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04 September 2006

Eat on a door

“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” - G.K. Chesterton

Beets_1If every menu is an exercise in rhetoric, what would I choose for my last meal on earth?

It’s a question that death row inmates have to ponder, don’t they?, their choices captured for posterity and sometimes for ridicule, almost always for comparison—“that’s not what I’d pick!” we think as we read the litany of last bites. Well, if not that, what then?

To avoid extravagance, some states even require that the last prison meal not cost more than $20 and be purchased locally. Under those constraints, one barely has leeway for remembrance, much less the reverie that Proust had with that dainty madeleine of his. It is too heavy a burden for those last meals to bear, I think. And seeing as how it would exclude the hot pita falling fresh from the walls of that oven and being filled with hot, fresh falafel in Hod HaSharon, Israel, it just won’t do. And, so, I must disregard those two rules for my choices. What would my list include if the Warden wasn’t pinching pennies and if she had embraced globalization?

Paste_jar_1As I began my list, I consulted with Emma and Tess. Emma’s list was given without hesitation—hot “bagele” from Temple Mount in Jerusalem topped with za’atar, Japanese onigiri, rice and palak paneer from Heritage India Restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., thin mint ice cream with bits of Girl Scout cookies in it, and helium balloons. One shouldn’t ask what one doesn’t want to hear. Tess’ list was shorter: skebbies, noodles, and paint. There is an inorganic theme in my house, I can see. [Of course, I used to sneak bites from those luscious Elmer’s School Paste jars with the plastic, pliable spreaders built into the lid. Mrs. Goins suspected as much, but I stared her down and never was a word mentioned.]

John’s list included a hot knish that steams in the cold air of Montreal as you bite into it on the street, along with everything that was cooked in the first Godfather movie (which of course, led me to think about food in movies which –you can see this coming, can’t you?—led me to remember the beautiful Johnny Depp in Chocolat, but I digress). 

Spring_onions2As I pondered my own list, whole meals were conjured up in my mind, each bringing with it a clear picture of a place and a person—a restaurant, a table, a cloth, a companion, a time, a moment, an emotion at the occasion. So the food is meaningful not only as sustenance, but as sense-memory, touchstone for a deeper joy or pain. That list includes Mama’s Brownstone Front Cake, Daddy’s blackberry cobbler and pancakes and hot cornbread made in an iron skillet and crumbled into a glass of milk, soothing vegetarian fesenjan, that succulent pomegranate and walnut stew (hold the chicken) at a Persian restaurant long gone from Washington, D.C., Richard and Susan’s tiny orange pumpkins stuffed and baked in Wellington, New Zealand, every single thing that Chagit cooked for us in Israel, Nana’s pierogies fried in a pound of butter at midnight every time we arrived at her house for Thanksgiving, spring onions pulled from the earth in Grandma and Grandpa’s garden and washed at the shed spigot before pouring salt on them, a seasoning secretly taken from the kitchen cupboard. Even just drinking cold, cold water from the metal spigot. Each to be savored.

If I were telling you five things to eat before you die, what would I say? Most likely, I’d settle for five rules, or at the most, six, rather than five meals.

Eat simple

Raspberries_1Tear arugula into a shallow platter. Top it with big, fresh, sturdy raspberries and splash balsamic vinegar on it. Eat, eat.

Wash beets. Roast them. Eat, eat.

Sauces and creams and 25-ingredient recipes that make my head ache and force me to wear bifocals are too tiring for me now. It’s just not necessary anymore, all that measuring and combining and mixing and folding and separating. No, I need one food object at a time, each leaf washed like I was bathing my baby, lifted gently into a favorite bowl. Nutty and earthy arugula. Meditative leaf-washing. Asparagus roasted, pumpkin roasted, butternut squash roasted, yellow squash grilled on an outdoor grill, onion and potatoes in foil tucked into hot coals. Perhaps the Warden is right in setting a simple limit for that meal.

What if life were as simple as an heirloom tomato eaten like an apple in the field?

Be satisfied. Marvel at simplicity.

Eat when the time is right

The best apple I ever, ever ate in my Whole Life was a Nittany apple I took on a picnic once. Turns out that it was Nittany season. Who knew? I hit the jackpot! And isn’t life wonderful when you go to your special Thai restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue and the mango is in season so they have your all-time favorite—sticky rice and mango—for dessert? At that point, really, why bother with a main course?

Img_0318I was in Seattle in July and on Sunday morning, we went to the West Seattle Farmer’s Market. I want to live there. In the market. The sweet French man who makes cheese, all the flowers, the kids listening to music with swim goggles on, the evil European pastries. But it was the line for peaches that caught my attention. “Washington peaches today,” Lora explained. “People wait all year for this day.” And the line was impressive. There were other peaches to be had all over the market—but not Washington peaches, the kind that you need to eat in the shower, the kind that merit their own “don’t touch” sign. And so we waited. Some things you need to eat when the time is right. Know the time and wait for it. Enjoy the anticipation.

Wasn’t watching the “Wizard of Oz” more fun when you had to wait all year for it to come on TV?

Know your own season. Wait for it.

Eat from the source

Carrots_and_beets_smWhen you want tortillas, go to Albuquerque and find M&J’s Sanitary Tortilla Factory. If it has closed, sit in protest at its former site. If you want to eat hot bagele, get thee to Israel. 

To pick rambutan and eat them fresh or to eat hoppers, go to Pita Kotte, Sri Lanka. For the best chopped salad in the world, go to the Bottle Restaurant in Cara Lodge at 294 Quamina Street in Georgetown, Guyana. What? You’re not into flying? Then, better yet, meet a farmer in your town, a real one, one who grows real vegetables and knows them. Eat food from the earth, not from a semi-tractor trailer truck. Support farmers and chefs and bakers in your own town; eat food that comes from no more than 100 miles away. Perhaps the Warden is right in insisting on this condition—can you do it?

What if we were all prophets in our own land?

Honor what’s near.

Eat food cooked with true love

Red_pepperIf the truth were told, I married my husband in large part because he chopped up one half of a red pepper into such tiny squares as he prepared the first meal he cooked for me that I couldn’t help but swoon. Sure, there were other reasons I married him—the whole Mr Brilliant thing and all—but that one sticks in my mind—his tiny kitchen on Mintwood Place, using only half of the red pepper; the economy of scale impressed me. I was smitten by the sheer, unspeakable beauty of that small crisp red confetti.

Even his asparagus ice cream—concocted with true, sheer love and concern that I, pregnant with our first daughter, wasn’t getting enough nutrients—even that was food made with true love, however utterly horrible and unspeakably wrong. And so, I ate.

It was love and fresh air that made my friend Steve’s stone-ground grits so amazing at the Farm, wasn’t it? And love that made cinnamon sugar toast taste so comforting as a child. It was love that made Frau Schmidt’s fried potatoes remind you of a whole season of living in Munich. It was sheer and total love that made that firetruck cake.

How does life change when we love or are loved?

Love is a flavor. Use it.

Eat slowly so your mouth has time to say thank you

RisottoSimply put, fast food is the Scourge of the Universe.

A five hour meal at Topolobampo will cure you. A sticky toffee pudding in Harrogate will ground you. Even the memory of those things will sustain you. Slow down and savor that crusty handmade empanada from Julia’s Empanadas. [And while we’re at it, let’s make food like that available to everyone, regardless of economic status—why should the only food available to low-income families be fast food?]

If you needed more proof: the food of the gods is risotto. It takes some serious time. Eat slowly and thank the chef.

What’s the difference between risotto and Minute Rice that you boil in a bag, between Byrd Mill stone-ground grits and instant grits that you microwave, between McCann’s Irish Oatmeal and instant oatmeal from an envelope?

Take the time.

Eat on a door

Door_table_step_oneDoor_table_step_twoMy friends, David and Lora, live in a beautiful apartment in Seattle in which a wonderful little table serves as our gathering spot for Lora’s homemade granola in the mornings. When more than four people come together there, the table can’t sustain the crowd. Does that mean that they don’t invite more than four at a time? Shut up. No, the Sunday when Sam and Mary came over, I looked up from reading the paper to see David disassembling the bedroom door with a screwdriver. Before I could ask, it was off its hinges and placed on tables put sideways on the floor. And a most magnificent table was born; the place nearest the doorknob was, of course, the place of honor.

What if the table was big enough for everyone?

Include others at your table.

Rice_pudding_2Okay. In the spirit of transparency, let me be honest: I can’t complete this list without including the foods that I sneak: homemade macaroni and cheese with a crunchy wheat germ top, Kozy Shack Rice Pudding (trust me, it’ll win any taste test, won’t it Bradley?), Raspberry Frosted Pop Tarts (there simply is no explaining it, some deep-seated psychological thing, no doubt). Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies, fresh coconut ice cream. Well, that’s enough embarrassment. At least I’ve moved on from Kit Kat bars. And now that I’m in my raw food phase, these too will have to wait.

Tana writes a beautiful blog about farms and the people who commit their lives to them and it was she who “tagged” me for this meme focused on “Five Things to Eat Before You Die.” It provided some real food for thought (he..he). Thanks, Tana!

If I really had to choose five foods for my last meal? Fresh figs from the fig tree in our backyard, roasted beets, vegetarian risotto with little crisp peas in it, a whole jar of Lucy’s pesto to eat with a spoon, and hot homemade biscuits with real, European style butter and honey or homemade apple butter or orange marmalade with bits of real orange in it. And I’m sure that in a just and fair Universe, dessert wouldn’t be counted against my total of five, so I’d add blackberry cobbler or strawberry and rhubarb pie or—ooh, ooh—one of those decadent and amazing tiny coconut cream puffs at the bakery across from the Hotel Andra in Seattle or a hot sugar raised donut from the Sisters McMullen bakery to eat with a knife and fork. Or, perhaps, a small bowl of perfect raspberries, eaten slowly, one by one. Okay, I’ve got to stop.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

PearsAnd so with eating, it is with life. Six rules: Eat simple (Be satisfied. Marvel at simplicity). Eat when the time is right (Know your own season). Eat from the source (Honor what’s near). Eat food cooked with true love (Love is a flavor. Use it). Eat slowly so your mouth has time to say thank you (Take the time). Eat on a door (Include others at your table).

Look forward to Nittany apple season. Everything has a season. What’s yours? Eat the pear during that ten minutes when it is perfect—don’t save it for later, it’ll only bruise. That’s a metaphor for something.


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Dear Patti,

There is so much goodness tucked into every kernel of this post, that I will have to take some time to savor it all. Right now I am filled and lit by your suggestion that "Love is a flavor. Use it."

Thank you for offering up such a feast.

As always, a truly lovely post. Food does not merely have to be nourishment for the body, but also for the spirit as well.

I have to wait an hour before our brown bag today and I'm starving after reading this. However, I packed roasted beets and a wonderful salad with greens from the Farmer's Market...and a perfect white peach that converted me from South Carolina peaches to California peaches. Local is, indeed, better. I think we would both add to your favorite food list... Rosemary's red bliss potato salad and her tomato tart. We can leave off the lavender ice cream.

I'm reading this while eating a banana at my desk, and I am remembering the Caesar Salad I ate in Stratford, Ontario many years ago. I was so hungry I could have eaten my shoe, and when that salad finally sat in front of me, I thought it was the best thing I'd ever tasted. It had real anchovies in it--and I've eaten anchovies any chance I get ever since. I don't even remember what year it was, and the man that was with me is not with me today. What I do know is that for the next (I'm sorry to say) ten minutes, I was in heaven. I've eaten in some pretty great places (I live in DC and have sampled some of the DC foods you cite), but that salad from a tiny corner bistro in Canada has remained a strong memory, and I've always wondered why.

T-rae - this made me smile. When I was pregnant with Emma, nothing would do but a baked potato and caesar salad from a now-gone dump of a restaurant on Route 1 in Alexandria, poor John would bundle me into the car and make the 45 minute drive (one-way!) to this crazy little dive of a restaurant when, of course, baked potatoes and caesar salads (and even more wonderful foods!) were available just blocks from our apartment in Adams Morgan...I so love your memory of that salad. Thanks!

Gay - how on earth could I forget the lavender ice cream? Did I mention that I love roasted beets? I'm not sure if I mentioned the roasted beets. I also forgot the black bean enchiladas that you and Steve served one time, Rosemary's jamaica sauce for strawberries, lemon sorbet in a lemon on a hot day, limeade, raspberry iced tea, Sissy's corn pudding, my curried apple soup even though I know you and Rosemary don't like it too much, and those tiny coconut cream puffs at the bakery in Seattle, but maybe I already mentioned them...don't get me started again...

Christy - thank you so much for your note. I so appreciated your use of the word, "feast." Thank you!

AdriftatSea - I love the idea of spirit food - thank you!

This is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have seen in the food blogosphere in ages. I have almost become used to stunning food photography, but the love in your words is a startlement and a delight. Thank you.

I am instantly hungry but moments into this lovely essay. It seems that my favorites are embedded in other pieces of associated memory, and that sometimes food just happens to serve as the enhancer of some other stronger reaction. The french fries at Nathans on Coney Island in 1965 weren't the best in the world, but they were hot, and maybe sandy, and hard to eat with little hands in a brisk ocean breeze--but they were some of the best foods I've eaten, enjoying them over the scent of my sun-drenched skin and with the sound of little waves breaking in the background. Sitting under a rusty awning of a bar-dump in Red Rock Arizona in 120-degree heat I had the best glass of tap water I've ever had--it was an explosion of relief that I can feel even now. Sometimes food just happens to put a few other disparate elements together and makes, what? Some sort of multi-sense memory like few others, resistant to easy metaphor. Thanks again for such a great post and making me think. JP

Another wonderful posting Patti. I have written of the connections we make with sounds, hearing a song that transports us back to a place and time. Not sure I'll be able to do the same with food after this. The connection is certainly there but you have created a tough shoe to fill. Thank you!

Danielle - your comment really made my day - many thanks for such kind, wonderful words! (And I love the word "startlement" - thanks for that gift!)

Oh, my! It's a Red Letter Day on 37days! A comment from my Johnny, Mr Brilliant himself, my very own red pepper confetti chopper and asparagus ice cream chef! I never knew the story of those french fries in your salty little capable hands, or that water. But I do know that I always want to find you in my kitchen and at my dinner table, no matter the menu. xoxo

steve - i so identify with the connections to sound. Munich = Jethro Tull. Sri Lanka = the song about Muhammad Ali ("float like a butterfly, sting like a bee")... Driving to the coast of Oregon = Eva Cassidy. Anytime = Johnny Cash. College = Joan Armatrading... Thanks for the prompt...!

Hi Patti!

Thank you for the banquet of culinary images, sprinkled with gems of literary delights!

My mom passed away two and a half years ago, but memories of cinnamon sugar toast brought back a feeling of warmth and a reminder of the love that was put into making them. She also made a mean batch of chocolate chip pancakes!

Have a glorious weekend!

What a beautiful community you have created on here. I read this while sipping my peppermint tea and cinnamon/sugar toast this morning and feel like I've just eaten pure LOVE off a door. I adore you. and your words. and the joy you pour into the universe. SOMEDAY, I MUST meet you.

What a beautiful community you have created on here. I read this while sipping my peppermint tea and cinnamon/sugar toast this morning and feel like I've just eaten pure LOVE off a door. I adore you. and your words. and the joy you pour into the universe. SOMEDAY, I MUST meet you.

Great post Patti! My favorite memories of food go back to summers in Vermont as a kid, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich with a coke and green grapes for dessert. To be eaten on the swing preferably!
My tastes have changed, so I wouldn't wish that meal to be my last, but it does hold a special place in my heart.
Thanks for the six rules of eating/living -
I loved the photo of the door set so beautifully!

finding your blog is walking into a feast!

this is what i want about blogging, you learn many thing...basically about you guys...thank you so much for the information....

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