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The lesson of the leeks

victoria  —  December 3, 2014

When life has been difficult in the past, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. Chopping vegetables, stirring pots, kneading bread are my standing, moving meditation. There is accomplishment and completion in the way perfectly diced potatoes or onions fall from my knife or the way a bread dough rises under a floured tea towel to fill the bowl it’s resting in. When life is swirling in chaos, the kitchen always makes sense to me.

When my father died. I spent the afternoon making sesame seed cookies that had to be rolled and cut into tiny stars. One of my father’s sisters took me aside and asked me if I was okay and if I knew it was okay for me to be upset and to cry. I knew it but I couldn’t do it with a house full of people. I can talk about crying and emotions in public, or as public as writing is, but I have a hard time actually crying in public. I’m more of a solitary, darkened theater, or one-on-one cryer.

In the last two months my cooking has been sporadic. I’ve been traveling, then flat on my back with a pulled muscle and then sad. The Sunday after my mother died, my back was well enough that I could cook and I made chili and cornbread. Julian looked at me at dinner and asked if I’d done it on purpose, my father’s chili recipe, my mother’s cornbread recipe, tweaked by me over the years to suit my cooking style. I hadn’t done it on purpose or at least not consciously.

I didn’t get much time to process my trip before I was wrestling with my mother’s death and now it’s all bound together in a knot I can’t seem to untangle. I’d forgotten about my best personal place of calm, though the yoga and meditating and British mysteries had been helping. We tried to get back to normal last night by doing our weekly menu. Tonight a pureed potato leek soup with porcini oil and crispy leeks. Keifel found the recipe in my notebook of recipes clipped from magazines over the years. In coming across it, he said it reminded him of the soup we had at Most our last night in Ljubljana. It’s a million miles away from the potato soup my mom used to make. Fancy to rustic. Both equally good. Both in my repertoire.

To prepare leeks you remove the tough green leaves and the root end and slice the remaining white cylinder in half so you can easily wash the sand from between the layers, fanning them like a book under running water. Leeks are much milder than onions and very rarely make anyone cry. Watching the half moons of leek fall from my knife, I cried. Remembering the one thing my father asked me to make him when the chemotherapy had robbed everything he ate of flavor.

When he had a print shop in Detroit there’d been a Greek deli nearby that served avgolemono, a lemon and rice soup. I’d never heard of it or eaten it but the internet of 2001 was already filled with recipes and I easily found one. It wasn’t the same exactly but the look on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude, made me feel like that soup was the best gift I ever gave my father.

Avgolemono doesn’t even have leeks in it. And there in lies my lesson. It doesn’t matter that I don’t cook like exactly like either of my parents or that my travels and culinary education have given me tastes for things they never encountered. Before my mother’s health took its last debilitating turns she would send me recipes clipped from the Chattanooga Free Press or call me and ask for a recipe she had made hundreds of times so she could share it with a neighbor or staff person at assisted living, even though the residents only had microwaves and I was pretty sure they weren’t making oatmeal bread in them. Food is a language we all have in common and the things we make tell part of the story of who we are, where we came from, even when those stories are of burned dinners or of empty plates and stomachs. Even though both of my parents are dead and I can’t tell those stories with them, can’t wash while they dry the dinner dishes, they are both in everything I make, even my posh potato and leek soup that neither of them ever tasted.

 

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I came home from work early because I was coughing and sneezing and have a headache in my face. Keifel picked this particular ick up somewhere and passed it along to Julian and me. Julian has a brand new job at POP and he’s working on the Biscuit Love food truck, so he can’t really afford to be sick. I have a stack of work as we get ready for our national conference, so it’s particularly inconvenient to be sick. Alas, it is what it is. I’m eating oranges and drinking gallons of water. And going to bed at 9 p.m. And Julian has a day or so to recuperate (I’m too much of a ServSafe stickler to let him go to work sick).

I had great plans to clean out the fridge (it’s my chore of the day in the cleaning rotation I put together in my attempts to do less housework and more writing), make a big salad for dinner, and get some editing/writing done on the Slovenia project. My focus isn’t very good. Instead, I found myself perusing Pinterest while watching Midsomer Murders (I’d say it’s a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel particularly guilty about it). Dinner reverted to leftover homemade mac and cheese.

Pinterest is full of recipes to make ersatz things out of cauliflower. Pizza crust. Mashed “potatoes.” Couscous. Even “mac” and cheese (can food be blasphemous?). Also, roasted, baked whole like a great white brain, sautéed, and available in gold, green, and purple like a cauliflower mardi gras.

I’ve tried to love cauliflower. I’ve tried it roasted and pureed and in soup and raw and steamed and covered in cheese. I’ve tried its particolored cousins.

I have given up.

My last, best attempt to kill it with curry.

My last, best attempt to kill it with curry.

I can eat broccoli until the cows come home but I’ll be leaving the cauliflower for others. For the life of me I can’t get past the fact that it smells of wet socks and tastes of creeping damp.

the girl in the sub shop

victoria  —  March 12, 2014

She is sitting across from him, a tray of uneaten food in front of her. His folded hands are on the table in front of him.

First there is the declaration.

“I don’t want this. I’m not ready for this. I can’t have a career with a baby and a wife hanging around my neck like an albatross.”

Then there is the reasoning.

“What about grad school? How are you going to go off to Montana or Vermont with a newborn?”

Then there is the meanness that comes of what can only be imagined as desperation.

“Who is going to possibly want you with some other man’s kid?”

Finally, there is the leaving.

He gives her $400 and tells her that she nor the baby will ever want for anything but that he is not going to be a father. She drove them to the restaurant, so had to drive him back to his brother’s shop and as he crossed in front of her, she briefly entertained the thought of running him over, believing no jury in the world would convict a distraught pregnant woman.

And then I drove off. I went back to the basement I was living in as a stopgap while I waited to hear from grad schools. I threw every piece of soft furnishing I could find followed by all of the folders I’d organized my grad school applications into. Then I sat on the patio overlooking the cold, February Tennessee River and cried.

My son was born in September. His father called me at the hospital and told me he was proud of me because I didn’t take any drugs. I was ashamed that a tiny light flickered inside me that maybe he would change his mind.

He came to see the baby at one month and seemed more than a little anxious around my seething family.

He came to see the baby at three months and said that he was too little to need a father, that boys didn’t really need one until they were, like, fourteen. He gave me some money and kissed me goodbye. And though I wouldn’t admit it, a tiny little torch continued to burn.

There wasn’t another visit, or any more money, and the torch burnt itself out.

I was disappointed and angry for my son. Disappointed that there wasn’t another person in the world who was as invested in or loved him as much as I did. I was angry for all the things my son missed. I was violently, retchingly angry the day my father died and my five year old crawled in my lap and put his hand on my face and said it was okay because now neither one of us had a daddy. I was angry for all the nights of naked spaghetti noodles because that was all I had in the house for us to eat. It was okay to be angry for him. It was my job to be angry for him.

It was also my job to protect him from my anger. I had to be strong enough for two parents. I made it my job not to speak ill of the absent in front of him. I doubt I was a hundred percent successful because children instinctively know all the things we don’t say. When he asked me if his father loved him, I said, if he knew you he would love you. And I believed it. Despite my well-kept, furry little ball of anger, I knew two things. My son’s father was not evil because I had loved him once and my son’s DNA was half his. I also knew that young, scared people do stupid things. Admittedly, I wasn’t always as forgiving on the second point.

When my son was seven, I met and married someone who not only wanted me but fell in love with my son, too. He was a father. He wanted to be a father to my child and his. He adopted my son and put his name on the birth certificate where there had always been a blank.

My son is now eighteen and recently had his first college spring break. He was with his father, the one who didn’t want the job initially. I was anxious and worried and relieved, and even happy that they finally might get to know each other.

The thing I didn’t expect to be was sad. Sad for all the might have beens and should have dones. Sad for the nervous father in the delivery room. Sad for every day at the park. Sad for every dad with a toddler on his shoulders. Sad for the first tooth, first day at school, first bicycle, first soccer game, first girlfriend. Sad for birthday parties and making dinner together and skinned knees and a broken arm. Sad for late night talks philosophizing or planning for college. Sad for prom night and graduation. And, after years of keeping it at a distance, so very sad for that girl in the sub shop with her broken heart and all the years she carried its heavy pieces. I can finally let the last one go because the hope it held, that his father would have the opportunity to see what an incredible person our son is, came to be.

Now they have to figure out what happens next and I can just keep on being grateful for every moment I’ve gotten, every moment I get.

 

After making crazy big meringues last weekend I found myself with an unsightly number of egg yolks to use up. I hate to throw food away and would usually make some kind of eggy bread with the glut. But… we already had bread, bagels and a pan of cornbread. What’s a woman to do?

Trawl the internet for “recipes with ten egg yolks” and light upon lemon curd with exactly that many yolks and the need for the zest of three lemons and a cup of fresh lemon juice. I also had a bag of lemons that were going to shrivel on the counter.

Lemon curd duly made. A scone would be a beautiful conveyance for said curd, but that takes us back to the “we have all this bread” issue.

Lemon curd is very good on warm toast.

 

One sign you might be raising your boy right :

Julian's first pie crust

Adventures in not cooking

victoria  —  September 15, 2011 — Leave a comment

I have officially turned down a pretty big catering gig because I am too busy with the new(ish) job and life in general. It feels weird and slightly naughty. I am 8 months in to my first full-time, non-temp job since I moved to Nashville 8 years ago. Cooking is still a passion but divesting myself of the need to say yes to every opportunity to make even a pittance at it is more liberating than I can express. Will I ever go back to cooking full-time? Who knows? I’ve learned to never say never. There is a part of my brain still in love with the idea of teeny cafe, teahouse, market stall or food truck.

The one thing I’m really enjoying that involves cooking right now is making dinner at my house for Keifel and Jules and watching Jules become a handy cook in his own right. He is also quite the barkeep. His drinks for his consumption are strictly PG but I am glad he looks at alcohol with the mind of a cook and an extension of a meal rather than an ingredient for a bender. I’m touching wood and hoping it sticks.

And, so, life moves on. Quickly as it turns out. In my last draft to you, dear readers – those few who might still be hanging on waiting for some thread of noise on my end – I was leaving my kitchen and house behind and taking off into the unknown of post mortgage apocalypse and weird job-cobbling. We are now well and truly settled into our rental digs with the quirky, Escher-esque rooms and uneven floors. I have made peace with my fridge facing away from all the relevant work surfaces in the kitchen. The cats are cozy and we’ve survived a snowy winter and stormy spring in our little bungalow.

But what of the culinary life? There has been cooking, big and small. Daily and not so much. I took a full-time job with a non-profit in January that has brought us financial calm and daily schedules that look the same most M-Fs. It means that part time teaching is no longer a real option. My cooking professionally will now be mostly cooking as a volunteer. It’s new to you, but I made peace with it a few months ago. I am hoping that some stability means more time now that I am settled into the new work. It’s coming. To carve out some time means saying no to a few things asked of me and that was hard but has also already happened.

So that brings me here. What do I do with a foodblog started when I was looking at being a food professional? That is the $64 question (we’re pretty low-stakes around here). I have a few ideas, one I’ve been tossing about with Cajun Scorpio Girl who is looking at blogging about living green. I’m thinking there is some overlap. Now that I’m not cooking for dollars and can really cook just for fun. I think I’d like to really cook for fun and just document that. Homemade marshmallows (probably not til fall now), crackers, canning and preserving, making sausage and charcuterie… Stuff I didn’t have time for before and for which no one had enough money to pay me. I also want to throw tea parties with my girlfriends. I have all the frippery and the hat. This needs to happen and be documented of course. I also think it’s time for a redesign and for that I’ll have to hit up the Keifel, but I’m sure he’d be willing if I bat my eyelashes. Oh, there will also be the occasional salon/dinner/concert and a few charity gigs here and there to let you in on. I hope the fun – and the quality of the writing – will make up for the drop in intensity (though few and far between those posts have been). It’s a new leaf. Let’s see how it tastes.

And so it ends

victoria  —  October 29, 2010 — 2 Comments

Fall. Usually by now I have posted a long, contemplative post about my favorite season of cooking and well, just being. This fall has been different.

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This is one of those no photos, no fancy, no nothing posts. I’d love to say I patented the idea, but well we all know that’s not true. See many examples of frill-less bloggery about the internet.

I tried to log in to my online Hospitality Management class this morning and the system is down. At least I know my students are most likely having the same issue. I should next turn to finishing my lesson plan and lecture for my Wednesday Nutrition and Menu Planning class but I am sitting in the library in an attempt to not be distracted by the laundry and thirty thousand other things I need to do at home. Some people slack off with facebook, I clean out cabinets and alphabetize the refrigerator. So I am here in a laundry-free zone and I am monumentally distracted by the sound of thirty people banging away on clackety-clack keyboards and the low hum of the library punctuated by teeny voices and then moms shushing them. So much for getting on with my actual paying work. Funny how one can write for free when distracted but not for money. Okay, funny how I can write for free when distracted.

On more food related notes, the supper club is lumbering to a real start. We have some folks reserved for the September dinner but I would love to see it full and people disappointed that there were no spots left. I am unsure how to let people I know socially from previous work situations and through church know about the salon without feeling like a nasty spammer or a vinyl siding robo call. I know there are people who would be interested but if I haven’t spoken to them face to face about it I feel weird about contacting them electronically. This, my friends, is why yours truly is not in advertising or sales. I suck at it. No point in mincing words. If I’m bad at selling myself, whom despite my penchant for amusing self-deprecation I do believe in, imagine me trying to get you to buy a widget washer. However, if you are here reading this, I will let you know that the link for the supper salon is here. You can email, DM on twitter or face book or even call me for the password to view the menu.

We are still getting a half ton truck of veg a week from Avalon Acres. Okay, not a half ton. But this week we got two quarts of raw peanuts and about 8 pounds of sweet potatoes. I am now craving fall food and it is still 90 degrees outside. So, unfair. My latest discovery though is freezing okra and the joys of caponata bruschetta. I found a great recipe in this amazing book I discovered at McKay called Earth to Table for caponata. It has a lot of frou frou things that we are not getting in our farm box like capers and olives and fennel but I have made several tasty variations. It is heavy on the eggplant which ain’t doing it for the menfolk at my house. But really how can you go wrong with sauteed summer veg on grilled artisan bread? I have taken to having it for breakfast on occasion. As, for the book, it is fabulous for anyone trying to eat healthier, closer to home, at home, from their garden, simply… it’s just really good. I have made half the spring recipes and all of the summer ones. Granted I can never leave well enough alone so they are almost always the Victoria version of the printed recipe. But it’s good just for ideas, too. I don’t think I would’ve thought to make a blueberry upside down cake on my own (I loathe, and I do mean loathe, pineapple upside down cake). It was a revelation and went down a storm at the Wednesday night dinner. Jules made it by his lonesome and found it pretty easy unless you try to double it in bigger skillet (sugar doesn’t brown evenly).

All in all things are busy but mostly pleasantly so. I do wish I had been able to procure a full time gig of some sort before we rushed headlong into the madness of fall but apparently it was not meant to be. I am still looking but I get that companies don’t like to hire peeps in Q4 and have resolved to be open to what’s out there but giving it a little more time before I look at seriously drastic measures. Wish me luck.

Local is about who we are in this place at this time, the things that make us Nashville, or Chattanooga, or Omaha, or Seattle or Timbuktu. And, in a very organic way, it helps all those others places, too, because we aren’t pumping the atmosphere full of more carbon.

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