I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. To me it seems like a silly exercise in unkept promises, except this time it’s promises made with yourself. This is also why I consider canceling my YMCA membership for the months of January and February. You wouldn’t believe the way the parking lot and elliptical machines fill up for a few weeks at the beginning of the year only to empty out come March.
That isn’t to say that I don’t take advantage of winter’s more introspective nature forced by cold weather and diminished sunlight. For some it’s a recipe for depression. For me it’s a chance to recharge. What better excuse for an introvert to stay home than, the easily at hand winter weather?
Lately I’ve been thinking about food. What we eat. How I make dinner. How I plan our meals. Having long since given up on the folks (from all sides) who think that food is somehow at fault for everything currently wrong with us – a veritable fountain of youth to some and the path of required asceticism for others – I have been trying to reach a far more balanced approach where one eats, not to medicate away the ills of modern life, but because it’s necessary and if it’s necessary, why not do so in a way that brings pleasure to your life? (A foreign concept for our American Puritanical natures to be sure.)
I’m not interested in lists of forbidden foods. I’ve done the low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, high-carb, traditional foods, counters full of fermenting and bubbling kitchen experiments, pre-packaged, Snackwells, sugar-laden, South Beach, thirty minutes a day to a thinner, more beautiful you and I’ve had just about enough. Give me a roast chicken, some roasted root vegetables, and a pile of bacon-y greens to circle my plate and let’s just sit around the table and talk, laugh, love.
And bread. Give me bread in carefully toasted piles with melting salted butter, caramel brown crusts that audibly let you know that you have in fact arrived at meal time, and a slightly resistant chewy crumb that says, “I’m alive and this is bread.” You might think this sounds like a lot to expect of bread, but I can guarantee you that there wasn’t a single person around the birthday feast table on Friday that didn’t remark that the rolls we had were the sort of bread you could live on.
Not a one.
I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” the last few days, gasping over every other paragraph from words placed ever so carefully together by a writer who is as adept at spinning a phrase as she is at bringing together humble ingredients into nourishing meals. The husband thought I was a little crazy as we were following the curves of Highway 14 on our way to Black Earth and I was practically tearing up over what spoke so powerfully to my very core. Adler gets it and provides not a collection of recipes, but a way of cooking that makes sense to me.
In the chapter she calls “How to Paint Without Brushes,” Adler gives the shortest list of kitchen gear you’ll ever read and then instructs the reader:
You can gather all of that, in whatever versions. You can also cook well, not in different pots and pans, but in the ones you have. As long as you taste curiously, and watch and feel and listen, and prick your way toward food you like, you will find that you become someone about whom people will say that cooking seems to come naturally, like walking. They will say it and it will be true.
That is my advice then, on experience and equipment. Consider not minding whether you know the answer, and not filling your kitchen with tools, but becoming, rather, the kind of cook who doesn’t need them.
I’ve long been on the search for the perfect loaf of bread and have turned out my share of wheaten bricks. I had read much and tried lots with marginal results. Those who eat my bread would probably be surprised to learn that up until recently, I considered myself a marginal baker at best and a bumbling fraud at worse, but yesterday there was a moment when I looked into the mixing bowl and knew incontrovertibly that I had arrived. That bread dough right there in the bowl was done – there was no further need for kneading. I could shut the mixer off and know that my bread would turn out. I repeated the process with a second batch (because baking less than two loaves at a time in this house is silly) and arrived at the similar point. I knew it in the way that I know few other things in life.
I had, in fact, arrived.
And it was, dear reader, exactly as I thought it would be. The loaves rose perfectly in their pans and baked equally so with just the right combination of oven spring and browned crust. Arriving, as it were, to some portion of my true self, The Baker, and giving myself permission to cast as wide a net for my creativity as is honest and true to who I am.
Maybe food really is transformative – not in the health seeking, life prolonging, death preventing way, but in a way that allows us to live well, laugh often, and love intensely. Allowing us, maybe for once, to seek fulfillment in the everyday and to tell all the “experts” to kindly mind their own business.