The place: the produce section at our supermarket here in Siberia With a View..
I am examining an eggplant, when she appears next to me. She’s wearing a plaid shirt, hiking boots and an incredibly goofy hat.
We inhabit different universes. She knows me; I have no idea who she is.
Something approaching a dialogue ensues.
“This thing you have with food, and cooking. You’re obsessed.”
“Nope. I’m merely attentive.”
I turn the eggplant in the icky supermarket light. Supermarket light does serious injury to hues in the blue-violet to purple part of the spectrum. Too much yellow in the light. Complements, you know; mix them and you’ve got icky.
“Attentive? That’s selling yourself short. You’re always writing about food, and wine. You brag that you’re thinking about food and cooking all the time. Attentive?”
“OK, real attentive. Granted, I wake in the morning and I’m focused on breakfast because I read a recipe or two before going nighty-night a few hours before. And, true, throughout the day I’m mulling over options for dinner. I think about food and cooking a lot. And I read about it, too — about what to make and how to make it. I study recipes, examining them like a Viking-crazed Irish monk analyzing the Book of Kells for answers to his existential dilemma. But, obsessed? No. Intense? Perhaps. So what? Do you think this eggplant looks feeble? Come on, hold it. Don’t be afraid … caress it.”
“But, there’s so many more important things in life other than food and drink.”
“I can think of only two other important things in life, and I am not sure if either of them is more important than food. Depends on the situation, and the company. And I am pretty sure, present company considered, that it would be a mistake to mention them now.”
“But, gluttony is so wrong.”
“Yep, couldn’t agree more. C’mon, prod my eggplant. I don’t advocate or appreciate gluttony. I’m an Epicurean by inclination. Always seek pleasure, but never to the point it becomes pain. There is a wide gulf between gluttony and a refined appreciation that propels measured and informed consumption, with pleasure as the highest good defining the territory.”
“Phooey. That’s a load of crud designed to divert you from the fact that constant attention to food and eating is an earmark of decadent and conspicuous consumption and, as such, is a weakness encouraged by a persistent unwillingness to confront the troubles and deprivation faced by other members of the species. Not to mention the other species that are as valuable as we are.”
“Whew. That’s an earful. Were you a sociology major in college?”
“OK, let’s put it simply: In a global and historical context, your obsession and your indulgence is wrong. A sin, if you will. To pay so much attention to food, to cooking, to eating, to drinking …”
“Excuse me — to outstanding food, creative cooking, careful eating and drinking.”
“It’s a slap in the face to all those who go without.”
“I see it much differently. Here, hold this acorn squash for a moment — like you hold a baby. It would be an offense not to deal with food and cooking the way I do. It is an offense to stuff your face with fast food. It’s a crime to eat mindlessly — and it’s criminal to surrender to misguided, self-satisfied and pseudo-saintly urges and go on a macrobiotic diet, beat a retreat to gruel and brown rice and weak tea. How grotesquely Ghandiesque.”
“Look around; what do you see?”
“Well, food, of course.”
“Not just food. Plenty of food, sister. An embarrassment of food, as a matter of fact.”
“So … we’re pigs. We have too much; we are induced every day to buy what we don’t need by clever advertising, convenience and brightly-colored packaging.”
“I disagree. I think we are the too-often ungrateful recipients of unimaginable good fortune. Think about it: the majority of the humans alive on this globe have no idea of the amount of food we can purchase — even here in Siberia with a View — nor of the incredible variety of foods. And, despite what the nitpickers and the organic freaks say, the vast majority of it — given it is eaten in reasonable fashion — is safe.”
“It’s immoral to have so much.”
“What? We should be ashamed of abundance? Because it’s there? On the contrary: It is an extraordinary occurrence, and the result of marvelous collective efforts. Immoral? I think not. It is not wrong to be able to produce and be blessed with plenty. The question is how the resource is used. It’s wrong if we take enormous resources for granted and we don’t share them when we can. It is dicey if we regularly overindulge or take abundance for granted. And here is where we will part ways clearly, aside from our opinions about that crappy shirt and goofy hat you’re wearing: I think it is unethical if we don’t take advantage of abundance. It’s not going to last, you know; nothing does. I believe it’s immoral to be blessed and not indulge the blessing in a graceful way. There is a mindless way of indulging; there is a mindful way of indulging. I choose to attempt to be mindful. Cooking and eating is a meditation, a headlong dive into the bright side of one of the primary aspects of what it is to be human.
“In that meditation, we discriminate when it comes to what we eat, and how we prepare it. The mere fact we prepare what we eat has great meaning. Not many of the organisms on this planet that eat other things (and there’s a lot of ways that’s done, you know) prepare what is eaten. In fact, not many of our fellow earthly travelers care a whole lot about what is put into the mouth, or wherever else it goes. We humans do care, if circumstance allows. And we should pay close attention to what we choose to ingest. Consider its origin and treat it with respect.”
“So, you’re saying it’s unethical not to indulge?”
“Correct. But, with qualifications. Don’t you listen? Is that hat restricting your hearing? The key is attention and respect … and thankfulness. All tempered with a bit of charity, backlit by the understanding that, but for fortune, it could be you having to forgo your luxury and shovel moldy grubs down your maw in order to simply survive.”
“You know, this is a pretty weird conversation to be having in the produce section of the grocery store.”
“Yeah, it is. But not as weird as that shirt and hat you’ve got on. Whaddya makin’ for dinner?”
“Manicotti. No meat; I’m off meat.”
“ Pity. Bit of goat cheese mixed in with the ricotta and parmesan?”
“Oooh, no. Goat cheese?”
“Absolutely, Try it and fresh herbs, no? Fresh basil, oregano?”
“Well, I’ve never used them, but …”
“How do you make your sauce.”
“Oh, I don’t have time to make it. I buy it.”
“In a jar?”
“Dear lord. OK, I can’t hear any more of this. I admit it: I’m obsessed — at least compared to you I am. Please, I beg of you: first, give me back my squash; second, mix some goat cheese into the ricotta and parmesan. And, give yourself a treat: try the manicotti baked with a romesco sauce. Stretch yourself. Take some time and meditate.”
“Romesco. It’s easy. Well, no, I lie: It’s not easy. But it’s not so difficult that, well, even you, can’t make it. Though you’ll need to take off that ridiculous hat and shirt before you go to the kitchen.
“There’s plenty of versions but all of them include some of the same ingredients: roasted red Bell pepper, almonds, roasted tomato, garlic, herbs (rosemary, oregano, basil), a little red wine vinegar, olive oil, sometimes breadcrumbs.
“Try this: roast your own red peppers over an open flame — two will do — and toss on a red jalapeno if you like some zip. Bag ’em, stem ’em, peel ’em. Get rid of the veins and seeds from the red jalapeno.
“Roast several Roma tomatoes — do it in the oven so they get all sweet and caramelized. Put a handful of unsalted raw almonds in a food processor and grind the daylights out of them. Peel a couple cloves of garlic and toss them in; throw in the herbs, a tiny bit of salt, some black pepper and pulse for a moment. Throw in the peppers, the tomatoes, a mess of breadcrumbs and a teeny bit of vinegar and pulse again, until everything is messed up. With the motor running, drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil until the sauce is emulsified. Taste, adjust, maybe add a wisp of sugar. Refrigerate for half a day or so to allow the flavors to meld. Then use it on your goat-cheesy good manicotti like you’d use that muddy industrial, quasi-Italian glop you buy in a jar. Throw some mozzarella, some hunks of goat cheese and shaved parmesan on top and bake it”
What are you havin?”
“A sinner’s dinner.”
“Remember, I said a true transgression is to waste food? Well, forgive me, but I have sinned. Too many times to remember. I throw away too much food.”
“I’m afraid there’s some truth to that. Too many of us waste too much. And I am making my best effort to consume leftovers. I’m here to get some tomatoes, an avocado — even though they’re out of season — and some cheese. I’m going to make mole enchiladas, using the last of a pack of white corn tortillas and some leftover turkey burgers as my base.
“I’ll make a sauce with mole paste, chicken broth, a hit or two of Espanola red and tons of mushed garlic
“I’ll crumble the leftover burgers into the sauce and simmer for a while, adding a bit of broth if I need to, enough to keep the consistency just this side of sludge.
“I’ll dip the tortillas in hot oil ever so briefly and drain them on a paper towel, then grease a casserole and put a couple big spoon’s full of sauce in the pan. I’ll use a slotted spoon to remove meat from the sauce and roll up some enchiladas, adding crumbled cotilla cheese to the meat. Once all the rolled enchiladas are nestled next to the other in the pan, I’ll coat them with the sauce and put down some chunks of quesadilla and a bit more of the cotilla, maybe splash a bit of crema over all. Into a 350 oven the dish will go and, 30-45 minutes later, I’ve got a dandy on my hands.
“I have green leaf lettuce left in the fridge and I’ll slice the avocado and tomatoes, add them to the greens and prepare a lemon vinaigrette with stuff I find in the kitchen. I’ve got some pinto beans in a dish in the fridge. They’ll warm up just fine.”
Fine fare for the sinner who is making a change.
“Enjoy your romesco.
“And, for God’s sake, get rid of that inane hat.”