Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simply Cooking

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about craft. Cooking the simple meal. Writing the sharp, deliberate sentence. Craft is the way we work, a way of doing things.

I taught The Old Man and The Sea this summer. I used the book because Hemingway's ridiculously terse prose is a great way to introduce emerging writers to the idea of craft. The book urges conversation about the technical aspect of writing, the nuts and bolts. It's also a great way to get paid to talk about fishing. Double score.

Say what you want about Hemingway's life but when he wrote, he was tight. His sentences are lean and effective. Like a meal of olive oil, salt and bread, wine. Deceptively simple.

The novel's opening line has it all:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

Like this one, great opening lines can be read as microcosms of the entire story to come. The drama and struggle all unfolds in concentric circles rippling outward from it.

In the line above, the reader gets the whole story in one shot, framed in one tiny window. Yet nothing is betrayed--the fight to come, the eventual loss, the lonely walk back up the beach, Santiago's dream of the lions in Africa. For those of us who are familiar with the book, I think these things are what lie hidden behind words like alone, skiff, Gulf Stream, and taking.

There is a brilliance to Old Man's opening line. Perhaps it is in the way Hem says it all, but still keeps things hidden. The essential mystery of the piece is still concealed. Like the faces of people in Rene Magritte's paintings, there is always an element of secrecy. That small kernel of truth buried at the core remains unknowable. His craft is in how he lays all of that down in so few words.

Like Hemingway, Magritte's work is full of concealed faces and objects.

But it all translates in the kitchen as well. Cooking and writing share so many natural commonalities. That's why we write this blog. That's maybe why many of you like to read it. You. Us. We know these things. It's our little inside joke. It's the reason why some of our favorite books are always cookbooks.

To me, great cooking and great writing share a common minimalism, an economy of resources. I like both best when they are unadorned, laid bare to their essential elements. Efficient. Penetrative, to the heart. Crisp and clean, like a blade. High and tight, like Derek Jeter's haircut.

But just like a great opening line of a novel, the first course of a meal can also be a microcosm. It might capture the essence of the entire meal to come. It might tantalize. If the art of seduction is the ability to both reveal and obscure at the same time, then let that be the first course.

Take my typical Friday night meal: fresh bread, roast chicken, green vegetables, potatoes, garlic, olive oil, water, red wine. I think it may be the perfect meal. It is also the simplest.
Chicken soup is the necessary first course for this meal. It needs to be. Every ingredient in the soup is something that will be served again, but in a different form later on: meat, vegetables, potatoes, spice, water, salt, warmth. When stared deeply into from above, the best chicken soups auger the meal to come. This soup must be eaten carefully.

For six years my wife has come up with hundreds of variations of these same simple ingredients every week to near perfection. The only variables are vegetables, maybe some fish here and there. Usually salmon. Maybe herring. But the main components of the meal are the same every time.

She calls me at work. She says: What should I make for dinner?

I go: It's cold outside. Can you make a chicken soup? Do we have time to make challah? Should I make garlic when I get home?

She says: What do you think?

Then: Love you. Bye.

I believe her. Hanging up, I sometimes pause, say a quick word of thanks. I have to remember to do that more. One word prayers are sometimes the most effective.

Before she hangs up I hear the shrill, hysterical voices of children in the background.

I think to myself: Please, just let there be soup.

She never has time to make the meal. Yet every week about an hour after sundown, the meal doesn't so much come out of the kitchen as emerge. It wafts out. I smell it coming before it arrives. (This happens even in early December, when the sun sets at 4:15 pm.)

If I ask her how she had the time to make such a meal, she is aloof and evasive.

I demand to know. I again ask how she did it.

She smiles and turns around, walks into the kitchen.

She's all: I don't know. I just somehow did.

Voice lilting as she speaks: I even had to hold the baby in one arm all day. He was crying. I cooked with the other. And did the bills.

Some people are secretive about their craft.

I stand amazed, but suspicious. She even went to the store for the wine? It simply can't be. I begin to snoop around the kitchen. I lift pot lids to sniff inside. I inspect things. From the corner of my eye I watch what she does with her hands.

She says: Get out.

Later on, the meal is a smashing success. She tells me not to drink all of the wine. Soon some reading, then bed.

Cooking with simplicity is less of an art and more of a mastery of the basic elements of what can satiate the body and soul. How to really make a meal. All great cooks have this. Some people just have an intuition of what ingredients will truly work in a dish or a meal. In the greatest ones, it's an innate alchemy. It's a knowledge of how to mix the best spices or how to invite the right guests. It's like Remy in Ratatouille.
The best cooks know how to make a meal out of the simplest ingredients.

When shopping at the market, the bread we buy should have no more than four or five ingredients. Anything more is asinine. As for preservatives, most of us live in areas where we have twenty-four hour, seven-day a week access to fresh produce, meat, or fish. Therefore to buy anything containing preservatives is ludicrous, offensive. There is no need whatsoever. The same goes for food dyes. Absolutely preposterous.


I think all of this may come from a desire of mine to have everything boiled down to its basic elements. To simplify. To find the grand unifying theory. Hashem Echad: God is One

I think I need that. I need to know that truth is always simple yet everywhere and unadorned. It's ubiquitous. It's as uncomplicated as a single line of prose.

In his poem The First Words, Seamus Heaney writes:

My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and Earth and fire and air.

Isn't that so tight? But I love that- the final dissolution of all things into their basic elements. It makes so much sense to me.

It's is as simple as the way a meal is reduced to bones on a plate and half-conversations lingering in the air. It's the way salt dissolves in warm water when stirred, giving itself over so utterly and completely. It's the way some things vanish into the air when they need to. Just like that.


Chilled Peach Soup

It's peach season now on the east coast. Baskets full of peaches line local farmer's market. Often, though, you buy a basket and some peaches are just too ripe. A soup is a great way to use the overripened, bruised, but still ridiculously sweet peaches. Seth originally published this recipe here.

6 large ripe peaches
2 cups water
1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup honey
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Mint sprigs

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut a small "X" through the bottom of each peach, then drop them into the water to blanch for 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer peaches to a bowl of ice water. When peaches are cooled, drain well then peel them, starting from the "X" at the bottom of each peach. Discard skin and pits and transfer peaches to a blender.

Add water, apple juice, honey, lime zest and juice, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about 2 hours.

Pour soup into bowls or cups, garnish with mint and serve.


Stephanie said...

What a lovely shabbat tradition you have! I love tradition. I love shabbat. And I love simple food too. Yesterday, I made my grandmother's chopped liver. Chicken livers, onions, eggs, schmaltz. Simplicity, comfort, taste, and nutrition.

Thanks for the great analogies to these "hidden" talents. Grandma knew.

ULOF said...

This posting simmers through my brain like a steaming pot of broth low on the burner filling the air with therapy.

xysea said...

Hi Steve,

What a great blog post! I think your Friday meal is probably one of my all time faves, and you're right - it is essential simple goodness!

Done well, I'd prefer a meal such as that over Beef Wellington or any elaborate dish any time.

Eating in that fashion keeps us in tune with ourselves, our traditions and the Earth.

Steve said...

Yeah I agree.

I am in need of more earth traditions in my life.

Suzanne said...

I really enjoyed this. It reminded me of meals my mom used to prepare (and still does, for that matter). She is a simple cook and often refers to herself as 'boring' in the kitchen.

But I don't find her cooking boring at all. In fact, it reminds me of eating a home-cooked meal as a family almost every night of the week as I was growing up - my first lesson that the power of food goes beyond merely fueling the body; it's the glue that keeps people together.

Toby said...

Great post Steve. Seth recently made me read "Old Man" when he discovered to his dismay that I had never read Hemingway. I loved the book, and I know exactly what you mean about that opening line being like an appetizer to a great meal. A perfect analogy.

I have fond memories of the one time I ate with you and your family. I remember a ridiculous amount of food.

The Life of Kiley said...

this post rocks! you have such a beautiful way of engaging the reader. thanks for checking out my blog and commenting. i really appreciate it.

Blogger said...

I just got a payment for $500.

Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much you can make taking paid surveys online...

So I show them a video of myself getting paid $500 for doing paid surveys to set the record straight.