Sunday, January 15, 2017

Impermanent permanence, and other thoughts on food

I write about food. I also write, at least lately, about family farms, Oriental rug merchants, and a Somali refugee who became a college professor. Writing about a bunch of different things is the lot of a freelance writer, after all. But I always come back to food: what’s trendy, what’s delicious, what’s better for you, what’s deceptively easy to make but impressive-looking enough for the potluck, what’s the next formerly exotic global cuisine that’s about to take all your refrigerator shelves. Just about every week, I interview a food trend expert or a hot new chef or someone who just opened up a storefront to sell sriracha-vodka-infused doughnuts, or something equally off-the-wall.

Because I write so much about food, and talk to so many chefs about their work, people assume that I must love, love, love to eat in restaurants. I recently interviewed a celebrated food reporter over lunch at a local spot. She tossed out name after name of popular eatery, wondering if I’d liked the toast stacks at Bachelor Farmer before they stopped using the toast racks, if I preferred Nashville Hot to traditional fried chicken at Revival or if I had, like her, simply swooned over the Vidalia onion tortellini at Spoon and Stable. I am often stupidly honest, so I found myself saying, “Sorry, haven’t been there” to each of her increasingly frustrated queries. Finally I confessed: I don’t eat out, not really. She looked at me as if I’d just confessed I was one of those “Twilight” vampires who doesn’t eat at all.

“What do you DO?” she asked. “I eat at home, I eat stuff I cook, you know … I just eat. I pretty much prepare everything I consume, usually from scratch, and a lot of stuff I’ve grown in my garden, things I’ve fermented or brewed …” I trailed off. She looked taken aback, as if I’d just confessed that I shot a bear every October and ate off it until it started to rot in spring. I shrugged.

It’s not that I don’t like food, because, take a look at me, it’s clear that I do. But all the fuss and bother and theater of eating out is wasted on me. I don’t particularly like being waited on. If I’m eating a meal in a restaurant, I’m usually wondering what’s going on in the kitchen, which always seems like the more fun place to be. And I can never really get myself away from thinking that I’m spending quite a bit of money for something I’d probably enjoy more if I made it myself, and for something that – let’s be honest here – I’m going to digest and excrete in not too short a time.

My interviewee’s frustration got me thinking. Most people eat out quite a bit, or eat food that’s been prepared for them, and that’s their “food experience.”. For me, it’s something different, and it often has very little to do with the ingredients themselves or the way they’ve been prepared, but with the intention behind them.

Here’s an example: a couple years ago, one of my children fell upon some hard times. A guy, a rift, a stumble … suddenly the world got very dark for her, and she ended up back at home, healing. In the early days of this crisis, I had dropped by a friend’s house on a quick logistical errand – returning a pot, picking up a book, something mundane. Standing at the front door for the thirty-minute chat that could never occur on the sofa because I was “in a hurry,” I told her about the very rough patch currently being navigated at our house. She responded with kind words, a hug and a promise of prayers. I left, momentarily buoyed. Then she got out her soup pot and went to work.

The next day, I had encouraged and prodded and cajoled my girl enough to extract a promise to “talk to someone,” who had blessedly fit us into her schedule. She opened the front door for an appointment that was filling both of us with dread. She stopped short and turned around. “There’s something here,” she said in that flat, toneless voice. We looked. It was a basket worthy of Red Riding Hood. Inside was a tureen of chicken noodle soup, fresh bread, a box of calm-inducing tea. There was an encouraging note from my friend. My girl looked at me in wonder. “She hardly knows me. She cooked me food.”

I blinked away tears and tried to explain. “She’s a good person. She’s a mom. Also, she was 19 years old once, too. She remembers what that can be like.” We brought the basket in the house. We went to the appointment. My girl felt better, having been listened to by someone wise. We came home. We ate the soup. Sitting together, my girl kept peering into her bowl. “She chopped these vegetables for me. She cooked these noodles.” Her amazement was complete – that someone had thought she was worth the effort, that someone had sent love to her in such a practical and nourishing way. Yes, she was digesting it already, and it would move through her body and be gone, but the love would stay. Impermanent food, made with care and delivered at the right time, had taken up a permanent place in her broken and battered soul. She will never forget her wonder when she discovered that basket on the front porch, and she will always feel the warmth of that broth filled with goodness.

That’s what food can do. And that’s why I write about it.