Post #58: Apples and Honey

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Late Afternoon

It has gone on like this for the longest while.  I jitter crazily  from moment to moment and  place to place only to finally stumble through the front door and bumble to the kitchen.  My anxiety is rising like a kettle shriek.   A haphazard glance through the cupboards, and then,  like an out of control tobbaganer careening down a mountain, I begin. A dissonant medley of ingredients tumble onto the counter — dried pineapple?  farro? cumin? pickled jalapeños?  along with  unnerving sleight of hand involving  knives, and somehow a steaming mound of something is piled on a plate. It’s edible, really it is, or at least it should be.   I stare. Oh please. Just eat it and be done with it and let’s get moving now, shall we? I don’t have time, I never have time. Things to do, things to  do, such important things to do!

But for once I don’t do. Instead  I stop. I can’t swallow the words.

What am I doing?

Where am I going?

What am I thinking?

And truly, what on earth am I eating?

I realize that I don’t just want “something.”  What I want is something else.

And so, this evening I decide to get it.

***

Early Evening

I look in the cupboards once again. How could I have not noticed? It’s all there. Lentils and rice,  cumin and coriander, turmeric and all spice and cinnamon. The ingredients were there, right in front of me,  if only I had taken the time to put them together.  I slowly swirl them, meld them into a whole.

The onions are slivered and sliced into circles of sweetness, the rounds jump roped, piled up together in little hills and savannahs.  Why is it that slicing onions never makes me cry?

A shiver of flour then  a sizzling safflower bath.  A short paper toweled repose.  A final jumble and the whole is complete.

A mound of Mujadara. 

A spoonful, or maybe two…time to go. That was the plan all along.

Still warm and swathed in kitchen towels, I carry my prize carefully to the car, the bowl nestled on my lap.

It doesn’t spill.

They were not expecting dinner. They were not expecting me. But there it was and I was there. Their favorite. Mujadara.

They ate and ate. I simply watched. And somehow I felt full.

The meal I didn’t eat was the meal I dreamed of, the one I gave away, of course  left the sweetest taste on my tongue.

***

Just before Dawn

Oh, perhaps a bit more! Greedy thing that I am.

I wake up dreaming of something sweet. I yearn for it. I need it. I want it.  I make my way downstairs in the darkness and throw my cupboards open wide once again. I’ve been good, I  can have anything I want!

And so I do. I am craving  the edible jewels of fall. Apples. Honey Crisp.  Macoun. Braeburn.  Winesap.  Snapdragon.   This early morning, while the sun still slumbers,  I choose the best of the best.

A Snapdragon.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it?  But somehow not. I hesitate and then reach back into the tumble of my cupboard. Ah.  Of course. A jar of honey. 

I cut my apple gently into the thinnest possible slices.  I need to make it last.   Slowly I drizzle the honey on top.   And then at last, at long last,  I take a bite.  The clean snap of possibility zings and the taste lingers tantalizingly on my tongue.  I won’t forget.

A new year begins when I need it to begin. 

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THE ART OF EATING (ALONE)

I was standing in line for my obligatory take out salad recently when I saw something remarkable.

A girl came into the restaurant by herself. She was holding a book. She took a seat at a table and after a glance at the menu placed her order. Then, with a contented sigh, she opened her book and began to read. She was completely immersed and didn’t look up until her order came. There it was, a thick waffle with whipped cream and fruit. She sighed and looked pleased.   She then put down her book , picked up her knife and fork and gave lunch her full attention.  She ate slowly and deliberately and I am assuming very happily.

It occurred to me, as I scurried out the door with my foil-wrapped salad (which I planned to eat in my car with a plastic fork, while simultaneously scrolling through emails) one of us was on the right track and it didn’t seem to be me.

I have eaten literally thousands of salads in my lifetime. And don’t get me wrong, salads are a great thing to eat, nice, crunchy, healthy whatever. Which is fine. That is, if what one truly craves is in fact a salad.

When had I last given a menu an actual reading with the thought of what I might actually like—or need—to eat? When had I last made a date with a book to sit alone and unfettered, to be catered to and fed whatever lovely food I craved? And when was it that I ate what I wanted to eat, rather that what I thought I would look good eating?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I am not sure I want to answer that. But I should.

Over the years I’ve been to my fair share of events and luncheons, snake pit like affairs rife with remarkably toned and impossibly lithe women. Events where mammoth trays of wrap sandwiches and “litely” dressed pasta salads remained untouched as everyone elbowed their way to the fruit tray.

The hardest of events to bear were the teacher recognition lunches at my childrens’ schools. The teachers, who ostensibly were being feted by the way, had to eat because they wouldn’t survive the working afternoon without sustenance. But eating a plate of food was humiliating for them because the moms sitting with them at table ate virtually nothing. How could they? People were watching. I used to think it might have been kinder, made more sense if we’d just skipped the formal lunch and gave everyone take out bags to grab and eat in the privacy of their own kitchens. Or for the teachers, in the privacy of their empty classrooms. But as far as I know that never happened.

But that kind of eating alone, furtively, guiltily, and shrouded in privacy, is the antithesis of the solitary lunch the girl in the restaurant was reveling in. There is no real joy in self-righteously mashing through sprouts in public when in the back of your mind you just know you’re going to dive head first into a half gallon of mint chip at 2 am in your dark and otherwise empty kitchen.

There are far weightier issues in the world than personal weight, but for most of us, weight is a load for us all to carry, no matter what number is on the scale. How could it not be? For most of us our self-image is inextricably bound to how thin, or how fat, we feel on any given day.

Most people will say when they’ve lost weight, “I’ve won the battle.” Which is a wonderful thing, I’ve been there too. But if anyone else is like me that sense of pride and power is shadowed by the fears of it all insidiously creeping back. I’ve been literally terrified by eating, post diet, afraid to add anything to my own “self-approved list of diet-friendly foods” (you may insert “salad” in this spot).

And I grimly munch away, not tasting anything that I am eating. Not really appreciating anything that I am eating. In thinking about that salad in my bag, full of things like mango and pumpkin seeds and kale, that I don’t really like any of it. It’s not what I need right now. It’s one of the reasons I am looking longingly at the girl with her hot, crisp waffle, covered in whipped cream.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Long before Iron Chef rattled that brilliant aphorism to roof of the absurd “Kitchen Stadium”, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was focusing not simply on the pleasures of food, but on proclaiming the power of what we eat as the essence of self. Or in my case, perhaps the transformation of self.

The girl in the restaurant knew this instinctively. She sat calmly, almost regally at her table, savoring the meal she craved most at that moment . She took her time, appreciating and really tasting everything in front of her. She was enjoying the best company of all. Her own. She was, in essence, being supremely kind to herself.

And so, it is clear. It is time to make a luncheon date with myself.

***

The title, by the way is an expansion the title of MFK Fisher’s unparalleled compedium THE ART OF EATING, which contains some of her finest work, including

Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet of Gourmets

The most sublime and miraculous of food writers, Fisher’s career began with her excellent English translation of Brillat-Savarins’s The Physiology of Taste.