--That all-important gear in the routine of my existence.
A month or two ago I watched Julie and Julia for the first time, and was thoroughly inspired to write about food and all its variations of grandeur, elements of comfort and joy, and treasure trove of memories. So here goes:
I have had a life-long relationship with food. I wrote a poem when I was, oh sixteen or so, describing myself as an enthusiastic foodie. Feeding people is my day to day love language, and one of my favorite activities. It's so beautifully fulfilling.
Between my mother and sister and me, we call it the Pelican breed, happily coined from The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. Which reminds me how very influential reading has always been to the culinary art. From Marmaduke Scarlet, to Annie Ridd, Aunt Hilda Jarman, and Ratty's supper at Mole End. And I discourage all expressions that indicate Anti-Sausage Societies and the League for the Suppression of Eggs.*
Cooking has an extra special kind of beauty simply because it doesn't last that long. A painting or a sculpture may last a thousand years. My food will barely last a week, and I'm rather more delighted when it doesn't last ten minutes. In that way it's a gift, a kind of sacrifice; a way to give of myself for momentary nourishment. A well crafted meal, a masterpiece perhaps; but the fact that it is quickly gone doesn't means it's wasted.
I have so many memories and experiences with food that I wish to share, but they may come in a rather lopsided and topsy-turvey manner. When talking of cooking and food, I must start with my mother. She really learned to cook in Costa Rica as a missionary in her twenties; and as she learned Spanish, moved to Guatemala and had her first child, she fell in love with food. She began by gathering whatever good cookbooks came to hand and reading them cover to cover. And then reading them again. In this way she became familiar with the structures of cooking, the elemental laws and whatnot (disentangling these from the traditions and preferences also provided) and began to branch out, experiment and practice. I didn't come along until about six years later, by which time my mother had increased greatly in her knowledge and proficiency in the kitchen, and been tested by busy toddlers, poverty, and moving all over the world.
She often let me help measure and stir, give a hand here, and taste this. But mostly I watched. For years I watched her chop vegetables and sear meats, stir sauces and make bread. Mounds of yeasty elastic dough, sometimes 100% whole wheat, sometimes French-style plain white. We would take bowls of dough with us in the van to punch down periodically during the day so we could bake rolls when we got home in the evening. I learned to make pizza crust and Italian bread early on. Cookies... chocolate chip cookies with dark brown sugar and plenty of salt. (Despite the fact that I don't eat them anymore, I could still make them with my eyes closed).
I learned to make pastry before I delved into savory dishes. Pie crusts and biscuits, light and flaky. They were an absolute pleasure to make. Katie made great pie crust, so I got tutoring and tips from her, and 'practiced' at every opportunity. The Betty Crocker recipe. Real butter of course, very cold. And plenty of time to roll out cold dough, and pinch off leaves, flowers, and sailing ship decorations out of the spare dough.
The first time I chopped an onion, no one showed me how. No one was watching. I had never cut a squash either, but I made sauteed onions and summer squash by myself without any problem. That was the beginning of my cooking adventures with onions, one of the chief staples of the kitchen. That was the start of cooking on my own--calling on what I'd seen and read, working with all five senses, and having all the fun in the world.
I remember my elation when my first white sauce thickened! I wrote about sauces and roux, the arts and science, the absolute magic of it. I basked in the aroma of a good mirepoix. I learned to cook beans, great vats of pintos, from scratch, and give them marvelous flavor. And I learned how to make a real pot of rice. Naturally, I also remember my unnatural fear of salmonella as I learned to cook whole chickens (which I quickly got over, thank goodness, and yay for chicken) and the fear of ruining eggwhites (which I didn't, even the first time... since then I have had some 'oh well' moments in that department, but nothing tragic).
Besides Motherdy, the most influential person in my food world was, and still is, Nigella Lawson. Ever since I can remember we've been watching her cooking shows; and her love of food, the colors of food, cooking, and the kitchen has contributed largely to my feelings for them as well. She reminds me of my mother, and over the years I've come to feel that Nigella is my aunt or something. Her home and her voice are soothing and familiar.
Long before I tried separating eggs myself, I'd watched her familiar hands cradling the yolks time after time. I watched her (loath and detest) sieving, stir lemon sauces, chop mounds of coriander with her mezzaluna ... Her meals were simple, comforting, and made from real ingredients ~ chocolate cake, risotto, pork shoulder. Some recipes were done in minutes, some took more preparation and finesse, a few cooked all day long. But the approach was the same. Happy in the kitchen, at home around food.
A more recent source of culinary inspiration has been Rachel Khoo, and the delightful cookbooks and cooking shows from her Paris kitchen. Her recipes are artistic and traditional, but entirely accessible. Another cook whose shows (found on youtube, as are Khoo's) have been delightful and stimulating in the food-world, is Miss Dahl, who cooks to suit mood and atmosphere.
Unfortunately, in recent days I've come up against the result of too many summer treats. Somehow I think I can handle french fries and ice cream here and there because the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and everyone else is doing it. It isn't true. So I'm going back to a diet even more strict than before, and it's really quite rewarding. It provides a pleasant challenge (I'm all out of pirates to fight at the moment), and makes me feel all brisk and efficient in a totally unjustifiable way.
*Extra kudos if you caught all six references in that paragraph. ;)