Category: food

M.F.K. Fisher, on hunger and love

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it. There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

 — M.F.K. Fisher

I love that: “So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it.”

My favorite thing: cooking with a friend, curating the music while things finish on the stove, drinking champagne, eating it all later. With more champagne.

fare la scarpetta

Full-leafed trees criss-crossed the Tuscan countryside, interspersed by flat fields of green. Every now and then the land was punctuated by grape vines.  There were hints of red leaves scattered in ribbons across the hills, and the taller cypress trees lined the roads to buildings or villages; first planted as landmarks to help find your way home. I read that cypress trees have been used as a symbol of immortality to signify sacred space and a detachment from the everyday mortal world.

For every meal, the truffle or porcini that accompanied meat or pasta was picked just that morning. “It’s mushroom season,” the locals would declare with a smile. Their happiness was infectious, as if they knew a secret. And share it with us, they did.

I return often to Pico Iyer’s reminder that our greatest aspirations and virtues have always relied on a measure of inner equanimity. Some of the best moments were sprung upon us without plan — the ones that, for example, found us gazing at a lightning storm during an otherwise calm night, all of us trying to take photos or video. Despite our varied success in capturing the lightning with our various cameras, the best success was watching it in each others’ company under the open night sky. 

Though we still had the occasional everyone-sitting-around-on-their-computers moments, there was something about the remoteness of where we were staying that reminded us to be present, to sleep in, to look up at the sky.

***

For our final meal, Francesco created delicious dishes that were served during sunset. A friend used his last slice of bread to sop up the juices of the mushroom broth. Francesco came outside at that moment and grinned while watching the sopping. “That’s precisely how to do it,” he said admiringly under his breath. “Scarpetta!”

I have heard “Scarpetta” used as a restaurant name and I don’t know enough Italian to know what he meant. I’m not sure anyone else heard him say it, but I noted it to look up for later.

The next morning at an earlier hour than we all preferred after several bottles of wine, we wiped away sleep as we said goodbye to the countryside and rode towards Florence. We watched the sun rise over the Tuscan hills, our eyes sweeping over the landscape one last time. The pink-bottomed clouds leaned against the edges of horizon and even the freshly-tilled dirt looked golden.

I remembered the word from the night before and looked it up:

“Fare la scarpetta” is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

***

At the airport, we hugged each other as though we were scooping up the very last bit with all our might. Fare la scarpetta, soaking up every last drop. But also, we hugged like we knew that we’d be seeing each other again very soon. Our friends around us like cypress trees, their presence meaning we have already found our way home.


authentic tacos 🌮 

The idea that authenticity is a fixed and rigid thing is absurd for a food culture that has gone through as much historic change and reinvention as Mexican gastronomy.

To declare that the only good Mexican food is “authentic” Mexican food also assumes that the cuisine has ceased evolving. Like so many international cuisines, Mexican food has thrived as it has adapted, and it isn’t done doing that.

― from “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations” by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman

“Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber.”

Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist nun living in Seoul who happens to also be revered for her cooking. She’s been praised by noted chefs like Eric Ripert of Le New York City’s Le Bernadin. Her vegan cuisine is unexpectedly “transcendent” due to the intimate relationship she has with the earth that has produced the ingredients. T explores her cooking in this article.

jeong kwan

Jeong Kwan, photo credit T magazine

***

But even if you can talk about food for hours, there comes a point when you need to make contact with it.

I love going to farmers’ markets and farms to see and touch the food we eat. It’s easy to constantly dine at restaurants in this modern world and not know what eggplants or brussels sprouts look like “in the wild.”

Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains. In her mind, there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients. “That is how I make the best use of a cucumber,’’ she explains through a translator. “Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.” She sees rain and sunshine, soil and seeds, as her brigade de cuisine. She sums it up with a statement that is as radically simple as it is endlessly complex: “Let nature take care of it.”

The current world we live in also allows us to indulge in constant instant gratification. We can’t help but develop an insatiable need for change, and new tools and technologies help us to experience things that were previously unattainable. Constant change is at our fingertips, and we can have it immediately. In an increasingly global and technologically-connected world, we can order any kind of food we want and have it arrive on our doorstep within the hour. We can engineer ingredients so that they are available almost anywhere, year round.

Kwan’s cooking, however, exemplifies the long game. Her secret weapons are the ingredients that have gained character and taste over almost unthinkable lengths of time. Her garden has no fence, and she uses what has grown there in harmony with any animals that may have had more need for the fruits of her labor. There is reward in slow motion, in letting something develop for years rather than days, in patience, in balance with the surrounding natural world.

‘‘That’s why it’s not pretty,’’ she says. If a wild boar makes off with a pumpkin, well, so be it — the garden has no fence around it, and it seems to blur into the surrounding forest in a way that suggests the playground remains open to beasts of all types.

In line with Hemingway’s thought that the “good unpublished poem” is necessary in the world, Kwan cooks far from the eye of the Michelin Guide or James Beard awards, and for very few.  But “positive energy has a habit of finding its way out into the wider world.”

The paradox is that she [cooks] for such a limited audience. There are only two other nuns meditating alongside her at the Chunjinam hermitage. They cook together; sometimes Kwan cooks for the monks, or for visitors.

And this seems like the most Zen idea of all: that one of the world’s greatest chefs can often be found mapping out her meals in silence and solitude, plucking mint leaves in a garden that feels far, far away from anything resembling preening egos and gastronomic luxury. But she seems to know that positive energy has a habit of finding its way out into the wider world. One day, after we have toured the temple, she leads me down to a small bridge that crosses over a creek. We stand on the bridge and she touches her hand to her ear. She wants me to listen. So we listen: She and I simply stand there by the water for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the current. Then she smiles — it really is like a ray of light, this smile — and points to the creek and utters a single word in English, as she looks into my eyes.

‘‘Orchestra,’’ she says.

hot pot cures all. and be radishing.

Notes from the weekend:
– When in doubt about how to get fruit when there are no low-hanging ones in sight, climb the damn tree.
– Say yes to pie.
– Sometimes softness can lead to strength.
– Write down your dreams right when you wake up.
– Be brave enough to face into the wind and run on.
– Accidentally walked into a learn-how-to-sexy-dance class. Didn’t learn anything new. What does that mean?
– Choose the one who laughs loudly and with heart.
– What you learn after you think you know it all will probably be the most important thing in life.
– Hot pot cures all winter woes. And when in doubt about how to impress the girl, get the better fish balls with roe inside. And open a Cabernet.
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