Monday, September 19, 2011

In the Garden of the Muses

The Allegory of the Harvest, Alphonse Mucha

In the Northwest part of the United States, where I mostly live, the weather has taken on the characteristics of autumn, and so it is becoming its own Muse for my cooking.  But in order to allow the Muse latitude, there is a kind of openness to the spirit of the season required for the inspiration which comes from composing menus from what finds fresh and beautiful. To cook from the market and the earth is to leave behind the safety of set menus of well worn favorites, and embrace the spacious realm of harvest blessings. It is to give reign to the imagination and to pay respect to the beauty of the ingredients, gently coaxed.  Where I often shop, there was a great bin of organic butternut squash, but they did not yet have the full on voluptuousness they will a month from now. There were chanterelles, but not the cornucopia of various wild mushrooms which will soon appear.  We are in that delicious no-man's land between the hoped for Indian summer and fully ripened autumn, and the foods are not quite one or the other.  This no-man's land is a kind of spaciousness without the open heartedness that allows the acceptance of the gifts (we are still clinging to the waning summer). It is the space which makes room to receive, and it can sometimes seem a dark place of loss. I wondered, this morning, as I walked around the market, enjoying myself, that we are often deaf to the whispers of the Muses because we long for what we cannot have rather than delight in what we are given. A simple truth, yet one which haunts me.

This is also the season of the Vendange, the grape harvest, my favorite time of year to be in France, wherein the fruits of summer will be harvested and matured to something with far greater depth and complexity, such that the resemblance to the original grape juice is that of a shadow of its emerging Life. I drank an old Chateauneuf du Pape this weekend, that delectable wine from 13 different grape varietals, which has its own lore and history worthy of a posting here. It struck me, though, drinking it, that it was representative of the gift of the coming autumn: the contemplative season is upon us and there is this spaciousness, of emerging darkness, that allows the ambiance and the space for contemplation, the maturation that brings Life.  Gone for now are the light Rose wines, crisp and refreshing. Yet to embrace it we must for a time lose the sensuous pleasures of the warmth and light, and must work harder now for both. But enough of wine just now.  Still present on the groaning tables at the market were the fruits of summer, and the last of the heirloom tomatoes, and peaches, retaining yet their peak loveliness. I was like the lover, having lost her beloved to the darkness, and so held herself back from the pleasures of the new love out of a sense of loss for the old. I knew the harvest season was upon us, yet I clung to the sweet peaches and grapes. I mourned the sweet summer, which has all but departed, and so did not yet surrender to the beauty of the new season and all it offers, and all it might teach me by letting go of my own purposes and accepting its bounty. Still longing for dinner en plein aire, I was not yet ready for the hearth.

Nevertheless, the morning had been chilly, and I proved a fickle lover. The mounds of beautiful autumn produce drew me irresistably near, and I began composing menus in my head from the largesse in front of me. I imagined a Sunday "dinner" soon with osso bucco, one of my favorite dishes, served with risotto. Then I remembered the "restes" of the quail in my refer, and thought about a lovely risotto I could make with the quail and some roasted butternut squash. Or perhaps, the Muses now fully engaged, a fall pasta with sage rolled in between the layers, tossed with quail and roasted butternut squash. The squashes are beginning to be featured, and I thought about the delicious gratins which would soon emerge, bubbling and unctuous, from my oven, and the soups of squash and apple, with cardomon or cumin, fall indulgences. Perhaps a delicious squash flan made from pumpkin or butternut squash to begin, or a cheese souffle served as a first course with a simple salad dressed with garlicky vinaigrette. One of my favorite dishes is braised lamb shanks, which I recently had in a very good restaurant, as it was their specialty, and found disappointing, and so determined to make again soon, served with orrechiette pasta. One of my favorite dishes, a holdover from childhood, is fideus noodles, which my grandmother made for me in Europe: browned and broken vermicelli noodles, sauteed with onions until golden and then cooked in stock in a pan rubbed with garlic in broth until soft, and served with grated cheese, a dish I often make my children when they are feeling poorly. These are the dishes of autumn, composed while standing at the market table, gazing on the wonderful bounty. And they are only the beginning.

How is it that what seems as if it is growing darkness can hearken Life? We are nearly to the autumnal equinox; the word equinox itself is instructive, a derivative of the latin words for equal and night, which in my part of the world is less than a week hence.  If the days are half night, and soon to be more night than day, then we have more time in the darkness coming.  What will we do with this spaciousness, the vastness of long nights not filled with the easy living of summer loveliness?  When last I was in that wild and lovely place, Big Sur, I drove up our hill one night to the top, where the road cuts through a vast meadow, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and there is only darkness and stars.  There are very few lights at night in Big Sur, and those which can be seen cast no light around them. Getting out of my car, I was for a time completely overcome by a sense of vertigo, which was both physical and spiritual.  I had no bearings, though I knew quite well where it was I stood, but I could not feel its place. I felt cut loose in space and time, so much so that I began to feel very dizzy. I stepped into my car for a time, needing the close safety of the interior cocoon, and not wishing to address what had really unnerved me. For a few minutes, standing there beneath the fully visible milky way, hearing the roar of the ocean, I knew that the darkness I felt, my sense of having been stripped of direction or bearing, was a necessary step in my spiritual walk. He was beckoning to me to cut loose from the safety of the car and Trust him.

Do you know the myth of Cupid and Psyche? It is a lovely story, full of hidden meanings. I will not tell you all of it here, but one part is key to this discussion.  Psyche and her family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche's father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Psyche bravely follows the instructions and falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.  She lives happily with him, never seeing him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche's beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.  When she sees the beautiful Cupid asleep on her bed, she weeps for her lack of faith. Cupid awakens and deserts her because Love cannot live where there is no trust. It is this kind of trust which I knew was asked of me that night on the ridge in the dark.

I heard a fantastic sermon yesterday, the author of which took great pains to describe the Greek mind and its embrace of the religious quest to find God. Edith Hamilton, in her wonderful book The Greek Way, describes it this way: "Religion in Greece shows one of the greatest of what Schopenhauer calls the 'singular swing to elevation' in the history of the human spirit.  It marks the great stage on the long road that leads up from savagery, from senseless and horrible rites, toward a world still so very dim and far away that its outline can hardly be seen; a world in which no individual shall be sacrificed for an end, but in which each will be willing to sacrifice himself for the end of working for the good of others in the spirit of love with the God who is Love."

The pastor preaching yesterday described in graphic detail the wonder of the Athenian Areopagus, the best of the mediterranean, wherein the Greeks of Athens used to gather to debate all the important ideas.  Into this atmosphere came Paul, who had previously been blinded on that road to Damascus by a light so brilliant he was without sight for a time, and in the darkness that enveloped him, he began to See.  He had lost his sight of the present so that he might see the Eternal in the Present. Paul eventually travelled to Athens, to begin his journey to take this news into Europe for the first time, and in that mediterranean city, he is taken to the Aeropagus by the Stoic and Epicurean philsophers, anxious as they are to discover what new ideas he was presenting.  These philosophers ask him about his ideas and what they meant.  Paul then stands in front of the Aeropagus and says to the Greeks that he understands they are seeking God. He tells them he has looked carefully at the objects of their worship and that he recognizes how extremely religious they are. But there among their altars and statues is an altar to an Unknown God, and so he proclaims to them that this Unknown God,  "the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of Heaven and Earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands..."  Not even the Parthenon, that altar and temple to Athena, the beauty of which is unsurpassed, would house this God. But this same God, he tells them, allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live such that people would search for Him, and perhaps grope for him.  Paul quotes their own poets in saying that in "Him we live and move and have our being," and he has left his mark on our hearts.

For some time now, I have been practicing contemplative prayer, which is a kind of in the moment emptying of oneself, to make room for God's gifts.  These are not gifts which come to us because we conform God to what we would like him to be, to fit neatly into the temples of our lives in such a way as to make us Safe.   He is not Safe. We must embrace this spaciousness, the place of Unknowing, which offers to him the room to give us Himself.  In the vast silence which is entered in contemplative prayer, however briefly each day, we practice a kind of dying to ourselves, or surrender, that serves to remind us for the rest of the hours in the day that all of life is Gift, that its pleasures as well as sorrows are aspects of a Love so profoundly unyielding that it seeks us.  Yet to gaze on this Love from our perspective, hanging on for dear life to our small little worlds when the vast heavens are opening out before us, is to know true Awe, to shrink from the blinding light that changes Everything, if only we could bring ourselves to See.  We are focused on the loss of one season such that we cannot embrace the new Life unfolding before us.  And so we cannot receive its Gift.

So I am taking the dive into the autumn season to see where it may lead. A leap of faith into the approaching season of darkness, whose warmth is of a different sort. Tonight, I will use the quail left over from a weekend feast, and some of the butternut squash I bought today, and make fresh pasta for dinner. I think I will roll the pasta with the fresh sage I have in my new herb garden, and cut it into large ribbons, to toss with cubes of oven-roasted butternut squash, roasted until just carmelized, and the quail and its marinade, which had been reduced to make a sauce for the birds.  I might toss in some fresh arugula, too.  An autumn harvest dinner of game and squash and sage. The new season is upon us.

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