Saturday, February 12, 2011

Warm Bread, Stolen Cookies, and Other Life Essentials

I have come to the conclusion that there must be a link between the stomach and the pen. Christopher Kimball, editor of Cooks Illustrated magazine, quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite essayists last year. Now, I find myself reading, quite by chance, a memoir of Ruth Reichl, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine up until its unexpected demise in 2009. Just a few chapters in, I am captivated by Ruth's rich stories (which she readily admits to embellishing, according to the time-honored tradition of her rather eccentric family). Ostensibly about her process of maturing into a full-blown foodie, the memoir reveals a rich understanding of the complexities and humor of human nature. Incidentally, it also includes a host of delicious recipes.

I suppose it makes sense, really, that foodies should have the ability to reach right to the heart of things. After all, isn't food the way to a man's heart? Don't we eat "soul food" and "comfort food"? Food provides a nostalgic link to our past and a hopeful path to our future, as in the cases of dieting or preparing a special meal for someone we desire to impress. We reward and punish with food. We eat or refuse to eat as a form of signalling confederacy or protest. Food figures prominently in our rituals and ceremonies, in our ethnic identity and our social gatherings. What, how, when, and with whom we eat offers a glimpse into our socio-economic status. And, in the end, we simply cannot survive without food.

My daughter had a birthday recently, her fifth. When I asked her for her birthday dinner menu, she responded with "bread and water for everyone...oh, and cake with ice cream." We did, indeed have bread for her birthday dinner: Portuguese sweet bread, fresh out of the oven and slathered with butter and either creamed honey or strawberry freezer jam. The sheer, glorious decadence of the thick slices of fragrant homemade bread differed rather sharply from the crust of bread and water we associate with prison food or even the unleavened bread the Savior portioned to his apostles at the Last Supper (although my daughter does regularly break her bread into small "sacrament" pieces). Isn't it odd how one simple menu can show such vastly different faces?

Though not quite as austere as a bread and water diet, I celebrated my move to Vermont some years ago by going vegetarian for a time. With its love of all things hippie and with a host of animal-friendly options, Vermont makes vegetarianism easy. For me, eating vegetables symbolized embracing my new life and complemented the process of healing after a long period of intense stress. Even the process of chopping copious quantities of squash and carrots for my favorite vegetarian chili grounded me, and the spicy scent of dinner simmering on the stove turned my small apartment into a home.

For many of us, in fact, food and home are practically synonymous. We taste a meatloaf just like Mom used to make or enjoy the liberty of refusing carrot and raisin salad even while fondly envisioning that very salad in its penguin bowl on our childhood dinner table. Like many families, my family builds traditions around special foods: Christmas lobster followed by steak with Bearnaise sauce (Dad makes the lobster and Mom makes the Bearnaise sauce), Irma's Kahlua cake for most birthdays, Devin's coffeecake for a Saturday morning treat, oatmeal bread dripping with swirled cinnamon for our friend Pat, pork fried rice in honor of Grandpa Larsen.

Another family tradition hearkens back to my college summer at a fishing resort on Alaska's Lake Iliamna. The lodge chef kept dozens of special recipe chocolate chip cookies in the walk in freezer. The cookies made up part of the sack lunches for our guests to eat creekside, and employees were strictly forbidden to partake. Of course, we had strict orders against any number of temptations, and we felt unduly persecuted. Consequently, most of us gained a substantial number of pounds on stolen chocolate chip cookies. A laughing chef sent us home with the secret recipe at the end of the summer, and I have made the cookies for the past 20 years.

About the time I began and ended my life of cookie crime, Jeff Henderson decided to spend a portion of his prison sentence working in the kitchen. Incarcerated for drug dealing, he found a passion for cooking that carried him to executive chef positions in Las Vegas, a best-selling memoir, and a chance to give back. I find his story fascinating enough to recommend it (try this NPR interview and this ABC News story for starters). And I echo his philosophy that "food is a celebration of life, . . .that every recipe, every dish has a story behind it." I look forward to finding those stories, one spoonful at a time.

1 comment:

  1. I am refraining from jumping up and down with glee! You HAVE the Illiamna chocolate chip cookie recipie?! PLEASE e-mail it to me. Please! I never got it because my mother was fired (Remember, she worked there the same summer as I did.)and she would not allow me to stay for the last 3-4 weeks on my own.

    I drop everything when my Cooks Illustrated arrives. I tear the plastic off, plop on the sofa and lose myself in Mr. Kimball's essay for a few blissful minutes.

    Which memior of Ruth Reichl's have you read. I just did a seach and there seem to be several. I also enjoyed her essays and lamented the lose of Gourmet. (They are back in a different form now, "Gourmet Live" online and as an app for the i-phone.)

    Fresh baked bread is a common luch when Nadia has play-dates. Irks me though when the warm, soft crust is discarded either torn or nibbled at on the plate.

    Checking out Jeff Henderson as soon as Nadia and I haved finished making fresh pasta. The dough is done resting; time to press and cut.