Sunday, August 29, 2010

Food Ways

“You’re always looking for magic!” my mother complained shaking her head while throwing loaves of risen bread dough into the oven. I was about fifteen years old at the time, sitting at the kitchen table observing her. Watching her make bread seemed like the right time, so I had just announced that I wanted to learn more about God.

I’d heard those words before when she watched me try to lose weight--something I tried often and, yes, earlier than fifteen; and I would come to hear that same dismissal whenever I attempted to solve problems without that clench-fisted approach she had long trusted.

Of course I was looking for magic! Why wouldn’t I since I knew, even then, it was there? The belief I’ve always held is that if I could just unearth some pure nugget, some seed of truth, the way to anywhere or anything would unveil itself, and all things would be made clear.

And now, I’m still in search of such things, and I find them most often in the kitchen. For all the world, I love food, and I love it for what it tells me.

There is an uncompromising sense of righteousness to working with local organic vegetables, meats and milk. That’s what counts for Real Food these days--the kind one pulls out of the ground on the way to the kitchen. We’re talking crunchy carrots packed with moisture, sweet and slightly loamy; freshly foraged chantrelles still bearing that short-lived indescribable umami scent at the base of their stems; herbs like lovage, chervil and lemon verbena that grow just outside my door; wild greens like tangy purslane and stinging nettles, available only during some times of the year so that one must use them at every possible opportunity for that short while; meat from contented poultry and livestock who were fed the grass, seeds and bugs their bodies crave and know how to digest; and freshly milled grains grown without poison.

Who can resist, however, the wild promiscuity of using the agile refined white flours and sugars of every kind from the luscious and carmel-ly Lyle’s Golden Syrup to the more virtuous sucanat? I have a huge weakness as well for teas, coffee, and every exotic spice despite (or perhaps because of) its horrific story of duplicity and treachery. (More on that later.) These indiscretions may be hard to swallow by my more disciplined politically-committed food consumer friends. Yet all these ingredients beckon me, whether burdened with ancient histories of depravity or freshly hailed as the new answer to goodness and health. It is good to know how to be with the bad boys as well as the angels, all these ingredients have their places.

Real Foods, as well as the more compromised kinds, are like wild animals. If you want to know how to be with them, you must sit with each quietly for awhile, poke, mix, and watch while withholding judgment. Truly, food wants to tell you its secrets, all the things it can do and be, all the things it can create between people.

But to know such things one has to spend tenfold in mindful observation the time one spends stirring, steering, and cajoling. Most importantly, it won’t do to hurry, get angry, or force things, because food recognizes a bully. It knows the processors and engineers who. like porn directors with their shallow agendas, have turned God’s creation into a numbing sort of frenzy. Food recognizes people who only understand business, who want what they want and don’t much care about the damage. Food might cooperate sullenly, but it won’t disclose its unique beauty.

We would all do well to heed the words of Edward Bunyard as he describes a pear in his book Anatomy of Dessert.

"The pear must be approached, as its feminine nature indicates, with discretion and reverence; [for] it withholds its secrets from the merely hungry."

As with most things, when it comes to food respectful attention is worth the effort. During those prime moments of curiosity-fueled pure attention, secrets unfold. The most alluring thing about food is that as it unveils itself; it opens up the world, both inwardly and outwardly. Alone there in the kitchen, fascinating things are revealed in inaudible whispers. Sometimes as comfort, sometimes as instruction, it’s all in the palms of your hands there on the work table.

These things that I’ve come to know, I’ll tell as best I can. But like all fruits of the spirit, the hearing and the understanding are two different things. Cooking then, is about the sacred and profane. It is both a guide to prayer and a map of the world.

Next post...Why Bread?

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