My 40 in forty posts are reaching their endpoint. Saturday is the big day, and I simply couldn't feel more festive. I have a few nuggets left to write about, but this evening, as I sit on a comfy couch, my feet propped on an ottoman and a sleepy Nutmeg unrolled beside me, I want to talk more about food and the eating of it.
I've already written about the importance of eating real and also about knowing several recipes well enough that you can throw them together with almost no thought. Tonight is more of a personal musing; it's about the primal need to and pleasure that can be derived from eating well.
As y'all probably know eighty times over by now, I grew up in Louisiana. I was born in Georgia, shortly after moved to Alabama, and then, when I was five, we settled in Lake Charles, a mid-sized town in Louisiana's southwest corner. This was a fortunate move for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it meant living just a couple miles from Mom's parents, Nanny and Papa.
If you read Em-i-lis with any regularity, you know all about Nanny. About her megawatt smile and about her grace. About the thousands of cheesecakes she baked for Papa's restaurant while he had it and also those she made for my dad's birthday, until she got too old to do so. About her giving me my first cookbook and teaching me so many things; about cooking but also, and more importantly, about life and dignity and kindness and generosity.
Anyway, I grew up eating Nanny's food, and Mom's too until she went on cooking strike after making our school lunches daily for fourteen years (I'd have probably struck too). I remember her ancient aluminum pots and pans, battered but functional, seasoned perfectly with years of beans and spaghetti gravy and vegetable soup and smothered okra and roasts cooked in them.
I remember the way the chopped onions in her green beans always looked like leg-less jellyfish. They were totally translucent but never fell apart. It's a wonder really, to cook something so long but have it stay intact. I suspect it's because Nanny knew that often, a long, slow cook is better than a fast, roiling one. She never seemed rushed; I envy that.
I remember the worn, brown plastic bowl, the one with both handle and spout, both abraded from years of use, in which she'd toss the most delicious green salads. Mine never taste quite like hers did. My aunt Renee makes the next best; it's almost just like Nanny's.
I remember Sunday lunches at her and Papa's house. Always spaghetti and gravy and roast, French bread, green salad, Lipton iced tea, a hinged silver cheese bowl full of grated Parmesan, and probably a pie. I remember eating it all with such gusto, Papa with his napkin tucked into his collar, demanding more cheese and happily trading my bread crusts for his bready innards. It was the sweetest deal.
What ties all of these memories together is the happiness and utter pleasure of a good meal shared around a table.
Sometime during my senior year of college, as one roommate started substituting lettuce leaves for sandwich bread and subtly, but not subtly enough, excusing herself to the bathroom after every meal, I lost my way on the food-as-pleasure path.
The road became more grown over the next year, dark and winding and impossible to navigate. I only wanted to be thin. And so I was. Food was an obstacle and a threat, and I crossed my arms against its beckon with such unbreachable strength. I shooed away hunger with long runs and skim milk. With a chorus of "gosh, you're so slim. You look great!" and bags of baby carrots which, ironically, are whittled from real carrots in the same way I was whittling myself from a real woman.
It likely goes without saying that sometime after my years in New York, which were very fun and very thin and very hard, I woke up. And for whatever it's worth, which is very little except if we're tallying votes in the Eat Real column, I'm pretty much the same size I was when it took strenuous denial to get there.
Now, I eagerly anticipate each and every meal. I consider breakfast, lunch and dinner to be three daily opportunities for deep pleasure. It deeply offends me to waste one of these chances, either because I eat out and the meal sucks or because I'm flying through the day and am forced to cobble something together. My reaction to either is sincere pissed-off'ness, and really, that response feels wholly appropriate.
It's hard to articulate the eye-closing, shoulders-dropping, soul-brightening response to a bite of ethereal coconut cream pie, the perfect meatball and saucy noodles, the first great summer peach, a giant chomp into a juicy sandwich.
Last night, I was lucky to have a babysitter for a few hours. I quickly stuffed some artichokes, put them on to steam, and literally raced out to my back yard. I straddled a big bag of mulch and got busy. Sweaty, dirty, happy as get-out, and, as I'm wont to be out there, distracted.
The water steamed away, the pot scalded, the sitter suggested I check, I got there just in time. More water, more steaming, more mulching and then happy-tired me served up the 'chokes. Tom and I each plucked a first leaf from the globe, turned it over so our bottom teeth could scrape off both stuffing and that tiny, miraculous mound of artichoke at the leaf's base, pulled gently and sighed deeply.
Sublime. And the heart with lemon butter? I can't. Were there twenty hearts inside.
The pleasure is hard to articulate because it's elemental. So basic the original experience precedes memory but the sensations remain and are, if you're lucky, sharpened over time.
In New York, even as I denied myself this pleasure, I hoped for it for others. I delighted in saving recipes I wasn't likely to make, enjoyed cooking for others, and going out to fabulous meals.
I once went on a date with a lovely man who said "I only eat because I have to." I knew I'd never go out with him again, and I didn't. The whole food-as-fuel-only mentality suggests to me that said person has a lacking joie de vivre. And even when I'd lost some sense, I hadn't lost my joie.
And I have found a joie to be real important for enjoying life. Which is sort of the point because life can be awfully tough.
I learned a lot of this from Louisiana, from my parents, from Nanny. From her pies and Sunday lunches, from my parents' zest for life and because Louisiana throws a party for any and all reasons. There, eating is a celebration: of family, of life, of death, of coming together. Any given meal is a chance to revel in culinary bliss, be it the simplest plate of scrambled eggs or an icy platter of just-shucked oysters, a fresh glass of milk punch or a gumbo that's been cooking for hours.
Eat, drink, and be merry!