Eating words

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.

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15 Comments

Filed under Food Stuffs

15 responses to “Eating words

  1. Ashley

    Wow. Your post has reminded me how much I enjoy the process of cooking, the peeling of apples, the smelling and stirring and stewing. Time is precious these days, so I find myself making horrendous casseroles to warm up on the go. There is nothing better than being in the kitchen as a family, giving little scraps to a toddling girl and sharing a good meal. Thanks for this, Alisa. I think I’ll head back to the stove this weekend. 🙂

  2. Paul Allen Hunton

    amen! I had one of these this weekend. Andrea and I have always been above the average American household when it comes to cooking and preparing meals for our family but nowhere near you guys, or where I would like us to be. With three kids it does make it much harder, and more expensive to do everything with fresh, from scratch, ingredients. At 6pm when the kids are screaming about starvation it’s hard to tell them it will be 2 hours before dinner is ready. My mom has always been a great cook, and I learned most of what I know from her, but in the last few years she has turned to not only more “from scratch” recipes but very healthy and nutritional recipes. This weekend while visiting my digestive system never felt better, my energy level during the day has never been higher. We had vegetable burritos with lettuce wraps instead of tortillas, we had chipotle coleslaw, we had flax seed whole wheat pancakes with apple cider syrup and almond butter. Everything was healthy and full of high nutrition. It all tasted great too, so the taste, mixed with how it made me feel really ignited me to start living and eating in a way that won’t leave me ruined later in life. A great book she recommended to me was “Eat to Live” by Mehmet Oz and what I read inspired me further. It’s marketed as a “diet” book but I think it’s more a way to live, book. So I’d like to try harder and aim more for that healthy living and eating. Not only because there is great soul satisfying fun in cooking but because it also can make you feel wonderful…

    • It’s true – good food can make you feel wonderful. Think of how you feel after eating food like you’re describing vs. how you feel when you get done at a super buffet. The writer of The Supper of the Lamb, however, talks a bit disdainfully about “diet food” in that he explains when you cook, cook properly. A lot of diet food is filled with substitutions that aren’t actually healthier for you (i.e. butter is much better for your system than margarine) If you want to eat healthier, then eat less or just eat more simple things. But if you feast, feast well 🙂

      • Paul Allen Hunton

        it’s not really diet food. From what I read in the book it’s actually just normal food, lots of fruits and vegetables and I don’t think any of it includes butter or margarine in anything. What’s sad is we have to call vegetables “diet” food, and we have to call something like Eat to Live a diet, when really it’s just eating in a way that makes you healthy. The one thing the book does talk about is eating a lot less meat. I think he says what americans eat in a day, you should really be eating in a week.

      • While I am extremely against labeling any food as “bad” (that God gave us, not man made weirdness) I will admit that having meat used to be a very special thing. It was for celebrations so naturally, it was a rare occurring. Not to mention, for most people who founded the cuisine of this country, meat was a luxury. And so when an animal was slaughtered, it was done with respect and every part of the animal was used. I think if we lived that way, we’d naturally eat less meat. I agree that it’s sad that fruits and veggies are labeled as “diet food” Another good tip is to get an Indian cookbook. They eat meat, but for the most part, their recipes are vegetarian and my goodness, what that culture can do with a vegetable! No one would miss meat for a second. Again, I am not advocating vegetarianism. I think there should be a balance, as in all things. So what are we having for dinner tonight? 😉

      • Paul Allen Hunton

        hahaha. Pizza, but as healthy as possible!

  3. Paul Allen Hunton

    actually eat to live was written by Joel Fuhrman MD.

  4. Paul Allen Hunton

    Here is my mom’s blog where she puts up recipes talks about cooking, eating, and living. http://networkedblogs.com/mFktM

  5. Marcia

    Alisa, you never cease to amaze me. You are a preacher of good food. You inspire people to actually believe they can be better, more appreciative of the simplest pleasures we seem to over look when things get too hectic and busy. If you want a novice cook for your group of cooks I would love to join. I know very little about good cooking, but I’m willing to learn and eat!

  6. Peggy Palmer

    Woooahh (sp) man I never thought of things that way. It sure is an eye opener. I hope I can learn more about food. I might enjoy it more. Your writing is always great and your messages full of passion and knowledge.

  7. Peggy Palmer

    Wish I was close to learn from you and your cooking buddies:)

  8. Summer

    As always, your writing moves me deeply. Can’t wait to see you this weekend. 🙂

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