Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Zen of Sauce

I made pasta sauce.
With crab legs.
It's good.
Start with The Holy Trinity.  Olive oil, garlic, onion.  Sweat that down with salt.
Don't burn it.
Add your seasonings to the mix.  Don't burn it.
Add your tomatoes.  There are lots of kinds, pick your favorite.  Don't burn them.
Add the sugar. Don't burn it.
Let it cook.
And cook.
Don't burn it.
And cook.
And cook.
Don't burn it.
Add a little water and tomato paste when needed.
Don't burn it.
When its close to done, add some crab legs.  Let them cook in the sauce.
Don't burn it.
When it's done, you'll know.  Use your eyes, nose and tongue.   You'll need your ears too, listen for how fast its simmering.
Don't burn it.

 I am by no means an expert at making sauce.  But who can be, since everyone's sauce is different?  Different proportions of different ingredients.  The vegetables are all different depending on where they are growing in the world.  There's nothing special about jarred sauce because every jar tastes the same at every house.  My Irish/French/German sauce is different from my Korean mother in law's, whose is different from her Sicilian mother in law's from whom she learned.  Less enjoyable? No.  Its my individual statement.  There's also the experience of the sauce.  What else was going on while I was making this sauce, at home, in the world, in my head, in the heads of those who are going to be enjoying it in a few hours?  In order to not burn it,  you need to watch it.  Smell it, look at it, touch it with the spoon, taste it.  Almost constantly. I'm a busy lady, so I can't make sauce everyday.  It needs to be done at the right time and in the right mindframe.  Making sauce is something of a meditation.  You must be aware of what is going on inside the pot and what is going into it.  You also need to be in touch with those senses.  You can make a fresh sauce quickly, but it won't have the depth and character of a beautiful sauce that has been cooking on the stove for hours.  You have to devote the time.  It is not something that can be done as a "what the hell' last minute thing.  Its a devotional not to be reserved for Sunday.
So if someone tells you "your sauce is so good", there's more going on there.
Maybe its "I hate tomatoes, but.."
Or perhaps ".... It reminds me of my grandmother's house".
Or "...Ralph and I went to Rome for our anniversary, and we had sauce just like this!"
"This brings back memories, some sad, some happy".
Food has the power to inspire such emotion.
A jar of Ragu doesn't bring back a memory because it wasn't cooked with any.  The smell permeates the house and gets the attention of everyone.  Its a mixture of emotions- excitement, then some reminiscing, fantasizing, longing, then comes the rumbling stomach which brings the task at hand into focus. And the pot hasn't even made it off the stove yet.  No mention of the delicious pasta yet (which is a whole thing on its own. Crab sauce is served with linguini- discussion over).  Let's head for the table.  Let the newly activated senses take over.  I start with the pasta first.  Sauce looks like the right color and consistency.  I know this because I've made it so many times before.  Sauce is delicious and smoothe, well cooked.  Activate ears- here come the compliments. How about some of the crab legs? This is a meal that should be eaten with a plastic tablecloth and dark clothes.  If you have a papercut, its gonna hurt, but its so worth it.  You will be up to your elbows in sauce and crabby bits.  Its impossible to eat this civilly, so don't bother.  Everyone else will be covered in it too, enjoying what you have focused on for the past several hours.  Notice I say focused, not labored.  Pour your glass of wine. You're gonna get sauce all over the glass.  Go ahead, lick it off the stem.   
Enjoy it.
Savor it.
Clean up  your dish with some fresh bread.
All of your ingredients should be married into one perfectly balanced union.  Your cooking experience, your feelings, thoughts and emotions can be tasted. If you don't accept sauce making as a time to ruminate and find your kitchen zen, you can taste it. Enjoy the heaviness off of your shoulders and onto your belly, just for a little while.

Now try to keep that feeling when you're scrubbing your nails and the tablecloth later. Like I said, its worth it.

Bon apetit, and what the hell, namaste, too.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I Eat, Therefore I Am

"Cogito ergo sum", Latin for "I think, therefore I am", always pops into the minds of those in the midst of metaphysical introspection. The ponderings of Descartes speak very much to the "keep it simple, stupid" doctrine that we try to emulate as a New Year's Resolution, but then fail miserably as soon as we hit the first traffic jam of the year. His conclusion was that if you are even considering your existence as a cognizant being, then you must be as such. Piece of cake. So let's give thought to a different one today - "Comedam ergo sum". "I eat, therefore I am". Yeah, I like this one better for today. Obviously there is the physical act of ingesting food in order to provide nutrients to your body for its survival. Not that I expect you to remember back that far, but that was the original reason for food. Fortunately, we now live in a society where we don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. An abused privilege in overweight America? Maybe we'll talk about national obesity statistics another day.  For now, I've got a point to make.

Here's the question of the day- How much conscious thought goes into what you choose for breakfast?
What goes through your mind to help you make your decision?
Your heritage?
Your calorie conscience?
Your refrigerator leftover inventory?

Congratulations, you've made a choice. Do you feel good about your choice?
Do you eat every little bite of scrambled egg because it was drilled into you that, even though you're not particularly enjoying it, you need to clean your plate or be punished?
Does your packet of oatmeal bring memories of Dad making you breakfast when you had a snow delay?
Perhaps its easy and tastes good and anything beyond that makes your head hurt.

Be honest with yourself- were you even hungry this morning, or did you just eat because you felt like it was the right thing to do?
"Dr. Oz says I have to eat breakfast".
"I have to take my pills with food".
"I'm really not hungry, but I need to mindlessly cram something in because the morning meeting might go long and I'll miss my lunch break!"
"The stress of making lunches and getting the kids dressed and fed and out the door is unbearable!  Give me something sweet!".

Private Conversation:
Me: Oh, darling handsome husband of mine (I really do say that), why do you eat rice everyday for breakfast?
Hub: Because I like it.
Me: That's it? Just because you like it?
Hub: Yeah. But its not just the rice. The rice is just the vehicle for other ingredients. You can add anything to it, and make something interesting everyday. That's why I never get bored with it.

Eat THAT, Descartes.

Our physical bodies are our vehicle through life. Through the ages, every "human vehicle" has had the shared experiences- birth, bearing children, hunting for food, death, in the "keep it simple, stupid" mindset. I suppose it's every individual's mindset that steers the vehicle. Some do it because Grandma told them to. Or maybe God. Time-honored tradition. Special memories.

And that's kind of the whole point here. Who's driving, where are we going, and why are we going there?  Just like the person, the journey is individual, totally unique, hopefully fun on the most-part, but sometimes lonely and scary.  The fuel that goes into the car is different for everyone. What distance are you willing to go and how hard are you willing to work to get your fuel?  How far do you expect that fuel to take you?  Will the fuel I chose for breakfast this morning and every morning for the rest of my life get me to my destination?

I'll chew on that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Food Identity

As the spiritual leader Emmet Fox once said, "It is the food which you furnish to your mind that determines the character of your life".

No wonder I am so %!&@? up.

Spin the globe and pick a spot.  Every culture has holidays, traditions, and celebrations with a focus on the "breaking of bread" with kith and kin.  Right from the get-go, the serpent lead Adam and Eve into temptation with an apple, screwing us all for eternity.  Its noted in the Book of Revelation that the body and blood of Christ is emphasized in a heavenly feast.  Buddhists monks are vegetarians who they won't take the life of an animal, but of course, if they are offered meat with their daily alms, they will not decline it.  Thanksgiving turkeys, pork on New Years, fish on Christmas Eve, some religion-based, some superstition, all cultural, all revolving around the sharing of food and drink. Universally, everyone needs it, everyone craves it, and everyone thinks everyone else's sucks next to Mama's. Major differences in regional cuisine come down to what is fresh and local (not a lot of whale blubber in Cuban cuisine) and preparation methods available (the indiginous people of cold northern Japan hang fish, their main staple, outside for weeks to dry it).  Northern Italians eat potatoes, southern Italians eat more citrus and olives.  Thanks to cable TV, you can now have a Norwegian Christmas feast in central Texas, if that's what floats your boat.  Diverse foods are more available than ever, and some will happily experiment with different tastes and exciting cooking methods, trying recipes on YouTube cooking shows.  Others are traditionalists who have fond memories of Nana spending hours in the kitchen making her generations-old recipe from scratch (my father in law has a definite opinion of Giada and her fresh look on Italian cuisine).   

So what do I mean when I say "Food Identity"? Obviously its different for everyone because of the number of factors involved.  My mother grew up on squirrel pot pie in her very small farm family.  If you tried to introduce squirrel pot pie to my husband's huge Sunday family dinners in the Bronx, well, Central Park just might have enough to go around.  And pasta con sardi doesn't go well with Granddaddy's Schmidts Beer.  The life I live today as a mid 30's rural girl married to a middle aged New Yorker is much different than how I grew up.  I get as giddy over a bologna and cheese sandwich with mayo as I do rare tuna with roe at Morimoto. "What do you want for breakfast?" should not be a complicated question, but yet, I find myself unable to answer that question on an almost daily basis.  There are times when I relish a trip to a new restaurant.  Sometimes, I dread it, perfectly happy to sit home with Slim Jims and Weather Channel because of resentment, negative body image, or laziness.  In 13 years, my parents and my in laws have not shared a meal other than an annual holiday buffet equipped with frozen hors d'oeurve and oven brined turkey (my dad doesn't like it, but he's overruled on this one).  

How did I get to this strange place? 
How many other people are here? 
My food preferences have changed as I've grown up.  What else?

This isn't so much an analysis of food as it is the people (namely me) who eat it. To what extent do the food choices our parents make for us as babies shape our personalities?  Some people maintain those tastes and never deviate from what they know as tradition while others associate those childhood meals with pain, suffering and poverty, vowing never to subject their children to such hardship.  Yet others yearn for culinary adventure a la Andrew Zimmern.  Can we identify the people in these categories from a distance, I wonder?

If nothing else, dear reader, you and I have something in common- we're people and we're hungry.  The world has quite an extensive menu.  About once a week or so we'll take a peep and see what's cooking, deeply breathe in the aromas and try to separate this dish ingredient by ingredient.  Some days, I will want to eat alone, others, I will need a comforting hand to hold under the table.  Like a meal, life has its courses, and I'm ready to learn to savor it all.  

Bon appetit!