I’ve been culinarily stunned in three ways, recently. The first was by finishing a wonderful book entitled Heat, by Bill Buford. He quit his job as a writer for the New Yorker to work for Mario Batali and his restaurant, Babbo, and eventually moved to Italy to further learn how to cook pastas, learn to be a butcher and all the while, do research for writing his book. Near the end of the book, he writes a thought about cooking and about the possibility of owning a restaurant and I felt while reading it, that I’d finally found a voice to answer the question Matt and I get asked on a monthly basis: Why don’t you guys open a restaurant already?!
“When I started, I didn’t want a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals–like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.”
That is exactly it. I am fascinated by cooking and learning as much as I can about food and food preparation because it links me to the past – to what people have been doing for generations and what my generation makes ever more difficult to achieve by its shortcuts and 30 minute meals and food that can live in a box. I’m not against time-saving methods, but I think that just focusing on saving time is missing the point of cooking for your family. That brings me to another quote from Heat that is just spot-on:
“Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.”
The second stunner came from a recent episode of No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Tony ventures to Louisiana, around the New Orleans area and spends a couple of days with some locals out at a farm. The big event is the killing and preparing of a whole pig. But for an entire day before the pig’s sacrifice, everyone prepares the side dishes for the feast. You see about 10 different cooks – all cooking in cast iron over fire, some on bbq grills, and each has a very specific and very important task. From making a pot of coveted Étouffée to making a simple corn succotash, no dish is less important than the other. Kids run around the yard, taste-test the food being cooked and a quartet of banjo, accordion, guitar and fiddle accompany the preparations. The people playing the instruments are also cooks – everyone cooks. Everyone has an opinion and a heated debate breaks out about the proper way to stew turtle meat. The next day at 6 a.m., after saying a prayer over the pig, Tony is given the task to kill it. It’s a clean kill and in seconds, a group of 6 or so men get to the job of preparing this animal: cleaning it, saving the blood for boudin noir, dividing up the meat into seemingly dozens of portions and assigning each of the cooks a cut of meat to prepare. It’s fascinating to watch this humble animal, deeply respected and therefore, used of every single part it has to offer, eventually used to feed between 40 and 60 people. Matt and I basically had our jaws on the floor the entire episode. We were humbled by seeing so many people working in the heat for the culmination of the meal. We are currently recruiting friends who like to cook as much as we do. We have three or four but we’d like 15 at least…who live HERE. 🙂
The third stunning moment came the second I picked up the book, The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon.
I’m only a few chapters in, but I’ve already found immense wisdom on food preparation and dizzying theology concerning the concept and reason and respect for cooking. This book had me observing the complexities of a shallot before I chopped it up for dinner tonight. It has me saying “amen” on almost every page and it makes me want to be a better steward of life and food in general, which is quite something for just four chapters of a book. Here are some compelling quotes so far:
“To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”
“The poor man may envy the rich their houses, their lands, and their cars; but given a good wife, he rarely envies them their table. The rich man dines festally (lavish), but unless he is an exceptional lover of being – unless he has the soul of a poet and a saint – his feasts are too often only single: They delight the palate, but not the intellect. They are greeted with a deluxe but mindless attention: “What was it, dear, sirloin or porterhouse?” Every dish in the ferial (meager) cuisine, however, provides a double or treble delight: Not only is the body nourished and the palate pleased, the mind is intrigued by the triumph of ingenuity over scarcity – by the making of slight materials into a considerable matter. A man can do worse than be poor. He can miss altogether the sight of the greatness of small things“
Isn’t that amazing? I’m excited to finish this book. I may do a proper “book review” after and I encourage anyone who loves food and cooking to pick up this book today.
I hope everyone is inspired by something this week. Be it the cooler weather, the foretaste of the fall to come and with it, ciders, stews and oatmeal cookies, or just a book that challenges you to think differently and to be a better version of yourself.