Tuesday, October 18, 2011

...all things bright and beautiful

I never met a color I didn't like.
 Dale Chihuly

or food
 Celeste Bracewell

My early attraction to beautiful old stained glass windows suggests that I have no Puritan genes.  But I could be related to Mr. Chihuly. Or to Robert Fulghum who wrote this: “Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon. A happiness weapon. A beauty bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air - explode softly - and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth - boxes of Crayolas. And we wouldn’t go cheap, either.  Not little boxes of eight but boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in. With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination.” 

For more Christmases than I can count, the deluxe pack of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener topped my list. When I finally opened that magical box, the experience exceeded my expectations. I was forty-seven and bought the Crayolas myself...along with a coloring book.
I am equally attracted to grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Recipes and visions of family and friends gathered around the table waft through my mind. The cheese section conjures dreams of foreign countries and al fresco dining. Our last trip to the Berkeley Bowl (a market, not the stadium) didn’t disappoint. From the piles of colorful gourds stacked outside the entry to the exotic vegetables and fruits in the back, the place was filled with rich colors, incredible patterns, quirky textures. I stood in awe of the long row of artichokes that ranged from jumbo to extra-extra small. Now, as I type this, one of the fractal beauties is simmering on my stove. I will go to bed satiated: one of the lucky ones. 
My children say that I don’t eat. I dine. The food may be fast but I’m not. I believe that meals are best served with a loved one, with friends, with good stories and soft jazz. Part of my raising: a pot roast for new parents, a casserole for the bereaved, a plate of cookies for the new neighbor: communion served on a pretty plate with cloth napkins. 
I will read anything Barbara Kingsolver writes: The Bean Trees, Pigs  in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible...all fiction, all fabulous. But her non-fiction book - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life - is today’s recommendation. She addresses, among other things, the modern dilemma of two-income families and food preparation: 
"‘Cooking without remuneration’ and ‘slaving over a hot stove’ are activities separated mostly by a frame of mind. The distinction is crucial. Career women in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market to search out the freshest ingredients, feeding their loved ones with aplomb. Full-time homemaking may not be an option for those of us delivered without trust funds into the modern era. But approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. Required participation from spouse and kids is an element of the equation. An obsession with spotless collars, ironing, and kitchen floors you can eat off of---not so much. We've earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater. It may be advisable to grab her by her slippery foot and haul her back in here before it's too late. Households that have lost the soul of cooking from their routines may not know what they are missing: the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty scent of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven.”
I learned to shop at Mercer's Supermarket in Dublin, Georgia. When I turned nine, my mother would give me a list, with instructions to ride my blue Schwinn down the alley, not along the busy street. I knew, after following my grandmother around the kitchen garden, how to choose vegetables. But the meat counter was new territory. The butcher was nicknamed Grumpy but Mother frequently reminded me, "That's Mr. Grumpy to you, young lady." 

He would look over the glass case and asked, "Now, what can I get for you?" After a deep breath to calm my nerves, I quoted my mother verbatim. "Mr. Grumpy, I'd like a fryer with short, plump thighs." I had never seen him smile before, so the sudden burst of laughter caught me completely off-guard. But he obligingly held up a couple of chickens and we agreed upon the more suitable bird. With thighs just like mine. 

I remember another thing about that day. Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral. Mr. Grumpy had a radio tuned to the service. And I heard Adlai Stevenson deliver part of his eulogy while I waited. Of Mrs. Roosevelt, he said, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness." Even at nine, I was taken by this phrase. What a wonderful way to be remembered. As I left the store, I pulled on my knit cap and balanced the groceries in my two wire bike baskets. Now dusk, a single star twinkled overhead. I rode home thinking of the meal to come, with Mrs. Roosevelt's light shining down on me. 

The smell of a cake baking or a sauce simmering can carry me to long-forgotten moment. Much like a painting of the coast transports me to Alabama's eastern shore where I read under the oaks as my children fished from the pier. The way a recording "Rainy Night in Georgia" by Brook Benton takes me to my freshman dorm. I come from a long line of kitchen artists whose masterpieces linger on the tip of my tongue. The recipes have been transferred to computer but  a few of the old handwritten cards have survived. Stained with drops of vanilla extract and thumbprints, they are my treasures.

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.
In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.

― Julia Child


GretchenJoanna said...

Those pumpkins and squashes in your header are gorgeous - I'd love to have a big pile of them in a corner of my kitchen... Oh, but I don't have a corner in my kitchen!
That doesn't keep me from enjoying cooking and dining in the ways that you so aptly describe. Go slow and enjoy every moment of cooking and eating!

Celeste said...

Aren't they!!! I stopped in my tracks and took pix with my phone. Such a beautiful sight. Thank you so much. Just read your blog and made book notes!

Jeannette said...

As brilliant as the images are, and a fine quilt they make, your words are even more so.