"We have certain core experiences that have shaped us, our obsessions. That would be the engine to which you attach your work." -Joyce Maynard
Maybe you haven’t guessed by the name of this blog, my hobbies, or the fact that it’s the one of the only things I talk about, but I’m obsessed with food.
My obsession been present throughout my life -- in both healthy, and not-so-healthy iterations. There was the time my mom found out about the low-fat Oreos I stole and hid under my pillow. The vivid memories of creamy, almost ethereal nocciola gelato on a family trip to Italy. The nauseating, early-morning bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and skim milk I found myself staring into upon news of my parents’ pending separation. My late grandmother’s seafood salad at Christmas. The open-season candy and junk stash at the Fabian’s house that I would look upon in wonder and help myself to generously, shocked that they would have such forbidden items so readily available in the first place.
I am moving today, and I'm proud to say that for the first time in my sort-of adult life, I was responsible and did most of my packing ahead of time, which is great -- except when I had to make food for myself for the week and I had virtually nothing left in my pantry save a canister of flour, a packet of yeast, and some kosher salt.
But luckily, sometimes that's all you need.
If you know me, then you'll know that I am adamant about how magical the process of bread baking is. Think about it: take some of the most unassuming ingredients out there, give it some a bit of your time, love, and patience, and next thing you know, it is ALIVE.
Yeah, bread is ALIVE. And then we EAT IT!! Every time I make it, I reel at the power I possess in those tiny, sacred moments.
Here's how to make home-brewed french press a little less daunting (and more tasty).
My father, a man who does not mess around with his morning caffeine fix, used to grind, press and brew his own espresso every morning before heading off for a busy day at the office. As a wild-haired child of two or three, I'd sit on the counter from time to time and act as his assistant, my young nose already keen on the rich, nutty aroma of freshly ground coffee, my grubby hands reaching for the occasional wayward bean to pop in my mouth.
I first started making bread in 2012. And I was terrible at it. My loaves, crafted lovingly with impatient, fumbling hands, resembled browned, misshapen hockey pucks. I didn't know about the importance of a good crumb then, and either I didn't know how sub-par they were or I didn't care, I was just excited to learn.
Cut to now, this week, and I have made two loaves of bread that when I sliced into them, I almost wanted to cry a little.
So good. Such an even crumb. The starter, just right, rendered the perfect amount of sourness.
Bread is the only thing, I realize, that I can have this much loving patience with.
It's been five years and a painfully slow and crawling process. I have made countless terrible loaves: overproofed, underproofed, too much salt, no salt at all, and have sat by, stupidly overjoyed as my poor friends chewed the inedible sponges, nodding in praise and approval.
But with the pounds and pounds of flour wasted, the starters I've mistreated and consequently killed, I've learned a lot. And here I am today, cultivating the most beautiful, healthy starter I have ever owned (her name is Madre) and whipping up no knead loaves with near-ease.
On Friday night, I pulled my bread out of the oven, the infallible smell filling Monica's tiny kitchen, and as I slathered the a steaming slice with butter, I recognized how every questionable loaf has led up to this shiny, beautiful sacred one, and the even better ones to come.
My mother once said that soup cures everything, and I'm counting on it.
Tonight is the longest night of the year, and I felt it. My body cramped and blood stained already faded stains of my underwear. Things just felt wrong all day, like I was half awake in a dream and I wasn’t able to do any of the things I needed to do to be alright. But it turns out, things are all right.
Tonight will be long and cold but I am going to make soup to celebrate. Matzoh ball soup. I roasted a chicken on Sunday night, something that always makes me think of my mother, although she always preferred to buy her chickens pre-roasted at the store. As soon as she got home, we would peel off the paper and pop off the plastic top of the packaging, savagely picking away at the crispiest bits of skin and the juicy, tender morsels of dark meat that clung to the wings and thighs. After a while, my mom would shoo me away, “I need this for the soup!” she would say.
My mother’s chicken soup is magic. It’s her cure for agita, she says. If she’s anxious, it’s likely you’ll find her in the kitchen over her bubbling cauldron, the aroma of stock and vegetables thick like steam in the air. When a friend’s mother got seriously sick, my mom made her soup. When there is a death, there’s soup. A cold day, a sick moment, a lull in time and space and a void in heart, there’s soup.
So tonight I make soup. Matzoh ball soup is part of me also, but not my mother’s part specifically. I spent countless passover dinners heaping my aunt’s homemade fluffy clouds into my bowl of steaming broth, savoring its airy exterior and dense, salty interior. With this comes the memory of the laughter of cousins, the absurd Passover puppets my uncle would make each year and the cloyingly sweet zing of Manischewitz on my young tongue.
Tonight I’m making soup. It’s an amalgamation of traditions that I’ve had with family that have morphed into something I want to be mine. I gather my ingredients, my vegetables and parsley, my garlic, and I lay them on the table nicely. I think about taking a picture but I dare not break the spell.
Next, I take out my chicken. While I managed to steal some perfect morsels when it first emerged from the oven Sunday, hot, moist and perfectly browned, I again steal some tender meat from a drumstick and drop the carcass into the pot with stock and water. On goes the heat, in goes the vegetables, the garlic, the parsley. I add a few heaping handfuls of salt and add some more. Several turns of ground pepper. Now that it has boiled, I turn it on low and wait for it to turn into something lovely.
Once the chicken is tender enough to fall apart, I carefully pull the steaming carcass from the pot and pick the juiciest pieces of meat, returning them to the soup. Before throwing it away, I thank the bird, now a sad pile of crumbling bones and marrow.
The matzoh balls were a first for me. I worked carefully and with curiosity, rendering the schmaltz, brown and flecked with browned butter, garlic and bits of chicken skin, then adding this to the matzoh meal with two eggs, a few pinches of salt, and dill. I let this chill in the fridge for an hour and using my hands, rolled small, sticky balls and plopped them into the soup. After 40 minutes, the matzoh balls began to expand and puff up.
It’s funny what loneliness does, makes you ache to define the parts of you that you always took for granted.