There aren’t many food places in this world as mythical as the Tokyo Fish Market. Here, all the strangely alien beings from the other side of the ocean are dredged up to meet the eater face to face, eyeball to eyeball.
On one side is the imminent disappearance of a species, and on the other side is the honed cultural art form of sushi making. Just as in another era, the samurai were driven towards achieving perfection in the art of war, sushi chefs such as the legendary Jiro are driven towards an ephemeral ideal in the art of sushi making.
“Strong wine, fat meat, peppery things, very sweet things, these have not real taste; real taste is plain and simple. Supernatural, extraordinary feats do not characterize a real man; a real man is quite ordinary in behavior.”
-From the Saikontan, a prose poem written around the 17th century
I am going to Japan on Sunday, and I can’t of a place in this world that I know less about. Japan is country that never came up at all in my formal education, except a brief cameo during a brief history unit about World War II, in which they appeared as horrifying villains. Or maybe that was from watching the History Channel with my dad, or talking about the Japanese when I taught English as a Second Language at the Korean school. Old Mr. Kwan didn’t think very highly of the Japanese. He was old enough to remember the invasion, or, at least, to feel the effects of the invasion on his life and his family.
The only Japanese books that I own are a few cookbooks, including the Time Life Foods of the World Japan cookbook- one of the best series of books of any kind to ever have been published- and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
I suspect that Japan will be the most different place that I have ever traveled. I wonder if my trip to Japan will be a reprisal of the joyous awe and fear that I felt the first I time I ever left the country. The edges of my world widened and spread, and my mind cracked a little further open in the struggle to be big enough to understand it all. Or even to understand a little.
My perception of the world was so sensitive, so many details of that first immersion in Paris are printed deep enough on the inside me that I can conjure up specific smells, tastes, and images any time I want to return. I’ve been back to France many times since that first trip, and I studied their during college. But my first trip to France is the one that is most easily remembered. Perhaps this is because I had beginner’s eyes.
So I have been flipping through pages of books about Japan, all written by Westerners. One of the good ones, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper, quotes an old Italian proverb:
“Translation is treason.”
To translate is to change the fundamental genetic makeup of meaning to make it accessible to other ears. Any language teacher knows that within a language is meaning, and a language dictates the way a it’s speakers think and see the world. So much of Japanese culture doesn’t translate, and whatever meaning exists in the original language seems to dissolve away by the time it reaches me in it’s new English get-up.
“The aim is try to get a balance of color, cooking style, and ingredients. Common sense will show you the way.”
So I understand when I’m trying to learn about Japanese food in Houston, I’m only getting a garbled, faint version of whatever Japanese food really is. And one thing I’ve learned is that balance is a big deal. Colors, cooking methods, and tastes must be balanced in refined Japanese cooking.
5 Cooking Methods
In one of our Japan meetings, I asked the student travelers to get into groups and try to come up with a meal that would balance all of these fifteen elements. My students came up with the following ideas:
1- A burrito with eggplant, tomato sauce, bell peppers (both yellow and green), sausage, and jalapenos, sprinkled with lemon juice.
2- Pickled cabbage, deep fried pork, steamed pork shumai, grilled eel, tom yum sauce, boiled cucumber, steamed rice.
3- =Grilled hamburger with purple onions and white cheese, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, grilled, pickle spears, jalapenos.
4- Many skittles, cooked in all of the five methods.
I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga,” and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “impletata.”
-from Chapter 1 of Dracula by Bram Stoker: Jonathan Harker’s Journal, kept in shorthand
This year, before reading the first chapter of Dracula, I asked my students to think about whether or not they like Jonathan Harker as a person. It turns out, not very many of them did. They thought he acts too superior. Harker is the worst kind of tourist, the kind of tourist who describes both the mountain landscape and the humans who live in it as “picturesque.” Also, he’s always collecting recipes for his absent fiance, Mina, to cook for him in his memoranda, which rubs some of the girls the wrong way.
Jonathan Harker is British, and Count Dracula is Romanian. Harker is a representative of one of the most successful colonial empires at the height of its power, and Count Dracula is based off of the Romanian folk hero, Vlad Tepes, a fierce Wallachian fighter who struggled to stave off the threat of Turkish invaders as they tried to assimilate Transylvania into the Ottoman Empire. Long before Bram Stoker actually demonized him, the West was already vilifying Vlad Tepes. We call him Vlad the Impaler because he stuck human bodies on stakes and allowed gravity to slowly kill them. The Romanians call him a hero because those bodies belonged to Ottoman Turks.
Gothic literature typically wrestles with the idea of power– who has it, who wants it, and the power hidden within vulnerability. On one hand, Dracula has power. He is a predator who can control nature, live forever, and come into women’s bedrooms at night to slowly suck them dry. On the other hand, Dracula has no power. He is an outsider, and he isn’t just attacking Jonathan Harker, he is attacking the British empire and invading London. And he fails.
But, it’s hard to completely condemn Jonathan Harker, possibly because I am too much like him. I go to other countries and get excited about the food. I conscientiously try to not be the worst kind of tourist- the invading, condescending, dehumanizing kind of tourist, but I have no idea how successful I am at the end of the day. I crawl around the globe like a fly on an orange, and my world is enlarged and my mind is opened to the diversity of this strange and beautiful world, but I am never really sure what kind of effect I have on the places that I’m whirling through. Maybe a good effect, maybe no effect, maybe a bad effect.
I don’t think Jonathan Harker was trying to be horrible as he marched East, but the clarifying passage of time has revealed him to be so. Sometimes I wonder what the passage of time will reveal about my own generation’s globetrotting shenanigans. My wonderings don’t mean I’m not going to travel the world- I’m taking a troop a students to Japan in March. But my wonderings do mean that I’m going to be thinking, thinking about the implications of my actions and the effect that I have on the world around me as I move through it. And I’m going to teach my students to think. Which was always the goal all along, after all.
Also, whatever recipes I stumble along in my travels, I will make myself. In the meantime, I’m going to attempt Jonathan’s impletata and give poor Mina a break. Unlike paprika hendl, impletata is not a real name for a dish. Bram Stoker was a researcher who took advantage of the British Library, not a tourist, so most of his sources are pretty transparent, and, as I learned from Colonel Mustard, most of his facts came from The Land Beyond the Forestby E. Gerard. But no one really knows what Stoker was talking about with “impletata.” Colonel Mustard has his interpretation, and Leonard Wolf, the Transylvanian annotator of the best edition of Dracula ever, decided it was possibly “patlagele impulute,” and gives a recipe for that. After googling forcemeat, and discovering that it is a mixture of ground meat and vegetables, I just decided to take it from there and give myself a little freedom. So the following is my recipe for impletata, inspired by Harker, Stoker, Mustard, Wolf, and Romania, but created by me.
2 onions, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef or lamb
4 tomatoes, diced
1 cup of spinach
The leaves of 10 or so sprigs of fresh thyme
1/4 cup of Hungarian paprika
A few tablespoons of pinenuts
feta for crumbling, Bulgarian if you can find it
Several tablespoons of olive oil
A couple of pats of butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash and slice the eggplant in half and brush the sides in olive oil. Salt and pepper the eggplant flesh, and place face down on a baking sheet. Bake until done, about 20 minutes or so depending on the size of the eggplant. Meanwhile, saute the onions in half butter, half olive oil. Add the garlic, saute a little longer. Then add the ground beef, and cook until the meat is browned. Add the tomatoes, thyme, paprika, and cook until the liquid from the tomatoes has reduced and thickened. When the eggplants are cooked, remove them from the oven and let them cool. Cut out the flesh from the eggplant halves with a paring knife, chop up the flesh and add it, along with the spinach and pinenuts to the beef mixture. Fill the four empty eggplant shells with the beef mixture and sprinkle a good amount of feta over the top. Cook in the 400 degree oven for ten minutes or so. Remove the shells from the oven, let them cool, and them serve.
The best metaphors help us use something we know to understand something that we don’t know. Metaphors are not just for studying literature. English teachers certainly love their metaphors, but so do scientists.
Trees are the original metaphor for understanding brains. The word for the branching out of a neuron, “dendrite,” means “treelike” in the original Greek. As a teacher, I like to remember that as students make connections between concepts and make meaning out of the world around them, on a physiological level their neurons are mimicking them by forming new connections and synapses in their brains. I’m in the business of growing brains.
The metaphor of the tree is also helpful when it comes to understanding how our brains recycle resources to strengthen what needs strengthening and shut down what needs to be shut down. Neuroscientists call this process “synaptic pruning.”
This week, the fifth week of the 40 days of yoga, is the week of centering. Centering is yet another abstract concept, and I find myself using the metaphor of the tree to understand what in the world centering could possibly be. I have come to understand centering as a different kind of mental pruning: a pruning of time, priorities, and space.
Centering our attention means bringing it to the essential, and pruning away the inessential. It means spending the the currency of your life, your time, with the people who you love the most, and strengthening what needs to be strengthened. It means pruning out what’s trivial.
“I am rooted, but I flow,”
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves
In yoga, there is a tree pose. It is a balancing posture, where you balance on one leg, and place the foot of your other leg on your thigh, your calf, or your ankle. In this pose, like in all balancing poses, finding your center is essential. If you lose your center, which usually happens when you start worrying about falling out of the pose, you fall out of the pose. Balancing poses are about a weird negotiation between your mind and your body, and the figuring out of what is possible for a short period of time versus what is possible for a longer period of time.
Now, at the end of the post, is the time where I tell you that I have failed once again at 40 days. I went to Mississippi this past weekend with family, and skipped Saturday. Then, on Sunday, I did some crowded hotel room sun salutations. On Monday and Tuesday, I slept after work. On Wednesday, I did a ten minute youtube video. And today, Thursday, I plan on going back to the studio to a proper yoga class.
In a recent conversation with a friend, he mentioned how not everyone would be down to make a commitment like the 40 days of yoga or Nanowrimo. Most people don’t want to break their commitments to themselves, he said. So most people are afraid of the possibility of failure? I asked. No, it’s not the fear of failure… Well, I guess maybe it is, he said.
Thank goodness it’s not the perfection of the thing that I’m into, this time around, at least. I’m more interested in changing the texture of my daily life to make way for more types of movement. I’m more interested in the growing the part of me that went back to yoga on Wednesday and Thursday, despite the failure of my commitment, than I am in punishing the part of me that failed on Monday and Tuesday. I am more interested in centering.
There is a story that is told to demonstrate the abstract idea of wabi sabi to Westerners like myself who have the most tentative of grasps of the abstract concept. Wabi sabi is finding beauty in nature, which I understand. Wabi sabi is also finding beauty in age and use and imperfection and transience, which overturns everything I’ve ever had written into my mind by the culture that grew me. The story goes like this: there is a clay, handmade bowl that is a part of a person’s daily ritual of life. The bowl breaks. The person doesn’t throw the bowl away. Instead, the person uses molten gold to mend the crack, and the bowl becomes even more beautiful in the eyes of person than it ever was before.
Restoration is my favorite week of the 40 days, and not just because I’ve never made it this far before. Restoration is my favorite because it is wabi sabi, it is the idea of taking something old and used and caring for it, not in spite of the use, but because of the use. Restoration is to burnish and care for an old thing. Something like a wooden floor, or painted dome ceiling, or a brick smokehouse, or yourself.
Restoration allows us to see past the limitations of time. Instead of being limited by a thing in the time frame of the present, restoration allows for a person to imagine all the layers of time and all the faces of the thing that have existed to make up the thing as it is today. Restoration gives another dimension to reality because restoration acknowledges that the past played a role in the present.
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
-good, old William Faulkner
I remembered something from my own past that I’m pretty sure led to this whole blog, writing about food in literature thing in myself. It was this book, The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler. Reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel in middle school was formative enough, but creating the Victorian English recipes brought the book and the historical setting alive in a way that apparently changed me forever.
It must have been my junior or senior year of high school, circa 2002 or so, because I made the meal from this cookbook for my sister, my mom, and my future stepfather. So it was after my mom kicked my dad out of the house and before I moved away to college. I made the garden peas and fresh mint and the “sausage cakes” with fresh sage. Surely, this meal was one of my very first experiences cooking with fresh herbs of any kind. I also made the tattie broth. The recipe called for butter or bacon grease to saute the onions in, and I remember using both, despite intense trepidation that accompanied walking off the path of the recipe instructions. And I remember my warm satisfaction when I tasted richness of the tattie broth.
When I started teaching in an inner Houston city school, I suddenly needed large amounts of a different kind of strength. I needed to be able to hear a student call me puta and tell me to chinga mi madre and not allow my reaction to be influenced by the anger and whatever other emotions came rising up. I watched a custodian wipe the blood of two 6th graders off my floor with a mop, I listened as a student explained how a knife held by someone else’s hand left the scab on his neck, and I decoded gang symbols that a student had carved on his own arm in the back of my classroom.
From the beginning, I’ve always been into yoga for the equanimity. Yoga redefined strength for me. Before, I thought strength meant being able to lift heavy things, and the strongest person was the person who could lift the heaviest things. Yelling the loudest in a classroom solves nothing. It was through practicing yoga and teaching broken children from broken homes in a broken system that I began to understand strength as the ability to stay still for a long period of time. To stay still in a challenging yoga pose despite how much your muscles are shaking, or to stay still in a classroom when a student tells you to go fuck yourself.
A conversation with a cardiologist over Christmas break gave me a new physiological framework for this kind of strength. He confirmed that no, yoga isn’t a cardio exercise, so it doesn’t strengthen your heart by raising your heart rate. However, practicing yoga can increase a person’s heart rate variability.
Heart rate variability measures how quickly your heart rate can change in reaction to your environment. Heart rates go up in response to stressors in the environment, and then they go back down again when the body understands that all is well. In other words, if a person has high heart rate variability, and her heart rate goes up when a student threatens to shit in the skull of another student, she can quickly react from a place of logic and calm instead of anger and stress.
“If you want inner peace find it in solitude, not speed, and if you would find yourself, look to the land from which you and to which you go.”
-Stewart L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis
Comfort food is surely the food of equanimity. I believe that comfort food is forged early in a person’s life, and the food that comforts a person is sort of like a unique fingerprint that our early experiences make on us.
One of the challenges of the 40 days is the struggle to bring concrete meaning to abstract ideas. I am in the second week, the week of vitality. And I’m finding it a little difficult to wrap my mind around what vitality actually is. I know that the word “vitality” comes from the Latin word for “life.” When I think of vitality, I think of green first, then I think of many different colors. Baptiste, the main 40 days instigator, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time actually defining vitality, but he mentions that a person doesn’t have to go on vacation to find vitality within themselves. And earlier this week, one of my many yoga teachers said that there is vitality in backbends because in backbends we open ourselves up to the world.
The vitality of thought is adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.
-Alfred North Whitehead
But none of this is enough for me. I still am uncertain about what vitality looks like, concretely. Vitality is energy, and vitality is life. Life is the blood pumping away in our veins. Vitality seems such an elusive thing, something fleeting and hard to grab a hold of. And even though I don’t completely understand what it is, I’m pretty sure I could use some more of it.
“What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.”
-Bertrand Russel, The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
Here’s a question:
What brings you vitality?
Here is another question, possibly the same question, but certainly more dangerous than the first:
*This list is a working draft. I don’t expect it to ever be complete.
Baron Baptiste has a much clearer idea of what vitality means when it comes to food. According to Baptiste, fresh fruits and vegetables have vitality.
Baptiste references the produce in Chinatown markets, which I know from experience is definitely worth appreciating. I’ve taken the liberty of scrolling through my archives and compiling a list of recipes that bring concrete ingredients to the nebulous idea of vitality.
As revealed by my over-enthusiastic use of a filter on the photo, this recipe is from the deep archives, originally published in 2013. But it is still delicious. I think, in my older maturity and wisdom, I would rather add thyme as my leaf of choice to add to this fruit salad. There’s just something about thyme and blackberry together. Something vital, I guess.
The whole thai basil, mint, mung bean sprouts, lime, sesame seed oil, fish sauce, avocado flavor profile is one that I love to compose on a fresh green leaf canvas. The only thing that would make this salad even better would be some rice noodles and grilled chicken. Thai chilies or cracked red pepper could probably create more vitality. Whatever that means.
Quite a few years ago, somebody gave me a book Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The book has survived at least three book purges, and it is slated to survive the next one. I nibble on the concepts in this book from time to time, quite a few of which do not translate at all from Suzuki’s mind into my own. But I can rally around at least one of Suzuki’s concepts, the importance of the beginner’s mind.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
One of the biggest challenges of being present is seeing the world as it is without the ghost of the past rising up to cloud the present with assumptions, in other words, constantly experiencing life with a beginner’s mind. Being open-minded and willing to learn from reality as it happens is not easy. I have noticed that a sense of wonder can cue humility, and all true learning happens when a person understands that not only are there many things that she doesn’t know, she is also grateful that there are so many things that she doesn’t know.
Neurologically, there truly are many possibilities in the beginner’s mind: infinite possibilities of connections of neurons that can fuse together. Once the neurons create a pathway, it’s much easier to do certain tasks, but it becomes much harder to wander off the pathway. Like how, when I’m not paying attention to my actual destination, I will automatically drive myself to work.
“So, the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
I am still in the first week of my 40 days of yoga, the week of presence, so I have been challenging myself to have a beginner’s mind. Here are some ways that I’ve been cultivating my own beginner’s mind.
Asking “how” questions.
When my sense of wonder goes dormant, exploring the answers to how questions wakes it up again. Some of the things I have been wondering include, but are not limited to:
How does movement happen in the body?
How do changes in sentence structure affect the experience of readers?
How do people heal from grief?
How does learning actually happen in the brain?
What are the mechanics of baking bread?
Seeing things in a new way.
I find it easier to learn how to see things in a new way when the object being viewed is constantly changing. Looking at the sky every morning, for example, and conscientiously noticing the changes. Or maybe watching a beta fish.
Trying to conscientiously taste coffee in the morning.
The yoga teachers are always pontificating about paying attention to the breath because the breath connects the mind to the body. I would argue that paying attention to the taste of food is as important as paying attention to breath. And it can be very difficult to pay attention to the taste of food.
I remember a story I heard about a monk who took one hour to eat a grape in order to experience that grape to the fullest. Instead of the whole meditation dimension of the 40 days program, I have been challenging myself to take 20 minutes in the morning to taste my coffee and only taste my coffee. And, tasting coffee with the mind of a beginner is really the most difficult thing. Even for a person like myself who has been known to go into raptures about coffee drinking and production. Life happens, and life is never happening as insistently as on a weekday morning at 6:15.
Actually Becoming a Beginner
Just because I am no longer a beginner at yoga, doesn’t mean that I can’t be a true beginner at something. I signed up for an Introduction to Ballet class at a local studio at the beginning of January. Since my classes overlap with the 40 days of yoga, my Tuesday night ballet class has become part of my 40 days of yoga. I am definitely a beginner at ballet. It’s exciting and silly, and it gives me the opportunity to laugh at myself. And it’s new. Beginnings are fun because beginners always get to learn the most.
Present: of a person, in a particular place; existing or occurring now
Right now, the streets of Houston are flooded, and the students that actually made it to school are telling me stories of alligator gar breeding in front yards and crazy neighbors coming outside in their swimsuits and breast-stroking down streets past submerged stop signs and almost getting hit by kayakers. The streets were flooded this morning, and the streets are due to be flooded again in an hour or two. I am between the floods.
This Saturday, my local yoga studio, YogaOne, will be starting their 40 Days to Personal Revolution Program, like they do every January. Among other things, it’s a challenge to practice yoga every day for 40 days. The program came from Baron Baptiste’s book 40 Days to Personal Revolution. Baptiste adopted the time frame from the Kabbalah, as well as other popular religious belief systems. Word on the mystical street is that it takes 40 days to reorganize and rewire your neurons effectively enough to create a new habit.
I have attempted the 40 days of yoga before- let’s say four or five times before. At least. My best attempts have always dropped off in week three, the week of equanimity. I have started out multiple Januaries of my life failing this first goal and personal test of commitment. And, in the face of all these past failures, I’m going to try again this year.
Failure doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Teaching has taught me that mistakes and failure are the beginning of all true learning. As long as the classroom environment is on point, that is, as long as the teacher creates a place where mistakes aren’t punished in some kind of horrifyingly public shaming, every mistake becomes a learning opportunity. And I now know, if no mistakes are being made and no failure is happening, the classroom itself has failed because no learning is happening. Learning happens when a person increases her ability to do or understand a thing, and with newness comes failure.
The first week of the 40 days focuses on presence. Baptiste begins his chapter with an anecdote from the life of Buddha.
Someone once asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?”
“No,” he replied.
“Are you a saint?”
“Then what are you?” they asked.
There are dangers in being awake. When you are awake, you don’t get to shut out the existence of the person on the other side of your car window begging you for money. You don’t get to shut off the news when the mangled pictures of Syrian refugee children show up on the screen. You don’t get to pretend that your t-shirt wasn’t put together by a person. You don’t get to hide from the horrible existence that a chicken went through before it became a part of your flesh. And, I’ve read Kate Chopin. Waking up slowly seems to be the order of the day.
I’m going to start by tasting and eating some radishes. I’ve known these radishes since they were seeds in a $.33 packet from the Dollar Store. I planted them in dirt in a terra cotta pot, and they have lived through Houston winter. The leaves suffered some from the wild swings in the weather, but they are still alive. And now I will harvest and eat them.
There is a kind of humility that comes with presence, with struggling to realize that you are one person in a vast sea of people alive at one time in a vast universe of time. And there is a kind of humility that comes with eating radishes. I will dig up these radishes, and I will clean these radishes, and learn, or remember, that my physical body is sustained by my food, and everything I eat ultimately comes from the dirt and the sun. And the rain.
Before I went to Kansas for the first time in my memory, I could only see it in my mind’s eye as series of heartland images, all in black and white. After visiting Kansas, I remember different scenes in different shadings of color. The fields and the streams I remember as they were lit by the clarity of the sun, shining completely until the moment the last of the distinct rays hit the horizon at sunset, and even afterward the sky continued to echo different lucid colors long after the sun was gone. The sun seems to have a different kind of strength in Kansas than it has in Houston, where sun beats down on us in all its fury for eight months out of the year, but the pollution and the humidity obscure our view of its march across the sky.
I remember the old house in the Amish country that we stayed at is washed in a sepia tint. All the stores that sell oil lamps and hardware I remember in color, but colors edged in an aged brown. I pictured my mother’s memories of growing up in Hutchinson the same way, like her memories of drinking red beer during the day. Mom pointed out an old brick building by the railroad tracks as we were driving down the main strip of Hutchinson. “That used to be a bar, and it only sold two things: regular beer and red beer. On Saturdays, I would go there with Kathy and drink red beer,” she said. “What’s red beer?” I asked. “Some kind of Irish thing?” “No, it’s regular beer mixed with tomato juice.”
But there is still one part of Kansas that I see in black and white: Eugenia’s memories. Before I met Grandma Gene, my mom just knew I would like her. “Make sure you talk to her about cooking. She was the one who gave me the recipe for chicken and dumplings. The first step of the recipe said to go pick a chicken from the hen house and chop off its head. Do you remember the chicken and dumplings I used to make?”
Yes, I remembered the chicken and dumplings that she used to make. As a little kid, from before I can remember to age seven, the number one meal I begged to have for dinner, night after night, was pork chops, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. I didn’t even like the green beans, which were cooked to high hell with a limpid piece of bacon in the true Southern style, but they seemed a necessary evil if I was going to get to eat macaroni and cheese for dinner. I think that the first time my mom made chicken and dumplings for me was in second grade, because after that the only thing I ever wanted to eat for dinner was chicken and dumplings. I rarely got my way. Memory is faulty thing, but I can only think of about four times that Mom made chicken and dumplings my entire childhood. When I would ask for it, she would say that it was too much trouble, plus Dad didn’t like it.
When I met Grandma Gene, I immediately liked her. Grandma Gene is in her late nineties, but she still has as much grit as I’ve ever seen in a person, the hard survival kind of grit that comes from a childhood spent digging life out of dusty, unyielding ground during a catastrophic economic depression. Grandma Gene was a music teacher and organist her whole life, the eldest of twelve, and her daddy was a horse wrangler. Her story captivated me. One of my childhood dreams was to eat chicken and dumplings for dinner every night, but another one of my childhood dreams was to trot through the Mississippi Delta cotton fields on the back of a piebald horse. “That must’ve been amazing,” I said.
“I hated it! I’ve hated horses all my life. Daddy always used to bring home the green broke horses and pay us kids to ride them until they became real broke, but I never did. I never rode those horses on principle. Except for one time, when I really wanted something that I need to pay for.”
“What was it?”
“At my first piano lesson, I showed up ready to learn. And my piano teacher showed me the book that I needed to buy for one dollar. I went home that night, mounted a green broke horse, and rode him until I had enough money to buy that piano book. I never rode another horse. And I still have that book at home.”
Grandma Gene believes that innate musical talent skips generations. Not only did she make her living her entire adult life from music, and she gave birth to two gifted musicians, the kind that seem to have musical scales running through their veins. “Walter just had a gift. I didn’t- I had to work hard to learn what I learned, and it never came natural.” My brother agrees with Grandma Gene. He knows for sure that he has had to work for whatever musical knowledge that he has, and he suspects that his two year old son is a musical genius.
The first time I asked Mom for the chicken and dumplings recipe, she was a little coy about the whole thing. “Well… it’s not really a recipe. I’ll tell you what- we’ll just have to make it together!”
My mom and I didn’t make chicken and dumplings together because making chicken and dumplings together really is too much trouble when one person lives in Houston, Texas and the other person lives in North Mississippi. So the second time I asked her, she sent me this email:
I don’t think I have it written out, but it’s really simple. You simmer a whole chicken until it’s done and remove the meat from the bones and return it to the broth. Start the the noodles as soon as you put the chicken on so they can dry a bit before you add them to the chicken and broth. Beat a couple of eggs, add some salt, and then add flour until it forms a pretty stiff dough. Roll that out and cut into noodles (I usually do about half inch to three quarter inch noodles–you can dust it with flour, roll it up and slice the noodles that way.) Just add the noodles to the broth and chicken after it’s finished and let them boil for at least 10 minutes or so.
I understand why my mom wanted to make it with me the first time. Although I’ve dissembled many a chicken, and have mostly worked through all my qualms with working the limbs, and feeling for the joints with my knife, and coming to terms with the reality that something made out of flesh died to become part of my flesh. Most of my kitchen hang-ups at this point in my life come from the other part, the flour part. Cooking anything with flour automatically becomes a quest, with trials and tribulations that may never be resolved. Like when I made the ghost cookies multiple times and never managed to solve the problem of the spreading dough without sacrificing the pleasant chewiness of the cookie. And this part here, this “forming a pretty stiff dough” part, has all the ambiguity that seems to inevitably end in the frustration of food-making efforts.
Like all great literature, The Count of Monte Cristo includes essential elements of life, including food and revenge. And, the author, Alexander Dumas, was a gourmand, like all great French. Since I teach the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, I never felt the urge to read the unabridged version of the novel translated by Robin Buss until this last semester. It turns out a lot of food-eating was cut from the abridged version, along with the pages and pages of enriched, tangled, meandering lines of subplot. Take this scene, where one bad guy plies another bad guy with bouillabaisse to soften him up before another round of high-powered blackmail:
“‘Come, come, now,’ said Caderousse. ‘Don’t get angry, dear boy! There now, I’ve thought of you: just look what a good breakfast we’ll have; all things that you like!’
Breathing in, Andrea could indeed detect the smell of cooking, its gross odours not without charm for a hungry stomach: there was that mixture of fresh oil and garlic which indicates the inferior breed of provencal cuisine, with additionally a hint of breaded fish… All this was exhaled from two covered tureens keeping hot on two stoves and a dish bubbling in the oven of an iron cooker.”
From some of the diction in this excerpt, a reader could assume that Dumas snubbed his Parisian nose at the flavors of Southern France. “Gross odours” is not appetite-whetting word choice. However, Dumas seems to have been a fan of these gross odours. He has not one, but two different recipes for bouillabaisse in his Culinary Dictionary, including this one he allegedly took from the legendary Monsieur Robion:
Dumas’ Rendition of M. Roubion’s Bouillabaisse Recipe
Take 6 or more varieties of fish and cut them into pieces. Heat in a casserole 1 or 2 glasses of oil, depending on the size of the bouillabaisse you wish to make, with chopped onions, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, bay leaf, some orange peel, pepper, and fine spices. Add your fish, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of saffron. Cover with boiling water and boil hard for 15 minutes, by which time the water should be reduced by a quarter. To serve, pour the bouillon over pieces of bread in the soup tureen and serve the fish in another platter. (Recipe from Monsieur Roubion, restauranteur at Marseille.)
Last year, at exactly this time, I felt hungry for bouillabaisse. Even the abridged version of the novel is enough to evoke the landscape of the South of France, which in turn is enough to create a craving for bouillabaisse and pastis. Probably because I often show this clip to my students every year to help set the scene of the novel:
Last year, I fed my bouillabaisse hunger by making Mimi Thorisson’s recipe from one of my Christmas presents: A Kitchen in France. Mimi’s recipe is far more involved than Monsieur Robion’s recipe. There are four different dimensions of the recipe. It’s a new year, and if ever there is a time for all the pomp and circumstance of Mimi’s recipe, that time is surely now. I’ll try out Roubion’s recipe another time, perhaps as a fancier than usual but still manageable mid-week meal. However, there are some things I’d like to borrow from Roubion- particulary his orange peel and “fines spices.” I will do some sort of fusion of the two recipes, and call it my own. And we’ll see what fish I end up with from the Korean fish market on Saturday.
1.5 pounds monkfish, boned, with the trimmings on the side
1.5 pounds sea bream, boned, with the trimmings on the side
1.5 pounds red mullet, boned, with the trimmings on the side
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
1 leek, white part only
1 bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
chives, chervil, tarragon, 3 bay leaves, tied in a bundle with a leek leaf
8 ounces of quartered tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/3 cup pastis
salt and pepper
6-8 medium potatoes, peeled and cliced
1 large garlic clove, halved
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon Piment d’Espelette or mild chile powder
Table of Contents:
Chapter 1: The Soup
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the oinions, garlic, and fennel seeds for 3 minutes. add all the fish trimmings, including bones, the fennel, leek, half of the parsley, the wrapped herbs bouquet, the tomatoes, tomato paste, half of the saffron, the pastis, and salt and pepper. Add enough water to completely cover the ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer for 20-25 minutes.
Blend the soup with a hand mixer. Strain through a sieve into a large saucepan, and discard the solids. Simmer the soup for 15 more minutes and season with salt and pepper.
Chapter 2: The Fish
In a large wide pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Spoon a few ladles of the soup over the potatoes, enough to cover them entirely. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
Arrange the fish on top of the potatoes, and sprinkle with the remaining saffron and some salt and pepper. Add a few more ladles of the fish soup, until the fish is entirely covered, and bring to a simmer. Poach the fish until cooked through, 10-12 minutes.
Chapter 3: The Croutons
Preheat the oven 400 degrees. Slice the baguette into 1/2 inch pieces. Rub each piece of bread with the garlic, then cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Put on a small baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss well. Toast in the oven until crisp, 5-8 minutes.
Chapter 4: The Rouille
In a mixer, or with a vigorous whisk, combine the egg yolks, mustard, garlic, remaining saffron (1/4 teaspoon), and piment d’Espelette in the bowl and season with salt. Gradually drizzle in 1 cup of olive oil, a little bit at a time, whisking until the sauce is thick. Season with salt and pepper.
“Coffee was considered a medicine. It was prescribed for tuberculosis, smallpox, scurvy, dropsy, and eye inflammation. But doctors warned their patients never to drink their coffee with milk because the mixture was believed to cause leprosy.”
This Christmas, I am visiting familia in the land of coffee, the Antioquia region of Colombia. They don’t mess around with local food around here, and coffee is taken seriously around these parts. Coffee thrives here in this mountainous climate so close the equator. The weather fluctuates between 60 and 80 degrees all year long. El Laboratorio de Café is one of the most serious local coffee peddlers.
I drink a lot of coffee these days. At home, I have a stovetop Italian-style espresso maker that makes six cups of espresso at one go. And these days, I drink it with milk. Milk and coffee is a new thing for me, mostly because of the Southern-style, Mississippi girl machismo that I’ve been carrying around most of my life. When I compromised by inner coffee toughness, I wasn’t aiming to usher leprosy into my life and body. My Italian teacher mentioned that milk helps the stomach handle the acidity of coffee. Also, milk tastes good in coffee.
Even with milk, six shots of espresso in a morning is pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. I go through coffee-drinking ritual phases that fluctuate in response the the seasons of the year. In the summers, I taper off my coffee drinking. The sun is a good substitute for caffeine, and I don’t have any students to unjustly bear the effects of caffeine withdrawal headaches. But, come winter time, when the sun seems gone forever, and the wooden floors are so cold in the dark, dark morning, and all I want out of life is to sleep the days away until the sun comes back, then I switch back to six shot Italian espresso maker from the relatively benign summertime French press.
I prefer my espresso maker and my French press. My methods of coffee brewing are the methods that give me oily, thick coffee.
I bought two pounds of Antioquia coffee from El Laboratorio: Finca los Naranjos and Variedad Blue Mountain Special Reserve. On the back of each type of coffee is lots and lots of information about the types of coffee.
Let’s start with the Finca los Naranjas. This coffee comes from the Caicedo area within the Antioquia region. It won 1st place in the Best Cup of Coffee Competition of 2014. The trillado date for my coffee was December 9, 2016. My brother explained trillado- it’s the process of separating the dried green coffee beans from their papery sheath. We call this the hulling process. Medium acid, intense body, and an aroma of sugar cane and intense chocolate. The flavor is honey, fruit, and brown sugar. It’s a mix of 80% Caturra coffee and 20% Bourbon. The coffee process was fermentation, plus water, plus sun. We call this “wet process.” The beans were grown at an altitude of 1830 meters above sea level, or 6000 feet. My coffee is the November 2016 harvest, and it was roasted on December 15, 2016. I bought it on December 24, 2016. I should drink it before June 15, 2017, which I don’t anticipate being a problem. When you drink six cups of espresso every morning for breakfast, you go through some coffee.
The Variedad Blue Mountain Reserva Especial comes from Valparaíso, Antioquia. It was honey processed instead of wet processed, which has an impact on the amount of acidity. The honey process results in less acid than the wet process, and El Laboratorio de Café describes the acidity level as “milky.” Medium bodied, with an aroma of fruit, honey, and brown sugar, and a flavor of red fruit. It was grown at 1800 meters above sea level, or 5905 feet on the Jardin Real Finca, which is an experimental farm that partners with El Laboratorio. Blue Mountain coffee, usually the expensive darling of Jamaican tourists, isn’t typically grown in Colombia. My coffee is the May 2016 harvest, hulled on December 2nd and roasted on December 13th.
I remember a snippet from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis from my childhood. The Prince is underneath the earth and the dwarfs who live underground and harvest jewels stop him as he is escaping back onto the right side of the dirt. The tell him to wait, that they can show him what real living diamonds and rubies taste like. The things that we know to be diamonds and rubies are only the cast-off shells of the living fruits of the earth. And the Prince is tempted by the prospect of tasting and drinking living rubies and diamonds.
I keep a mental inventory of the foods that I tasted fresh for the first time, and it felt like I was tasting the living thing. The first time I tasted fresh olive oil, the first time I tasted fresh green beans, the first time I tasted fresh grapefruit juice, and now this coffee, here in Antioquia. Coffee here is more alive than other places, even places with a hard and fast coffee-drinking culture, like France and Italy. Here, there is so much more variety and the drink is connected to the crop. You can taste the freshness in the coffee. It tastes alive, and it makes other coffee taste stale, like the cast-off shells of the real coffee.
And, as a post-script, I’d like to mention that the coffee isn’t the only thing that has been redefined for me as a more alive taste. The milk is more alive here, and it makes the phantom threat of leprosy worth it. It comes in plastic bags, and it smells like no other milk I’ve ever smelled, which is to say, the milk here actually has a smell. I can taste the mountain grass eaten by the Colombian cows when I drink this milk.