Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Slow Food

Table in the garden of the Muses at Unnamed House

In the introduction to her first book, Chez Panisse Menu Cooking, Alice Waters, the founder of the restaurant by the same name, and a woman with a superb palate and appreciation for the impact of ritual on life, writes about a scene in a film by Les Blank of the morning coffee ritual of an old Southern lady.  She writes: "We watch her reach into her store of coffee beans for a handful, which she puts into a pan on the stove to roast. When she is satisfied with the degree and depth of roast, she shakes the fragrant beans into a handcranked coffee grinder and proceeds to pulverize them into a cloth napkin filter.  Then she boils the water and pours it through a coffee-filled filter to produce a cup of coffee for herself--one you know must be wonderful. She sits and drinks her coffee in a totally intimate and relaxed manner, and eventually rises to wash out the napkin and hang it out to dry.  The ritual is important because she is making a celebration out of the act of making coffee for herself."  Hidden in this little vignette is a jewel: that secreted in life's keepings are much of its magic, and that the ritual with which we approach our everyday life, causing us to slow down and savor its making, unlocks graces of varying degrees.

The line from the Stevie Nicks' song, Landslide, "Time makes you bolder, and children, get older, and I'm gettin' older too..." played in my head this year, as I approached my 50th birthday.  In the past, I have often felt driven for a larger life, a larger venue on which to make an impact on the world.  Maybe it's the frustrated rock star in me, the girl who played and sang in a band and dreamed of life on stage. But in the past couple of years, I have begun to go back to my roots, and have found more and more that my true theatre is really in living deeply, and meaningfully, rather than largely, and maybe even the larger the life, the fewer chances to do that.  I think back on long summer holidays in the south of France and how the memories of these langorous days and nights, the long dinners on the lavender-filled terrace, listening to the cicadas and drinking wine with close friends, the talks I had with my children, the savoured walks through the vineyard paths, each have brought great riches to the months and years that follow, like a continuing gift.  Realizing that my children are growing up, and leaving behind the pure innocence of childhood, I have searched for a way to hang on to a last few idyllic summers with them.  And so this summer, we began to reconcile our summer lives with those of our remembered holidays. The holidays became the muse for our summer.

Instead of running errands continuously and driving all over town, we chose to use our car only one day a week, during which we did our large grocery shopping and ran any necessary errands. The rest of the time we walked or cycled as we would have in Europe, and my son became a consummate shopper on his bike: choosing the ripest organic nectarines and grapes, purchasing organic milk and eggs (which suffered a little for the handlebar delivery).  We discovered all sorts of treasures on our footsore adventures: setting up our French easels on the newly rennovated Spanish steps to sketch and paint the Port from a perfect outlook; a little Pho noodle shop; some enchanted forest paths filled with wild berries and birdsong.  My daughter has mastered the climbing of the Dawn Redwood in our backyard, and I have marvelled at her grace in scaling its heights. Even her attempts at cartwheels have improved dramatically, and she has revelled in her prowess for acrobatic feats on the lawns. I found I had time to walk each morning, something I have loved all my life but was too often crowded out by the haste. One of the things  I have particularly enjoyed about my walks in the mornings this summer has been the opportunity to see up close the number of people engaged in growing their own food.  There are victory gardens all over my hometown, and not only in a backyard plot, but in the full view of the front of the house space is cultivated for a "secret garden, hidden in plain sight" to quote the journalist Katrina Heron, describing the Victory Garden at the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco.  Even the schools past which I roam have raised beds, lush with crops ready for harvest. Had we not slowed down our summer, we would have missed most of the pleasures we discovered. And some of these pleasures came from others who have slowed down to grow and harvest, and so to reap. 

So, too, in the keeping of the house has this 'slow' approach manifest an abundance of pleasure. Rather than a frenzied dash here or there, the slower pace has allowed for the pleasures of a clothes line in the service garden, where sheets which are laundered with lavender water are then hung on the line to gather the scent of the breezes before being ironed and tied with a French blue ribbon, linen closet bound. Some days, I have simply put them back on the beds after ironing them, so we might all savor the fresh scent of summer as we drifted off to sleep. My summer whites and linens have enjoyed the same treatment, as have my kimonos, and the pleasure of wearing one of those crisply ironed white blouses or a breeze-scented kimono before bed has graced my summer. Even those French unmentionables have benefitted from their hours of sunlight. The house is filled with beautiful music: pieces composed for a garden fete at Versailles by Lully, collections of ballads, the Bach Brandenberg concerti; La Mer by Debussy, Ella singing Cole Porter, Neil Young. The dinner concert has been the subject of much discussion, and my son is now putting his own play lists together in hopes the dinner hour will welcome his Owl City or Jack Johnson favorites.   My daughter has become quite skilled at various kinds of flower arrangements, cut from garden shrubs, which grace the rooms of our house. And the rooms have been picked up, mopped and dusted nearly every day, to make up for the lovely luxury of open windows and cool rooms, and this itself is a luxury of cleanliness and serenity.  The serenity allows room to listen, and makes a haven away from the chaos of life.

Perhaps the truest theatre of my everyday life, however, is that of dinner, the actors of which are my family, and too rarely my close friends, and the Script the sharing of our day together as the dusk cloaks the sun and we are wrapped in that delicious fairy light of shadow and alpenglow. In our family, dinner is a 'thing,' as my son references it. It is the focal point of our day, when we all come together at table, candles blazing.  It is the consummate daily ritual, for which a lot of thought is given and effort invested. The daily menus are a source of much family discussion, and though I am chef, I am chef for a family table for which everyone contributes suggestions and ideas, and offers critiques of the menus lovingly prepared by the resident cook. Carlo Pettrini, the Italian leader of the global movement "Slow Food", to promote the unhurried pleasures of the table, argues that "Chefs... should cook for a village, teach children, feed old people in [care] homes, prepare food in hospitals. The cook is a social being. Now we have an overdose of recipes, recipes, recipes - this television bombardment is pornographic. Traditionally making food is an act of love, and there is a difference between pornography and making love."  He goes on to argue: "Eating is no longer about love, but about consuming fuel. A woman cooks some food, and no one smiles at her or says thank you. Neither is there any fascination with food. In Mediterranean Europe, there is still that fascination, still the conviviality, the ritual. The most important thing about eating is to enjoy the moment of affection between family members, or friends or work colleagues. A civilisation that loses this ritual becomes very poor. It's especially important for children to learn again how to experience communal eating."  Bravo, Mr. Petrini, a man, who, incidentally, I would like very much to meet.  One summer night, when a close friend was staying with me visiting, along with her daughters, we decided to have an impromptu dinner under the stars to celebrate her visit. Her daughter and my son set a long table of their own design under some twinkling lights, which they hung like stars above the table, and added a white cloth and green French bistro chairs.  The menu was composed of things purchased from the farmers' market earlier, and the feast had many hands lovingly preparing the courses in my kitchen, and we invited close friends and their children.  The rustic food, flowing wine and fading light, made for rich conversation, the likes of which I hadn't had in a long time, and reminded me of nights in French Switzerland with my grandparents and cousins, drinking cognac and discussing philosophy until all hours. The ritual of slow food helps us listen to each other, I think. And this is the beginning of Love.

The food need not be complicated or precious. Though I am trained in more formal cooking, it is often the slow, rustic dinners that capture my heart. This summer, my son has become a superb pasta maker, and can turn out a plate of fresh pasta in 15 minutes, having allowed the dough to rest first.  But it is much nicer when we sit together at the marble breakfast table and roll it out together, liesurely talking of his latest design for a Rokenbok bridge or the fort he is planning to construct on our next trip to Big Sur, or even his impressions of Robinhood, which he has just finished reading during our hour long reading sieste, on the chaise lounges in the Muse garden each day after lunch.  Sometimes he even asks me what I think of the book I'm reading, and this has led to some wonderful conversations about theology, poetry, history and mystery. A couple of times each week, we make pizza dough together, letting it rise slowly all the day long, covered with a clean dish towel, which is the secret to its flavor. Bread dough is a magic all its own, and in good bread is all the wonder and mystery of redemption, of Life and Health. It is so simple to make, and there are endless variations: you can substitue a little whole wheat flour to make it slightly chewier or heartier, but I like it simple best.  Take 3/4 cup of warm water and add to it a package of yeast, sprinkling it on top, and a little milk or a little sugar--just a couple of teaspoons of milk or a slight teaspoon of sugar to give the yeast a little food. Let it stand a minute, and then add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and a couple of cups of 00 flour. If you dont' have any 00 flour, just use bread flour, or even all purpose flour.  Bring it together and kneed it for 8-10 minutes, and then put it in a ceramic bowl brushed with a little olive oil, covered with a clean dish towel, and let it rise, in moderately warm place all the day long.  When it is time for dinner, roll it out with a little more flour so that it is not sticky, first into a smooth ball, then pressed with your fingers to make a round disk, then rolled out with a pin or stretched if you know how to do this. Put it on a pizza pan, and brush it with olive oil and sprinkle it with sea salt. From here on out, you can add whatever toppings you like best, but keep it simple. Sometimes I just add a little garlic to the olive oil to perfume it, and sprinkle on chopped rosemary with the seasalt, and serve with the aperitifs.  Simple pies are best.  Bake in a 500 degree oven, well heated, on a stone if you like, or just on the pizza pan.  Or make little pies and top them, hot from the oven with a cold salad vinaigrette for a delicious piadini you can fold and eat like a sandwich.  This is food fit for a king, or for any and every man, or woman, or child. Slow Food. Lovingly prepared.

As I was reflecting on all of this over the long holiday weekend, I was reminded of the counsel given me by my Spiritual Director, not long after making his acquaintance.  He is a wise man, and an Anglican priest, and he has helped me significantly in the time I have known him, more from his own approach to embracing Life with a capital L than from his lessons, though they, too, have brought a great wealth to my own Life.  I wrote him a letter, intending to tell him all the reasons I really did not need his help after he had graciously offered it, which speaks volumes about my own pride.  Yet, in the writing of this letter, something happened to my heart. Looking back, I can only say it was Grace, breaking in, that opened the door.  I heard something which stopped me long enough to listen to my heart. In his first instructions to me (he is rather directive, which has itself been a lesson for independent, self-reliant annie!), he said only three words: "annie, Slow Down!"  He has been teaching me to Listen, and while it is still not and never has been my strong suit, I have learned that the real jewel of our everyday rituals, whether in making our morning coffee or walking or preparing dinner together, is the opportunity to Listen with my heart, yes, to my family and my friends, but also to Him, who has called us his Friends.  There is a kind of meditation which comes from Listening, if only we can slow down long enough to practice it.  Written on each of our hearts is the theme which runs through all of Creation, and which points to the Reality behind the everyday reality of what we see and do and feel.  In the melodies of this meditation is written the music of Heaven.  Another wise man recently suggested to me that to meditate each day is a kind of self-emptying, the practice of which is a lesson in surrender (to lose our lives to find them, as Jesus said), useful as a reminder for the remainder of the day.  I think he is correct in this. But I know for myself, that slowing down the pace of my life has opened my heart. And that is the beginning of Love breaking in.  Slow Food.

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