ON LULWORTH ROAD
Two cockney ladies walk down the street. One asks the other…
ZOMG ASTRONAUT ELMO EATS SPACEFOOD!
YOU SAYING THAT’S SPACE FOOD?!
TABLE OF CONDIMENTS THAT PERIODICALLY GO BAD
So that’s good news about the mustard.
NOT FRENCH COOKING ON GAGGING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM
Rachael Oehring maintains a super blog. It’s called Gagging Towards Bethlehem. I discovered it a while ago, and for some time, I’ve been wanting an excuse to chat with her. Recently, Rachael declared June to be Sandwich Month. I said I wanted to contribute a piece of writing to her lovely blog. Then the end of June happened. We both got busy. Instead of letting Sandwich Month pass us by, Rachael was like, “I’m totally making this sandwich summer.”
So for the Summer of Sandwich, I wrote a guest post. With the help of illustrations by Tom Loughlin (a Not French Cooking reg), I detailed a few of the VIS (Very Important Sandwiches) in my repertoire of remembered eatings.
It was loads of fun to write, and I hope you enjoy reading. Perhaps you have your own sandwich canon? Lemme know. It’s the Summer of Sandwich, after all. And keep your eyes peeled for an interview with the Aspiring Food Lover herself, Rachael, in the not-too-distant future.
JUST PLAYING WITH FONTS & FRIENDS
It’s that time of year. The weather’s so nice you don’t need a pee-break or long-winded excuse to BRB on g-chat. Just go eat your gazpacho.
A STORY ABOUT TROUT FOR FATHER’S DAY
Fifty feet ahead from my spot on the grass, I could see, through squinted eyes, the first glimmering flickers of a catch. My line snagged, and a fierce tug woke me from sun-induced daydreams. The quick pull of the line caught me by surprise and yanked me forward. At the rate I was being dragged to the water, I thought I might end up half-eaten by a trout, or at the very least, wet. The Telluride sun had hypnotized my parents too, but the sound of the snagged fish’s furious smacking on the lake’s surface jolted them to my side.
As a six-year-old, my idea of fishing didn’t match the act. I imagined fishing trips to take place in a boat big enough for napping — a canoe or something that drifted across a clear, blue lake. The day would be filled with plenty of bites on the line. The idea of waiting and patience never entered my mind. However, the fishing activity I’d recently undertaken began as anything but an adventure. The breathtaking, Colorado scenery could hold my attention for only so long. Snow-capped mountains; forests colored every Crayola Crayon shade of green; the cloudless blue sky that gave way to an uncompromising mid-summer sun. Crisp wind that smelled of syrupy pine trees whipped against my neck. 10 minutes had passed, and I was already bored. That’s when my fishing line pulled. I let out a yelp! of surprise. “You got one,” exclaimed my dad. “Don’t let him go! Pull! Pull! Pull!”
The day before my parents had swapped driving duties for 18 hours. Despite a serious effort to find a hotel, and an unabashed willingness to downgrade (Super 8, here we come), every room for 200 miles was booked. The Pope was coming to Colorado Springs. The Pope. That night, with nowhere to sleep but our boat of a Chevy Caprice wagon, we dozed off to the sounds of the nearby highway and the soft croons of Elvis on my “Best of” cassette tape. But my parents must not have slept for long. The early sun stirred me from car-seat dreams, and by that point, we had practically reached Southern Colorado’s wild, unbridled edge.
After pulling up to the then undiscovered Telluride main street and checking into our condo (Mom and Dad nixed the two-storey one with the spiral staircase in the middle of the living room), the adjacent fishing lake seemed as good a place as any to stretch our legs. Before I could complain, my parents rented me a line. Exhausted from the drive, they probably hoped a couple hours of my own quiet reeling would give them time to nap at the nearby picnic table. But I didn’t want to go fishing on my own.
The thought of touching a worm was more frightening to me than killing it for bait. My dad knelt down by the bucket of pink, writhing wigglers, and I stared over his shoulder as he prepared my hook. The line itself took several attempts to cast. I’d throw back and somehow the wormy end would land just a foot or two in front of me. Or it would barely touch the lip of the lake. Adults had tried teaching me how to pitch and throw. No matter how well they guided my arm back and forwards (or threw the ball for me), I was hopeless. Now my dad was standing, bended-knee, next to me. “Nice and easy,” he’d say. “We’ll get you there.” So as not to accidentally catch either of us with the hook, he carefully brought my arms up and back. When I threw forward — nice and easy — the line made its way out to the middle of the fishing lake. I was set.
Ten minutes later, a tug-of-war commenced between me and whatever was on the other side. I wound up my line as fast as I could. My arm ached from the spinning and the battle this fish had unintentionally swam into. Pull! Pull! Pull! My dad continued to yell. And soon the splashing up ahead gave way to a slick, wild rainbow trout whose mouth had fallen victim to my hook. By now a small crowd of locals had gathered to watch the spectacle. The trout’s iridescent skin sparkled as I pulled it closer to shore. Twisting and flipping, its spasm-ing muscles resisted my tugs for as long as they could. I had never seen anything look more alive.
When my brother and I were young and little enough, our parents would bathe us together. Besides ourselves, the tub was filled with countless plastic toys and colorful, spongy blocks that stuck to the white-tiled wall. Any plaything that seemed waterproof enough was permitted to join us in the suds. Our tub was standard size, but at bathtime it became a vast pool for splashing and swimming. The white inner shell felt like a slick, mossy rock against my naked belly. It was impossible to sit in one place. We’d clamber around and make an orchestra of sounds in the echoey bathroom: splashing water and laughing and shaking our hair. Our slippery bodies sounded like squeegees against the wet porcelain. But being in the tub was never as fun as the process of getting out: When the water went from warm to lukewarm, and our fingers and toes had sufficiently pruned, we’d play our favorite game. “You know what sounds real good, honey?” Dad would say as Mom unfolded the towels. “Some brook trout. I’m gonna get me some brook trout. I hear ‘em splashing.” As he prepared an imaginary fishing line, my brother and I frantically wiggled every inch of our bodies, flipping our feet around like two big fins, soaking the bathroom’s tiled floor with our sideways kicks. “My, my. Look at how these brook trout wiggle,” he’d exclaim. “They sure don’t want to get caught.” But we always wanted to be caught. Being caught meant getting wrapped up in a warm towel. Being caught meant spending an extra 15 minutes with my dad while he dried my hair. Being caught meant we’d get to be brook trout again. We’d wiggle until we got reeled in. We didn’t put up a fight.
Weighing in at two pounds, the rainbow trout I caught in Telluride was by no means a small fish. And my dad couldn’t stop smiling. He resolved to skin the trout and fry it for dinner. Fresh fish wasn’t yet part of my culinary repertoire, but my father assured me that with enough salt and pepper, this trout might be the best thing I ever tasted. I remember listening to the trout’s sizzle in the hot, buttery pan. The fish was already salt-and-peppered, but my dad brought both shakers over with the plate of fish and two forks, just in case I thought our lunch needed more seasoning. The fish flaked easily as my dad pulled away its tiny bones. I’m sure he could tell that I was scared to eat something I had killed only a few hours before. But he reminded me that it was my catch. My fish. I took a small bite. The salt and pepper brought out a flavor, which I’m sure I described as “fishy.” I left the rest for my dad to finish. If he was disappointed that I didn’t eat more, he didn’t let on. Now, though, I wish I had known better. By this time, I was getting to big to be a brook trout. And I wouldn’t catch another fish. I wish I had known what it meant to eat something I had worked hard for, and to eat something so fresh, and to share it with my father.
Paintings: Trout, Just Prior To Filleting I and Trout, Just Prior To Filleting II by my dear friend, Joel Sager
Man’s Best Friend
“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.”
— Gérard de Nerval, from Gautier, Théophile. Portraits et Souvenirs Littéraires
Portrait of Lobster and Owner, made by one of Not French Cooking’s favorite contributors, Tom Loughlin.
Been thinkin’ about birds a lot lately
Image: Martha Stewart Living, via Abstract Conference
In elementary school my classmates and I spent a few months of the first grade peeking into the rows of sleepy eggs that warmed inside a donated incubator. We made a spot for it in our classroom on a corner table, near the chalkboard and underneath our homemade class calendar. We temporarily stored our craft supplies in the snack closet, and everyday we watched — with bated breath — and wondered when our little chicks would hatch.
After weeks of positing — at recess, over juice boxes — if, in fact, there were no chicks at all, the shells finally cracked. Initially we didn’t see it happen. We heard it: Tiny, quiet pecks that sounded like the taps of my bitten fingernails on the wood top of my desk. Our class of 17 or 18 raced to the incubator to gaze in on our collection of tippy-tappy baby birds. In science class we learned what baby birds looked like after hatching, yet we all expected ours to appear as fluffy, butter-yellow, Easter chicks. Instead, they looked like palm-sized aliens that had gone for a swim in goo. “Gross!!” said Andy Logan, king of the boys, who prompted his peanut gallery of jerks — Brian Sight, Corey Eiman and BJ Adams (I know, right?!) — to fake vomit into their hands. Adelle and Madi started to cry. Most of us were terribly confused.
Growing up, my parents would take me to the farmstands in Kansas City’s Rivermarket district. We’d peruse the fruits. If a grandma came, we’d visit the Steamboat Arabia museum. Sometimes I convinced my mom to buy me a cupcake in Succotash. Mostly, though, I only cared about holding the baby chicks. Every Sunday, a farmer from Kansas brought in a cage of chicks that accompanied his load of corn and purply-topped lettuces. Sometimes he swapped stalls with another vendor, but he was easy to find: It was impossible not to hear the frantic, screaming peeps of his hatchlings. The stench of the musty downy feathers and chick poo that wafted from the coop was unmissable. But his chicks weren’t yellow. They were dyed: Purple, pink, green, orange. Some were even two-toned. For a while I didn’t realize what had to happen to the chicks in order for them to look like cotton candy, but I could tell looking in on the birds made my parents sad. I always insisted on holding one or two of the rainbow babies. With my hands barely cupped around their bodies, I could feel their tiny, crazy hearts beating. Even through the mess of technicolor fluff, their bones felt more fragile than the houses I had tried to build out of toothpicks.
I knew that the chicks in our classroom would not turn the color of lime sherbet, but I couldn’t hide my disappointment when I saw how ugly they were. “Don’t worry,” Ms. Owens assured us. “They’ll fluff up.” None of us believed her. But after recess, their sticky, damp feathers had magically dried. It was as if my teacher had quickly swapped in a dozen new chicks. But they were ours to feed and hold and nuzzle until a farmer came to pick them up.
Raising our dozen hatchlings was, in many ways, my first experience of learning where things come from. I was too young to have The Talk with my parents — I operated on the notion that I’d won the baby running race in Heaven to be their daughter. I also had never thought about the path that food took to reach my plate. My mom has always hated eating eggs, and as a 6-year-old, I’m not sure if I would have even seen her crack one for a cake (I was too busy faking a British accent and playing runaways or orphanage with my neighbor Allison). I had never been a picky eater; I knew how chicken tasted. My parents beamed as I cleaned my child-size plate.
Thinking back, I wonder why I can’t remember more of my own impressions of the chicks in the incubator. One day we got to school and noticed that our 12 chicks had become 11. Ms. Owens told us that the farmer had come by to pick up a particular fledgling because his mommy missed him. What really happened never registered with us. After a month, the farmer came for the rest of the chicks. We didn’t question where they’d be taken or what they’d do. The words ‘chick’ and ‘chicken’ still held completely different meanings. And when Ms. Owens told us they’d be happy, we believed her.
Now, I’m all about stocking up on my £6 Casillero del Diablo (What? It’s idealzies and delish for a girl who already spends too much money on food shopping), but anyone with an extra 15K should probably get all up on this champagne that’s up on the auction block next week.
A couple of 200-year-old bottles of fizzy gold found 150 feet under the sea can be yours! And if you’ve got the dough, it sounds like spilling it on a few flutes-worth is a legit investment. I mean, the sommelier says so!
“It was like sitting in a leather chair smoking a cigar.”
Like I said, worth it, right?