Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Early Inspirations; Cooking as Love Poetry

My life as a cook commenced at the age of twenty-one, on a curb in Florence. It was a warm afternoon in early April and I had just discovered an open-air creperie on one of the hidden streets around the San Lorenzo market. Poking my head under the blue awning, I ordered a crepe with Belgian chocolate. A greasy, good-looking woman with a full mouth poured the batter onto a cooking stone, spread the batter thin with her spatula, and flipped the crepe onto another stone. Fluid in her movements, she barely paid attention as she spread the chocolate on the crepe, as the butter sizzled and melted on the stone.

I paid for the crepe and sat on the curb where a line of students were laughing and waiting. I took a bite. Suddenly, powerfully, I was stirred. I took another bite, a wide mouthed chomp of pure boldness. Chocolate oozed onto my lips. The crepe was delicious, perhaps the most delicious crepe in Florence—no, in the world! I looked at the greasy crepe lady. She certainly was good-looking. Suddenly, I felt an inexplicable urge: I wanted to make my own crepe. And I knew only this: it must be the most delicious crepe in the world.

I'm still working on it. Ten years later, I have yet to reproduce the most delicious crepe in the world. But the pursuit has inspired me. I just can't shake the indomitable bug that bit me that afternoon: the desire to create food.

That afternoon, I walked back to my pensioni, burdened with flour, fresh eggs, and a handful of chocolate chips. I spent several hours in the kitchen, trying to create, or rather re-create, the perfect crepe. Of course, I failed. And yet I did not suffer the sorrow of my failure. Later, lying in my bed, stuffed with batter and chocolate, I felt absolutely happy: I had spent the afternoon immersed in a creative venture, and the experience had vivified me.

This is the joy of cooking: the creative venture. I'm a writer. I'm also a cook. Both are forms of creative expression. Often, to me, cooking is the most powerful form of creative expression—an expression of love for those you cook for. When you mix the batter for a crepe, you are really writing a love poem.


You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda, on onions


Naturally, I spent the rest of my days in Florence exploring my new passion. In the morning, I walked to the Mercato Centrale, bought fresh produce from the Tuscan countryside. Later, I made my back to the pensioni, stopping at the local market for flour, olive oil, eggs. I was learning to make fresh pasta and other Tuscan specialties: minestrone di fagioli, ribollita, fresh pasta. I shared the food with the people at the pensioni, mostly students from Europe and South America. Everyone seemed to love the food, but more than once someone asked: What is this?

The question was valid. I was making traditional Tuscan recipes, but I was not making them traditionally. In place of semolina flour in the pasta dough I was using whole wheat; and yes, that was tempeh in the marinara sauce, not beef.

It’s a habit from my early childhood days that’s still with me. I’m staunch health-food enthusiast. By the time I had gone to Italy I had already experienced a lifetime of brown rice, of Moosewood recipes, of organic broccoli and honey-flavored sweets. My mother raised me with a special attention to my diet; she also sent me to a school that favored whole food cooking, the Waldorf School. I lost touch with this impulse throughout my teenage years. But when I was twenty, in college, and in the midst a dismal semester eating in the student cafeteria, I came across a surprising fact in the cafeteria kitchen: a box of hamburger patties stamped with the following label, Grade F, But Edible.

I soon discovered a desire for healthy cooking.

And so when I cooked in Italy they asked: What is this?

And yes, the question has followed me, from Florence to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Paris, from Paris to Barcelona, from Barcelona back to Philadelphia: What is this?

Variously, I answer: chickpea flour; spelt berries; risotto with lima beans; brown rice paella; tempeh Rueben sandwiches. The names spill out of my mouth like a foreign language, and yet the food always receives raves reviews. And this is what I have learned: people love good-tasting food, period—no matter what the ingredients. My philosophy then is simple. Why not make the ingredients as fresh, as uncomplicated and as healthy as possible?

This philosophy dominates my cooking style to this very day. What I have learned traveling across Europe, cooking abroad and at home, is that almost all traditional cuisines share this fundamental goal: to nurture the body and soul, simply.

In America, this lesson seems to have been lost. And yet, it only takes one tasty, nourishing meal to remind us that food is integral to our existence, in the most profound ways. A knowledge and respect of healthful ingredients seems essential for the modern cook. Since leaving Florence, nearly seven years ago my cooking style and diet has often veered into disparate territories—macrobiotics, veganism, an entire summer devoted to fish, a winter devoted to goat cheese—in pursuit of the perfect way to eat. But I have learned that there is no perfect way to eat, just as there is no perfect crepe. What is important is the joy of eating, the love of good food.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Hummus

This is a typical, What is this? sort of dish. I originally developed it for Whole Foods Market. If you make it, you can rate the recipe here.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
3 ½ cups water
1 ½ cup lentils
¼ cup white miso
¼ cup lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly chopped cilantro

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat warm the oil. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion softens 5-7 minutes.

Add the garlic, sweet potato, cumin and paprika and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add water and lentils, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until lentils and sweet potatoes are soft, 16-18 minutes. Let cool.

In a blender or food processor, puree red lentil-sweet potato mixture with white miso, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve, in a bowl, with Pita bread, for dipping, drizzled with additional olive oil and, if desired, chopped cilantro.


Steve said...

"immersed in a creative venture"

I used to think cooking and writing were these things. Still do in a way. But now I see them both as something larger, more essential than just creativity.

I like the idea expressed in here that we do the things we do, whether cooking or writing, to express our individuality as people, to give meaning and substance to our days. I feel this is thesis of this piece. But what you left unspoken is also true: that without these things we are incomplete, rudderless. Enter sickness, depression, isolation, fear. The existential void looms larger than ever.

Funny how much a nice home made soup or one single, well written sentence can keep at bay.

Faced with increasing cultural irrelevance and fighting for survival, the commodities of good food and serious literature are more valuable and necessary than ever before.

Suzanne said...

Lovely piece, Seth.

And equally lovely commenting, Steve.

I agree that these small (or not so small) expressions of self are essential to exploring and revealing our idiosyncrasies. Whenever I'm asked 'What is this?', it is as though I am sharing a part of who I am and where I come from with someone else. This idea we have of Culture is illusionary. We should feel free to create our own. In fact, here at FoodVibe, in our own small way, we do.

david said...

"I walked back to my pensioni, burdened with flour, fresh eggs, and a handful of chocolate chips. I spent several hours in the kitchen, trying to create, or rather re-create, the perfect crepe. Of course, I failed."

is it possible you didn't feel "burdened" with flour etc... you may have been (more) successful?