Saturday, June 6, 2009
FOOD HISTORY 101
i guess i've been messing w/food in one way or another for over 30years now. of course, slice & bake cookies aren't really what i'm talking about, tho i was pretty good at those back in high school. i suppose i inherited bobo's interest in food(which he inherited from his father)but took it in a different direction than papa jones or bobo did. bobo & papa jones liked to eat food. i like to cook it.
new college was where i really started to play seriously at cooking. it struck me that most of the women at new college did NOT know how to cook. this was a bit different from my experience back in p'cola. lynn was a busy little bee in the kitchen. i remember eating way too much home baked moussaka when she came back from greece. at new college, it seemed to impress the girls if the guys could cook the moussaka. i took directions over the phone from mother about roasting t'giving turkeys & gravy & dressing & jotted down recipes from di's italian mother for bracciola & stuffed meat loaf. this lead to me doing the thanksgiving dinners for the holiday holdovers who stayed in sarasota. first year there was maybe 15 but in the later years it was over 40. doing these dinners was where i first encountered how problematic people can be over food. mess w/someone's idea of what thanksgiving dinner should be & you'd best watch out. this was before i learned that a simple "fuck you, you'll eat it my way or you won't eat" would take care of the issue.
i can't ever pretend the outrigger had anything to do w/real cooking but it did make me appreciate speed & pressure. another thing the outrigger did was allow me to experiment & practice. i used to buy cookbooks & try to cook through them there in what passed for a kitchen at the outrigger. at the time, most of the ingredients in the "cutting edge" cookbooks(chez panisse, puck's first book, jt's new american classics)weren't available in p'cola. many times there weren't even decent substitutions available. but i remember making gerard maras' smoked rabbit & oyster gumbo(took me two days solo), stephen pyles' panfried shrimp w/ smoked tomato beurre blanc, & jeremiah tower's watercress & watermelon salad & the like & serving them to reluctant outrigger regulars. i remember the dishes were delicious & looked great but they were met w/mixed reactions, mostly caused by the eater's fundamental likes/dislikes: oysters? no way. mullet? trash fish(translation: that's what blacks eat). i'd serve perfectly fried calamari(back in the early 80s before it became a fixture on so many menus) to mrs lecroy & watch her make faces like she was swallowing a stranger's cum. it used to infuriate me. my solution was a variation on my new college credo: "fuck you, you don't HAVE to eat it," followed by their prompt removal from the list of folks who got free samples.
at the nyingma institute, my first few years were just getting used to doing two vegetarian meals a day 6 days a week, served at precise times for large groups(20-50 people). well, that & making vegetarian food interesting & avoiding repetition. that's easier said than done. moosewood(less creative early on) & greens(always a great inspiration) were the standards then but i went through what they had to offer the first year. i ended up cooking for the community eight years, five years longer than anyone else in the history of the group. in fact, there was only one other guy who'd cooked longer than a year. my longevity had a lot to do w/my exploring & taking from world cuisines(everything from albanian to zimbabwean) which prevented significant repetition. i'd also concentrate on one area of one cuisine(say the foods of apulia)& work it till i'd exhausted what it had to give. furthermore, i'd concentrate on one manner of preparation or technique or a specific food genre(i.e., bread baking, pasta making, tamale making, etc). my dinners would usually consist of a soup, several kinds of salads, two or more main courses, & a grain or two plus dessert. if one entree had cheese, there would be another that didn't. when i left the institute for the monastary at odiyan, my new college credo had been modified once again: "fuck you, if you can't find something out there to eat, that's your problem."
reflecting back, i'd have to say that working w/yeasted breads was the most rewarding thing i learned from over the course of all these years. the spectacular & myriad products of bread making definitely speaks to the sense of accomplishment the cook wants/needs to feel. there's no arguing w/a perfectly baked loaf of ciabatta or focaccia. done right, it eliminates complaints & the need for smart-ass rebuttal. the simple but precise methodology is also a statement of culinary aesthetics: follow directions, be precise, be patient, relax. it's no surprize ed brown became famous making the connection between bread making & buddhist meditation. if you're successful at both, the end result is beautiful but ephemeral, simple & ordinary but deeply nourishing. the modern idea that complexity is simply three things in combination is surely inherent in the primitive act of bread making(flour, yeast, water). the beauty of such a thing provokes every sense & remains a thrilling thing for me.
that & the naturally radiant beauty of a relaxed loving animal.
post scriptum: i just watched a terrific documentary on food & cooking last night, i like killing flies. kenny shopsin is a real eccentric & his just published cookbook, eat me, has all the recipes for things he made famous like macaroni & cheese pancakes. the film reminds me just a little of what i must have been like at the outrigger, just w/o the booze.
it can be rented from netflix.