Friday, September 30, 2011

Les Tres Riches Heures

October, from Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry
Tilling the Field, the Louvre in the Background

The autumn is truly upon us now, and as September is nearly over and October dawning, I thought I would offer the October page from a book called Les Tres Riches Heures, or The Very Rich Hours, first put together in the medieval era.  I will try to do this at the start of each month, so you might see a full year of these pages.  Do you know the idea of a book of hours?  The concept is a lovely one, and something to consider as part of breathing in deeply and savoring the rhythm of a day.   The book of hours was a devotional book popular in the later Middle Ages. It remains the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, according to the whim and fancy of the patron who commissioned the work.  Most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with beautiful illustrations, which can be used as a little devotional, and a way to pray through the hours of the day.  Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures.  The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of a prayer cycle recited in monasteries. It was developed for people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers.

The book of hours as a meditation tool had its origin in the Psalms, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season. Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours.  I have always loved the way in which the book follows the seasons of the church calendar, and as you will notice over the next few months, each stunning page incorporates elements of the season at hand. Today, there is a movement to reintroduce some elements of monastic life into the spiritual life of ordinary believers, and this beautiful little custom, a kind of rosary in effect, is perhaps one example of what might be a meaningful addition to a diet of contemplative prayer and meditation. 

There are a number of very sweet aspects to this medieval practice.  Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride.  I think this is a particularly lovely custom, and find it hard to imagine a more fitting wedding gift.  A gift of this sort is a means of investing your intended spouse with riches that can't be measured in material terms, but call to mind the concept of Kairos, or in effect the gift of gentler hours, which were encouraged to be spent in meditation and prayer. To offer your wife-to-be a book of beautiful prayers, selected for her, seems a lovely start to a marriage. Frequently these books were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.  They were treasures, as books were exceedingly rare, and since they were all hand made and decorated, they were very dear. Although the most heavily illuminated books of hours were enormously expensive, a small book with little or no illumination was affordable much more widely, and increasingly so during the 15th century. By the 15th century, various stationer's shops mass-produced books of hours in the Netherlands and France. By the end of the 15th century, the advance of printing made books more affordable and much of the emerging middle-class could afford to buy a printed book of hours.

Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, but more often the texts are adapted to their tastes or sex, including the inclusion of their names in prayers. Some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar and suffrages, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner.

Often, I have wanted to make my own, and have it copied for my friends.  A beautiful example of this book of hours, and by far my favorite, is a medieval book first commissioned by the Duc de Berry, in the fifteenth century, called Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.  It is perhaps the most beautiful example of an "illuminated" manuscript from the medival era in existence, that is, a series of texts, the letters of which are embellished and the borders intricately decorated.  Since I was a child I have been fascinated by the concept of a book of hours, and it was not long before I began to try to make my own. More than anything, I loved sitting at my desk in my bedroom, or on some high mountain meadow, with my pencils and paints, and attempting to "illustrate" the borders of calendar, something I have carried into my adult life, using watercolors and various themes to make an annual miniature calendar for my friends and family.  The last couple of years have been so busy, I have not had time to do one, but this year, again, I hope to do one in the spirit of a book of hours, incorporating a beautiful little liturgy.

Even the fashioning of the book has a romantic heritage. The principal work of illumination was sometime between 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg brothers, who were known as highly gifted illuminators. The text, border decorations, and gilding were most likely executed by assistants or specialists who remain mostly unknown. The Limbourg brothers left the book unfinished and unbound at their, and the Duke's, death in 1416. The work passed to the Duke's cousin, the royal art lover and amateur painter René d'Anjou, who had an unidentified artist, the so-called Master of the Shadows, work on finishing the book, but even he did not complete it.   The October page, pictured above, is from this Master of the Shadows, quite a name for an artist!  The entire book was not finally finished until the 1440s.  When it was done, it included a generalized calendar (not specific to any year) of church feasts and saints' days, often illuminated, is a usual part of a book of hours, but the illustrations of the months in the Très Riches Heures are exceptional and innovative in their scope, and the best known element of the decoration of the manuscript. Most of them show one of the duke's castles in the background, and are filled with details of the delights and labors of the months, from the Duke's court to his peasants, a counterpart to the prayers of the hours. Each illustration is surmounted with its appropriate hemisphere showing a solar chariot, the signs and degrees of the zodiac, and numbering the days of the month and the martyrological letters for the ecclesiastic lunar calendar.  In this book are also little pictures and vignettes of important occasions and aspects of church history meant to be inspiring. Following is an illustration of the baptism of Augustine, one of the great minds and souls in the history of the Church.  You can see the beautiful lettering and highly decorative nature of the page.  They form a kind of icon, or window one might look through, to see the Heavenly Reality behind the image.

It would be equally fun to assemble a cookbook of hours, following the calendar year, which was particular to the traditions and pleasures and customes of our own families.  For some time, I have been collecting my favorite things to eat in a journal, as well as old family dinners and recipes, and I would like to make a little culinary book of hours, with menus for each month, published as a kind of liturgy of the table as a gift for my children.  In this way, the gentle, very rich hours passed a table would be even more meaningful, part of this liturgy of family handed down from one generation to another.  The hours are richer for the layers of meaning which these shared memories bring.  Last Christmas, a beloved aunt sent me a little package containing some of my grandmother's collected recipes, and when I paged through these, the memories of my grandmother flooded my consciousness with such clarity, almost as if I could touch her.  I know my aunt had a similar experience when she first discovered them.  These memories are our muses, for the muses were first born of memory.

Perhaps this is part of why we take the time to pray through the hours of the day, that in each hour, reciting some beloved prayer, God is able to draw nearer to our hearts because they are opened to him, not unlike my heart, opened to the memory of my beloved grandmother by the simple physical touch of a recipe she had also touched, and upon which she made margin notes so long ago.  We have inside of us a created memory of a kinship with God, for which we were created, and which was given us to act as Muse, born of memory in Kairos time, to awaken our hearts. Some of the richest hours of my life have been at table.  I know of nothing which reflects love more fully than the simple hospitality of the table with friends, or family, or even the stranger knocking at the door, the least of these as unto Him. With each season comes a fresh menu of riches that makes leaving the season behind a cause for joy for the anticipation of what is to come. I think that God has invited us to feast at his table, and our very rich hours with him, taking in food for our souls, brings life to the calendar, such that each month is a celebration of the seasons of our Life in Him.

I wish you all a lovely weekend of very rich hours. Tonight, I am going to make my famous meatloaf, which is made from ground pork, veal and beef, and augmented with fresh herbs, baked with rashers of bacon, and served with whipped potatoes, the way my American grandmother used to make them.  Over the weekend, I plan to roast a chicken with some polenta croutons, and for Sunday dinner, some braised short ribs. The season of braises has begun.  I will tell you about these meals in the blogs next week. A bientot, mes amis. Happy Cooking!

Post Script: I have a young, very promising (and well trained) theologian friend who has a new and wonderful blog, which you can find to the right of the posting here, Seeing More Clearly, Knowing More Dearly. Check it out. It's terrific.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fortune's Remedy

One of my favorite things to do on Sunday at my house in Big Sur, if I don't drive in to Carmel to the Anglican church there, is to walk up the ridge to the top and bring my Book of Common Prayer and read aloud through the service for the week.  There are many aspects of this that are meaningful.  The liturgy is beautiful, and in their reading are echoed thousands of years of Church history, as if my voice reached less across the ocean I see from the top of the ridge and more across the waves of time not anchored in what the ancient Greeks called Kronos, the relentless passing of minutes and hours, but in Kairos, that gentler flow of God's hours that nurtures my soul, from eternity and back again.  I have written before about Kronos and Kairos and the way in which the time at table is a kind of hearkening of eternal Kairos, moments that nurture our souls.  The little prayer book that accompanies me is also a thing of beauty, given to me by a close friend and mentor, and covered in white French Moroccan leather.  I love its simple beauty in word and form.  Then there is the sheer exultant Beauty of God's creation, visible as far as the eye can see, headlands where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the sea in a spectacular coast unmatched in few places in the world.  And yet, as much as I love this, and find in nature's grandeur here a magnificent cathedral, I miss the uplifting singing of hymns, and when I am again hiking down the road, I invariably have one hymn or another in my head as I walk. 

As long as I have attended worship services, both in the United States and in Switzerland and France, it has been the music which has most often spoken to my heart. There is something about hymns that capture two forms of art: music and poetry, which transcend the raw ingredients of their composition and act as a kind of window into the eternal, much as a sacrament does.  Augustine famously said that the one who sings prays twice, in word and in song.   It is as if we take songs in, drink them into our souls and their melodies do indeed hearken the angels, who guard our quieter hours, singing in unison with us to the music in our hearts. It is not hard to see why this is, even through a glass darkly, for the heart of song is praise, that end for which mankind was created: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The early Christians often sang in monophonic chant--one melody sung in unison-- and believed it was this uniting of their voices as one voice that called the angels to join with them. Today we still sing those old Gregorian chants, and we also sing in polyphonic style, or many voices, but I suspect the angels are no less present for the harmony. 

Singing this way is a heavenly participation which requires us to employ our physicality as an offering of sorts: to breathe deeply and engage our voices, and our very lifebreath in the act of worship, and this participation reveals a joy that wells up in the middle, something not often experienced simply listening.  As James K. A. Smith argues in his book Desiring the Kingdom, if being a participating member of society is reflected by one's ability to speak the language, music is the language of the Kingdom of God.  It "knits a vision into our bodies," which I would argue is as much significant for its physicality as its transcendence. Songs and their lyrics live in our minds and hearts long after they are sung, and like many people, I find both rolling around in my subconscious once the service is over with far greater frequency than the homily, and their melody continues to haunt my consciousness when I am home cooking Sunday dinner. I can recall the pure experience of joy remembered, too, as I cook, a kind of shared experience of heaven the sound of which echoes through my head.  It has always seemed an appropriate marriage: music and the table.

One of the differences between the hymns in America or England as contrasted with those I in which I have often sung in France is that unlike our largely major key harmonization, there is a sonority to French hymns that incorporates a dissonance I have long admired. It seems to perfectly capture the joy and the pain or sadness, both of which are a part of love, for we taste heaven, but do not yet inhabit its streets, and the path along which we walk in preparation is strewn with sorrows, as is all of life.  However, having said that, beautiful it also is, as we are slowly undergoing a transformation, which is a source of great Hope.  In the fourteenth century, a musician by the name of Guillaume de Machaut, who has written much music I love because it shares this love of dissonant echoes, and reflects the medieval Courts of Love and the music of the medieval troubadours of Provence (who understood love in this same way), began to introduce a new style called ars nova (new art) which injected considerable complexity into the polyphonic (many voice) form, such that the two or more voices began to be fashioned almost as if they were at war, one with another. They appear at war, and yet their intersection, point and counterpoint, reveal a stunning beauty.  I think this, too, is akin to our walk in life, for it is often the hardship of our life, at war with our pleasure, that fashions in us a rare and holy beauty, a new harmony or wellbeing.  New forms of harmony, incorporating this dissonance also appeared.   When I read of this, I am always reminded of the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, who wrote a wonderful book of poems entitle "Love and Other Difficulties," which a friend gave me long ago. Exactly, I think.  We have not yet learned to bear Love's beams and so find its embrace not quite the peaceful place we yet imagine. But Love Hopes.

Guillaume de Machaut was the century's acknowledged master of these and several other forms, both musical and poetic. Born around 1300 in Champagne, Machaut took holy orders and received an appointment as secretary to John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia in 1323. This glorious knight, killed at Crécy in 1346, travelled extensively with Machaut in tow. Having begun as a trouver, traveling minstrel of sorts, Machaut returned to Rheims some time before John's death, where he had been granted a canonicate at the Rheims cathedral, highly unusual for someone who began as he did. During these years he wrote a number of motets, lais, ballades, virelais, some as part of his long narrative poems. He was later associated with John's daughter Bonne, wife of Duke John of Normandy, who died during the plague of 1349. His next close relationship was with Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, while in later life he received the patronage of King John the Good of France and his even more famous son, Jean, Duc de Berry. He died at Rheims in April of 1377.

While the extent and capabilities of Machaut's audience is not known, it is certain that his immediate audience was among the courts of the leading families of France. Like the poetic contemporaries and predecessors, his central theme, particularly in the narrative poems (or dits amoreaux) was Love, particularly courtly love.  Machaut's poem Remede de Fortune is perhaps the best known among musicologists and their literary colleagues.  Shall I tell you this story of the Remedy of Fortune? Briefly, the story line of Remede is this: after a short prologue introducing the recurring theme of Love and the Lady as educators of the artist, we are introduced to the youthful poet narrator, whom we shall call Amant.  Amant, thinking he was already educated in the ways of Love, has written a lai for his Lady.  The music for this scene allowed Machaut the poet to display his mastery of the poetic form while allowing Machaut the musician to use an example of an older musical form (ars antiqua) for quite another purpose. Amant, who sings, has not yet learned to be a lover. He was a callow youth with all the passion and lack of wisdom and perspective of youth. His song reflected this with its length, its overabundant and extravagent melodic variations, and it's reliance on archaic, thus uneducated, note forms. Amant is each of us and all of us, trying to learn the melodies of love, but stuck in archaic forms.  We need more glimpses of heaven's great promise of Hope to hear the new music.

The lady in our story discovers this work but does not realise who has written it. By chance (or by Providence or Fortune) she asks Amant to read the song (poem) to the court. He does so but is so overcome with the fear that she will realise he is the author that he fleas the court in emotional disarray. Lamenting on his sorrows, he enters the walled Park of Hesdin and there composes a complaint, railing against Fortune and Love. Exhausted by these events, he falls into a stupor but discovers that a beautiful but not quite human lady is sitting beside him. She disputes his opinion of Fortune and Love and sings a chanson roial detailing the joys of love. She completes her song and gives him a ring to cheer him. She then tells him that she is Hope, the friend of all lovers. Comforted, Amant asks for more advice, whereupon she sings a baladelle in praise of Love.  This piece is sung by Lady Hope. As she is the source of learning for Amant, and thus the key figure in the poem, it at first seems odd that her chanson roial is both monophonic and in the old style. But it must be remembered that the poem is by and about the Amant voice. As he has not yet learned of the joys of love so the listener cannot yet hear the new sound. Hope's song, though, is in marked contrast to Amant's creations in its lilting rhythm and light tone, suggesting the developments yet to come. We are again like Amant, only beginners in the joys of love, and so do not always hear the new sounds of its song.

Having learned from Hope, Amant returns to the court, composing and singing a ballade along the way. Hope appears to him once more to reassure him. As he returns he comes upon the Lady and her court dancing. She sees him and asks him to join the dance and sing for them. He does so without hesitation, composing and singing a virelais.  At first it seems surprising that Machaut has chosen to use a monophonic style to fulfill this task. But upon consideration the wisdom of this choice can be seen. Amant shows his developing maturity by choosing to sing not something to show off his virtuoso talents or his extravagent passion, but something fitted to the occasion: a simple dance tune. He is learning the humility that is a sign of the true embrace of Love. In the end, Amant sings: "Lady, my heart stays with you," which is not only a parting phrase but an expression of hope (or proof that he has learned from Hope's teaching). Once again the simple lyric does not do justice to the complexity of the musical rendering. The interplay between voices as leading tones keep the melodic line moving smoothly through the wandering yet controlled dissonance. Thus, while the youthful inexperienced lover has himself been transformed, so, too, the composer has shown the transformation of musical form.

Amant returns with the Lady to the court where she has provided a meal and entertainment for her companions. After this Amant has the opportunity to speak to her, whereupon he declares his love. The Lady declares her love for him and Hope appears to bless them. Departing from the court, Amant, in his joy, composes a rondelet. He returns to join the court in a tournament and sees his Lady looking at someone else. Consumed with jealousy he tasks her with her deed. She replies that she only did so to divert attention from them. He decides to trust her due to the lessons he has learned from Hope and the Lady.

Love Hopes.  And it is the music of worship which often helps us to hear the Hope in our hearts.  When we begin to see this hope, we begin to find the Greek eudemonia (the proper care and feeding of one's soul to find wellbeing) of which I wrote yesterday: we begin to flourish because we have embraced the Life, the great Hope in Him which sets the poetry of life to music.  If joy, praise and thanksgiving are the true expression of human fulfillment, if humans were truly made to glorify and enjoy God forever, then singing is a way that praise can transpose ordinary life to a higher level without losing what is good at the other levels. It combines discipline,and precision with a great liberation of body and imagination, in much the same way that cooking is a kind of hymn to creation and love.  Cooking requires this same discipline, such that the raw ingredients are transformed into an experience at the table that liberates our hearts and feeds us, as if we stood still in time.  Like the hymns of praise, there is a moment, in the words of Samuel Wells in God's Companion, "when those who have 'stood still, looking sad' (Luke 24:17) are rejeuvenated, and eyes that are downcast are raised on high", and can see and hear, and take in fully the art around them.  They have experienced a window into heaven, and heard the voices of the angels. They have begun to learn to embrace Love.
The table has a redeeming power over hearts, and can teach the true embrace of Love.  In the same way that songs live on in our hearts, so do meals, which are remembered and recreated in our hearts until they assume a liturgical significance which far exceeds the food itself.  In the movie Babette's Feast, this mystical redemption of the human spirit occurs at the table, and the chef who cooked the superb meal is described as an angel who had the ability to turn a meal into a love affair, where there was little distinction between righteousness and bliss.  In other words, at table we might begin to be redeemed and transformed by Love to see the Hope of Heaven's promise. Ultimately, it is not the food which is transformative, but the food feeds our soul such that we experience a love affair at table that opens our hearts to its music, just as music in worship opens our hearts to God who created us and redeemed us for Himself. This is reminiscent of the singing of the early church, in which it was believed the angels joined their voices, such that we might hear heaven's melody.

As for  tonight's table at The House which shall be Unnamed, I am planning a dinner to honor the coming autumn and yet recognize the beautiful end of summer day we are having: we will begin with a little heirloom tomato salad with rocket (arugula) and tapenade toasts.  The next course will feature two little fried oysters, cooked according to David Tanis' (of Chez Panisse fame) recipe in today's New York Times, and served with rouille.  Finally, I will make a little oven roasted potato, chanterelle, shallot, bacon and green bean warm salad over which to serve some grilled salmon with a tomato buerre blanc.  This will be followed by fresh fruit and cheese. Perhaps it will be Fortune's Remedy?  Now as for the music? Stay tuned.
Happy Cooking mes amis. May you find Lady Hope. A bientot a table..

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Good Life (Lessons of a Rag Doll and a Chicken Dinner)

The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory saga in my daughter's fourth grade classroom is not yet complete, and for the past couple of days, and reaching back to the weekend, she and I have been engaged in fashioning a doll from one of the characters in the book, her class assignment. Not wanting to make a paper doll or a wooden doll or a foam doll, as many in her class were doing, she wanted to make an old-fashioned rag doll, the kind with which a girl might cuddle. I realised, not long after she described the process to me in minute detail, that her passion for the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books she read over the summer was probably responsible for this desire, though she has always appreciated dolls.  What I hadn't fully anticipated was the degree to which the making of the doll would bring her tremendous joy and pleasure.

Like many fortunate girls her age, she has a collection of dolls, mostly French and nearly all with French names, at least two of which I have purchased for her in Paris: Lisette, Marie-Solange, Yvette, among others.  She has an American girl doll as well, which Santa brought to her last year and which her grandmother outfitted with beautiful hand knit dresses which fit into a suitcase dresser.  These are beautiful dolls, all, and are outfitted with gorgeous Liberty dresses she and I have made (from fabric scraps left over from her dresses) on Saturday afternoons, once the rooms are clean.  In the process, she has become quite skilled at design, and has definite ideas about how a dress should be cut and what beauties should adorn it.   As you would expect, she regularly holds dolls' tea parties in her room, dolls propped up on all the chairs, and having attended many myself, I can only comment that they are magical in every sense.  For a girl not terribly fond of collecting or accumulating things, this is one exception. For it is the loveliest of things to see a child delighting in make believe, and the conversations between the dolls are priceless, in broken French (which is very limited, but expertly accented), and English.  They are surely not the only, but must be among the few dolls regaled with elaborate lessons on how to "Pestify" one's big brother (in classic tomboy style), followed by a sermon on the Beatitudes or a discussion of what we know of God, followed by cooking lessons, fashion tips and charm lessons (complete with books on heads to learn proper posture). These dolls are getting an education akin to the finishing school sort which my grandmother received several generations ago! Our favorite book to read each Christmas together is the beautiful Tasha Tudor book "A Doll's Christmas," which has inspired many projects at The House which shall be Unnamed, and lives in our collective imagination long after the holidays have come and gone.  Chiefly, this little volume is about delighting in simple pleasures and handmade things of beauty, and it is this inclination which is responsible for her desire to make a rag doll the in "the old way."

We ended up making two dolls, as the first one came out too small to meet the detailed specifications given by my daughter's teacher, so the process was a little more involved than I had planned.  In keeping with the rag doll tradition, my daughter decreed that the doll had to be made of rags and "old things," so we cut up an old sheet and pillow case for the body and stuffing, and she removed the hand tatted lace from the old case, which had sadly ripped in the laundry not long ago. Thus, yesterday afternoon, she was ripping up the old sheet into yet more ribbons of fabric to stuff into the doll she had designed, cut and sewn (with a little help).  As she had decided on Violet as her character, her characterization included lavender button eyes and a round mouth which she drew on with infinite care, as well as golden hair with curls all around her face. We made a Violet dress with all the trimmings, which she designed herself, and a little purse, complete with a gum wrapper protruding, which you may recall if you have read the book is Violet's chief distinction: her love of chewing gum (the louder the better).  The pure delight became increasingly apparent on my daughter's face as the doll began to take form, and once the head and arms and legs were stuffed, she squealed with joy, commenting that she had got the legs "just right" and the face "perfect." I asked her if the Violet in the book had such a serene countenance, and she countered that she wasn't about to cuddle at night with a frowsy faced doll, and besides, it was no longer her grade on the project that mattered. Violet mattered.  Enough said.  I am quite sure that not even the chic dolls from Paris were nearly so well appreciated and loved as that beautiful rag doll, which made we wonder afresh if we do our children any favors with ready made gifts when the gift of an afternoon with Mother, creating something from scraps and rags that becomes beautiful before one's eyes isn't a far better gift and a life lesson to boot.  Of course, Violet accompanied my daughter to bed last night, easily more important than preserving her pristine appearance for the class submission.  A doll can't be a doll sitting on a shelf, I was told, significantly. A Doll must be cuddled to be Real.  Love makes her come to Life.  Everyone knows a Lifeless doll cannot be properly presented at class.  Yes, Ma'am!

As is often the case with these undertakings, we both lost track of time, and when the phone rang, I realised that I hadn't even thought about dinner, so engrossed had we been in the doll making. Knowing that nearly all the members of my family had had a long and tiring day, I wondered what I might create at this late hour to soothe the ravages of the onslaught of homework, classes, long hours at work without much reprieve for weeks, and hunger at this late hour.  ("Mom, I see No signs of dinner, my son reminded me).  "Go and set the table and  light the candles, Cherie," I said to my daughter, and I began to think along the lines of food for the soul. To my son, I suggested he turn on the oven.   Unprompted, he also opened a bottle of champagne and poured me a glass, toasting Violet's emerging life as he did so (entranced himself at what had come of the rags and scraps) and commenting that it was not everyday we had such an August birthing in our house. Out from the refer came some skinless chicken breasts, some haricots verts, and some arugula; from the pantry, some beautiful little French fingerling potatoes, and from my fruit bowl on the table, a red and yellow heirloom tomato. We sprang into action, bolstered by the champagne (Orangina for the urchins) aperitif. 

The first thing I did was to cut the fingerlings in half, toss them with olive oil, seasalt and chopped, fresh herbs and roast them in the oven at 400 degrees.  I made a little saffron aioli to accompany the chicken and the potatoes and the make shift salad.  I pounded the chicken breasts with my French rolling pin and dipped them in egg wash and then in some breadcrumbs I made in the food processor with stale bread, salt and pepper. This went into a medium hot copper fry pan, to which I had added both some oil and butter, once it had reached a hot enough temperature to prevent holding my hand over the pan comfortably. I then seared the breasts on each side until golden, but not cooked, and put them on a platter into the oven, which I had turned off.  The residual heat from the potatoes, which were not done, was more than sufficient to finish cooking the chicken to perfect tenderness and moistness, and when they emerged they were golden, gorgeous, meltingly tender and perfectly done.  On a big, white, oval Apilco platter, I put a layer of stunningly beautiful, dark green arugula, and around the edges my son arranged alternating slices of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes. Then he drizzled both with a light stream of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled on some sea salt. On top of this masterpiece, we placed the pounded and breaded chicken and the fingerling potatoes and scattered the whole with a few more finely chopped fresh herbs.  Finally, we put the haricots verts, which had been simply cooked in generously salted water and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, on each side of the platter. The presentation was gorgeous, but the food was even better, complemented by the saffron aioli, which was equally good with the greens as it was the chicken and fingerlings.  We all sat in the dining room, candles blazing, listening to the music of Lully (Divertisements de Versailles), drinking a Cote de Ventoux from Provence, and allowing all the stress of the day to ebb away. As she was served, my daughter said "This is just Wonderful Food.  We have a Good Life."  I thought how much pleasure came of that simple and simply prepared dinner, and it seemed to echo the simple joy of the rag doll project. Love made us come to Life, just as my daughter had said of Violet.

Philosophers have long debated the meaning of the good life. Since ancient times, there has been much discussion of what constituted happiness, or perhaps a better word, well being.  Eudaimonia or eudaemonia, from the ancient Greek, sometimes Anglicized as eudemonia , is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing" has been proposed as a more accurate translation.   Socrates, largely captured by the philospher Plato, argued that true eudaimonia is the proper care and feeding of one's soul, from which virtue is a necessary outpouring.  Aristotle later argued that Arete, or excellence in accordance with reason was the ideal human state of being, and that while virtue was necessary, it was not sufficient to achieve eudemonia.  Other things, like beauty and wealth, contributed to wellbeing. The Stoics argued that living in agreement with nature was the ideal state, and that moral virtues, written into nature, were necessary and sufficient for achieving this ideal state.  I have lately been reading the writings of an Italian artist of the Renaissance era who describes the good life at his country villa in Tuscany, extolling the simple virtues and pleasures there.  Christ, however, argued that the meaning of the good life was the Life of God in us, that true well being did not come from virtue as the goal, but rather as the blessed state of accepting Love and the blessings which come of surrending ourselves to this Love. I think perhaps my daughter had it right, as children often do, possessed of a wisdom we seem to lose as we age. Love brings Life, which animates even the stuffed and ragged, the hungry and the weary. "Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and you will find rest for your souls, " Jesus said. It is this rest, wholeness (Shalom), that is the true flourishing of the human soul.  Perhaps we are all rag dolls in the end, stuffed and lifeless without the Love for which we were created, Him, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. We comfort ourselves with all sorts of things to stave off the sense that we are lifeless, but in the end, even the most delicious chicken dinner will not cure the kind of hunger created in us to point to Him. But at the table is a pretty good metaphor, in my view, for what it means to accept and embrace Love.

Pumpkin Soup to follow. More anon. Try the chicken, mes amis. You will be surpised. A bientot.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lunch in another high and lovely place (Grace)


It is wind-swept and rainy in my town today, and the gorgeous fall leaves are already beginning to drop. My daughter ran into the fray with her new rain boots and joyfully kicked up a storm in the pile of gold and orange accumulation, laughing with her head back, abandoned to the moment, as if all the world were hers for play. Watching her joy, I am reminded of a splendid lunch I had in Gordes, Provence, one similar autumn day some years ago.  We had wanted to go during the Vendange, or grape harvest, and we rented a little house at the foot of Mount Ventoux as a base from which to enjoy the many pleasures of the region. Partial to langorous lunches in quiet little bistros, we had gone to Gordes to enjoy the town free of the crush of tourists found there in the summer months.  Gordes is a Village Perche, a villaged perched high on a hill, with an eleventh century fortified castle in the heart of the town, constructed by the house of Simians – the lords of Gordes. It also boasts an eleventh centure church, one of the most beautiful in Provence.  While Gordes is a lovely town, and houses there a gallery from which we have purchased prints which hang on the walls of our kitchen, we went to Gordes that day in search of a restaurant where I had eaten before, and which had a lofty dining room perfect for an autumn luncheon. I still remember the delicious pumpkin soup served that day, chilled as we were by the encroaching Mistral, and glad for the relative serenity of a log fire on a big hearth and stone floors and wooden tables.  I remember, too, the beautiful wooden sideboard, which had been appointed with a great vase of fall foliage and seemed to complement the food in both form and substance. We ate pumpkin soup, as delicious as I have ever tasted, and cheese souffle served with a mesclun salad, and then an apple tart tatin for dessert, which is rare for me as I don't usually eat dessert.  All of these courses were suggested by the chef, who took our lunch in hand and sent us lovely things from his kitchen to pleasure us.  The tourist season was over, and the off season was quiet that year, and he was enjoying his performance, which was expertly orchestrated. Mainly, I remember the sense of pure joy I felt as I sat down in that lofty room, organic in feel and appearance, and put my pleasure for the next couple of hours in his capable hands.

It strikes me that this is the essence of entertaining at home, or in a restaurant for that matter: to give one's guest the sense that their pleasure for the next few hours is in capable hands and they might just relax and enjoy themselves fully.  There is a sense of letting go, of one's expectations and critiques, of one's insecurities as a guest, of one's desire to control one's experience, and even the temptation to compare and contrast so as to compete in some subtle way with the host of hostess, at least in one's mind. Yet all of these inclinations, or addictions as we might call them, take away our sense of pleasure in the evening or afternoon, not so much because of the reflection on the tightness in our souls as much as the degree to which being unable to let go prevents us from fully embracing the experience of giving over one's pleasure into someone else's capable hands. I have always thought it sad that as women became more independent and achieved great success in business or academia or politics (and I have been as much as part of this as anyone), that with these wonderful gains was often lost (tragically) the lovely experience of placing one's pleasure for the evening in the hands of the gentleman hosting the evening (or a lady, for that matter, though I am thinking also of the experience of dining alone with a gentleman, rather than a business dinner).  Very seldom in my business career in America, either, did I encounter a gentleman host confident enough to take command of an evening with such grace that even the most strident of feminists would have given way to the pleasure, as I often had in Europe. I regularly dined with industry leaders, and was always surprised, frankly, at how few had any sense of how to entertain.

There is a funny, but instructive, story along these lines you might find amusing. Once, I had dinner with the CEO of a rather large timber company in the Northwest.  I met him at a French restaurant in Portland, Oregon, where I had some acquaintance with the chef, who was French, as I had lived in a hotel nearby a few days a week for some months while running a business in that town (one of three jobs I was doing simulataneously).  As I often ate at the restaurant, and spoke fluent French, the chef would often come out to the dining room and sit with me and talk while I ate my dinner, often alone.  We became good friends over time, and he was a good mentor as well. Most often, he would simply come out and ask me a question or two about my day and then signal to the waiter that he would take care of me. What followed was an utterly delightful series of splendid evenings in his care, where he would send out French sized portions of all manner of delicious and delightful things for me to try and on which to remark.  As he began to appreciate my passion for cooking and for great food, his "menus" became more subtle and more artful, and he was a superb teacher.  As he was French, he understood implicitly that I did not wish to leave stuffed, but rather just sated, and his ability to create such variety and depth in his menus without overfilling me was an art in itself.  His sense of pace and balance was pitch perfect, and I ordered for myself only when he was absent from the restaurant. It was a wonderful luxury, and I learned how to reach back into my past and enjoy the sense of giving over control of my pleasure to someone in whose hands it was more than ably husbanded, as I had with my family in Europe.  Along with his amazing food and menus, came some fatherly chiding of me, because my schedule was beyond anything reasonable (given the three jobs I was simulatenously undertaking for the same company), and he constantly questioned how I could have the European family background I did and work with such abandon, without care for the balance and quality of my life.  I believe he felt himself my American guardian of all things European, saddened as he was that my lifestyle at the time (though I cooked with great abandon and discipline at the same time) reflected little of my heritage. My attempts to explain this to him were futile.  Perhaps they were meant to be?

Into this backdrop, I met my host for the evening.  I must say that my host was somewhat pompously impressed with his command of rudimentary French, and he considered himself something of a gourmand.  As I was young for my role, and female, which was almost unheard of at the time, he started out the evening with a highly condescending tone, advising me as to the best dishes and implying that to order this or that dish was the height of vulgarity when the true gourmand would have only these others.  I found myself very amused with his tone, but I was too old-world in training and inclination to give him any sense of this, so I suggested with as much grace and feminine charm as I could muster, that since he seemed to know the menu so well, he might order for us both.  My host was so taken aback by my suggestion given my role and the age in which we both lived and worked in America, that he looked at me stunned for a minute, and then proceeded to become even more condescending in tone, if slightly more gentle and gallant in manner.  I remember thinking that condescension is the opposite of the masterful quality I appreciated particularly in gallant men.  The waiter came out, and appreciating the situation, winked at me from behind my host, who ordered what can only be described as a series of dishes that would never be combined in France, so much were they a succession of rich indulgencies wihout reprieve.   Once my host had ordered, he was suprised that the waiter came back with two glasses of champagne compliments of the chef, and he was slightly annoyed that the very expensive bottle of wine he had ordered was delayed, as I am sure I was to be regaled with its virtues as well as the obvious discernement of my host who had ordered it.  As my host's company was at the time experiencing rather extreme financial hardship, I remember being very surprised that he would order such an expensive wine, but as I was not the host for the evening, I kept the recognition of this incongruity to myself.  I remember that he said to me that no doubt the restaurant appreciated his generous patronage, and sent the champagne to thank him.  I commented that they must be very wise restauranteurs. We began what was a long and arduous conversation concerning the issues we were meeting to discuss, and it was not long before my friend the chef came out to greet us.  He turned first to the host, and addressed him in flawless English, and asked after this dish or that he had ordered, suggesting in the most polite manner if he wished to lighten the menu slightly, to which he was given a negative answer.  Then, the chef turned to me, took my hand and blowing a kiss above it, in the French manner, called me Cherie, and proceeded to speak to me in rapid fire French, to which I responded. While I am sure my host understood little of what transpired (and it was brief), he surely recognized that we were well acquainted and had some history of rich conversation.  I will never forgot the look of complete shock on the face of my host, which in itself was priceless. Needless to say, after this, his tone became far more respectful and he showed himself capable of gallantry and gentlemanly manners without the condescension of the early minutes. The discussion, too, was eased by the graciousness he acquired

I have mused of late about the necessity of abandoning one's addictions or idols, whether they may be manifestations of pride or insecurity, or a need to control one's environment, and its relationship to Grace. To accept love (grace) is a difficult thing, because to embrace this Gift, we must open our hearts and become vulnerable. We must let go.  In many senses we must abandon what we think we want and allow God to give us what we need.  This is the greatest challenge of my own life, and one with which I struggle daily. This is the challenge of what it means to be human, for we hang on for dear life to what we want and in the process lose what it is we desperately need, and so push away the Life which awaits us.  This is what Jesus meant when he said we must lose our life to find it. My friend the chef, as well as other gracious gentleman and lady hosts in Europe and in America at the homes of close friends, has taught me through the simple gesture of hosting an evening in a restaurant or a private home, what treasures lie in surrending control to hands capable and Knowing.  One day we will understand truly the nature of pleasure, and its relationship to Joy. For now, we can glimpse its deep magic by the practice of surrender, such that the hidden riches of the kingdom are revealed.  We might just find that we become again like the child kicking for joy in the autumn leaves, open to Life.

Tomorrow, I will offer an approach to making this pumpkin soup, surely a lovely way to begin one of your first dinners of the autumn season, non?  Let me know how your cooking is coming along?  A bientot mes amis.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Less is More (Potage Parmentier, almost, and an easy autumn Pasta)

Today was Charlie Day in my daughter's fourth grade classroom, a day to experience a small taste of the life of the main character in Roald Dahl's story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The children all dressed up as various characters from the book, which was very fun to observe, as some of the costumes were particularly creative and most were quite fun and silly.  Two young men did credible jobs of assuming the demeanor of Willy Wonka, complete with top hat.  One little girl was charming as an oompa-loompa with red hair and purple polkadot tights.  My daughter chose to adopt the character Veruca Salt - otherwise known as spoiled brat. Veruca demands anything she wants and throws tantrums until her parents meet her demands. She is mean and completely self-involved, and her parents always acquiesce to her wishes. Veruca’s impetuousness causes her trouble at the factory. She demands to own one of Wonka’s trained squirrels, but when she marches in to claim it, it deems her a “bad nut” and sends her down the garbage chute. Mingled with garbage, she comes out changed at the end of the story. She is redeemed.  My daughter began the day with a lot of attitude, hoping to be fully into the part she was playing, but I noticed at lunch that the privations of the day had not yet had the desired impact on Veruca's character, and she had not yet lived up to her family name, and become salt of the earth.  My daughter was enjoying her part.

As I have described in a blog earlier in the week (A Theology of Soup--Cuisine de Misere), my daughter volunteered me to cook cabbage soup, which was the main staple of Charlie's meagre diet.  After only a piece of toast allowed for breakfast, the children were quite famished, and I am sure a soup of cabbage was not exactly what they had in mind as a way of breaking what must have seemed to them to be a fast. Their wonderful teacher, whose idea this was that they might experience Charlie's reality, allowed as how they might have a roll as well to go with the soup, and so I purchased some beautiful, soft potato rolls to bring along.  The soup was well received by the children, who I think expected something quite different (water and cabbage) than they received, and for the most part, it was eaten with enthusiasm as well as surprise as the ingredients were very simple, but the resulting taste was delicious.  I hoped it might be an object lesson in more than simply the appreciation of how comparatively rich we are in the west today, even in these difficult times.  I hoped the children might also see that to cook something delicious and nutritious does not require expensive ingredients. 

The soup will make a wonderful Saturday lunch, or Sunday night supper. My children adore it. Put into a wide mouth thermos, it could be packed into a child's lunch for a lovely treat. Or it might make splendid picnic fare, packed into the thermos, and accompanied by some bread or rolls, some cheese and fruit. I have a penchant for those lovely British picnic hampers, and I like nothing better than to ask one of my friends to accompany me to one of the lovely parks we have here in my town for an autumn picnic. Stay tuned.  This soup is really very easy to make, and is a variation on a French soup, called potage parmentier.  You can easily leave out the cabbage, and retain a delicious soup, but either way it is very good. This soup is as elegant as it is simple, and I have varied the approach a little to extract more flavor from the ingredients.  As with most famous dishes in France there is a little story that accompanies it. France was beset with famine following the Seven Year War (1756-1763). Native son Antoine Auguste Parmentier, who had been fed the so-called poisonous potato root in a German prison-of-war camp, returned to France to find his country men starving. He set up potato soup kitchens throughout Paris to assist the poor. Ultimately, Louis XVI recognized his work by saying, "France will thank you some day for having found bread for the poor." In fact, he is best honored by the pleasure his country take in digesting Potage Parmentier.  I thought it was a fitting soup for Charlie Day, albeit with the addition of cabbage and some homemade chicken stock from soup bones I received free of charge from my butcher.

I first sauteed in a stock pot some onions (one large) and leeks (two, white and pale green part only, cut lengthwise and then in half moons) in a mixture of bacon fat (which I had saved from another meal) and a little duck fat (which I had saved from another meal) until they were melted and slightly carmelized, after which I added two peeled carrots, also cut up and some seasalt.  Then I began to cut up a small head of cabbage, shredding the cabbage and then chopping it into small pieces and adding it to the onion and leek mixture. I sauteed this as well until the cabbage was well wilted. At this point the aroma coming from the kitchen was so enticing, that my son, who was feeling poorly from a flu bug and has not eaten in a few days, came downstairs to see if he might sample the soup.  He asked me if this was really cabbage soup I was cooking as it smelled wonderful.  Then I added a big stockpot of chicken stock, which I had made that morning from bones, and about three pounds of peeled and cut up potatoes. I simmered (Not Boiled) the soup until the potatoes were tender and then used my immersion blender to puree the soup.  It was rich and creamy in appearance, without the addition of any dairy product.  This soup could be enhanced even more by the addition of some sauteed bacon lardons, cooked with the leeks, but it is more than flavorful on its own. My son ate two bowls and had eyes on more but I quickly made an exit to school with the cauldron so as to insure there would be enough for the children (there was) and the teachers, and the passers by.  I think he is feeling better.  It must have been the soup.

As promised, I offer today another very simple and delicious fall dinner idea you can make for your family.  In fact, taken together, these two recipes would make a lovely meal with the addition of a green salad and some fruit and cheese for dessert. Read through the directions a couple of times before beginning. It is not expensive, and the fun part is that you can engage your children (as I do) in the making of the fresh pasta. You can make the pasta dough in a food processor or a Kitchen Aid mixer with a dough hook, which I usually use. If you don't have either, you can take two cups of 00 flour, or all purpose or bread flour, and make a little well in the center of the flour, to which you add three eggs, slightly beaten and a tablespoon of olive oil. Gradually draw the flour into the liquid mixture with a fork, little by little, until you can form a dough. Then knead the dough for ten minutes. You will know it is done because, as the Italians say, it will be as soft as a baby's bottom.  Let the dough rest for at least 10 minutes, covered, on your kitchen counter.  Then you can either use your pasta machine to roll out the dough, or a french rolling pin if you have one, and if not, your ball bearing rolling pin.  Divide the dough in half, and each half into thirds with a pastry cutter.  Then roll each piece until very thin.  I ususally do this on my marble kitchen table, but a large cutting board will work, too.  If you don't have a pasta machine, you can use a little fluted pastry cutter to cut the rolled dough into ribbons about 1/2 inch wide for pappardelle.  If you do, lightly dust the sheets of pasta in between the settings on your machine, folding your sheets into thirds like a business letter before each roll, and gradually decreasing the size of the opening of the two rollers until the dough is very thin. Toss the ribbons with a little more flour on a baking sheets so they don't stick together. Put a pan of salted water on the range to boil so you can cook your pasta.

Now, for the simple sauce.  I have been making variations of this sauce for nearly thirty years, and it is as easy as it is delicious. Clean some mushrooms, whatever kind you have and slice them. You can use domesticated mushrooms, or a mixture of these and wild, or reconstituted dried mushrooms. (If you use dried wild mushrooms, reduce the stock by half and add the same amount of reconsituted mushroom liquor in its place). Heat some canola oil in a heated skilled over medium heat until very hot but not smoking.  Add the mushrooms, but not so many that they are overlapping (you want to sear them not steam them), and sear them on one side, not touching them for a couple of minutes, but don't let them burn.  Then turn them and stir occasionally.  Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a warm bowl, and repeat until all the mushrooms are cooked. I usually add a little thyme to the mushrooms once I turn them.  When you have cooked all the mushrooms, turn down the heat and saute some findly minced shallots until soft and then add three tablespoons of butter to the pan and add back the mushrooms, cooking until they are glazed.  Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock and bring to a simmer, and then, one at a time, whisk in three more tablespoons of butter until the sauce is just slightly emulsified.  Stir in two teaspoons of sherry vinegar.  Cook your pasta in the boiling water, and add the pasta into the pan with the heat off and toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning. With a vegetable peeler, shave on some parmigiano reggiano cheese and serve.  This dish will surprise you. It is far better than what you will imagine it to be.

Let me know how you get along, yes? Happy Cooking, mes amis, and a blessed weekend to you. A Bientot.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nature and Grace (The Heavenly Banquet)

Over the course of the last year, I have been reading a group of French theologians who are loosely grouped together. Their work is largely characterized as "nouvelle theologie."  In many respects this has been a watershed experience for me, as it has allowed me to come home, in a sense, and make sense of my heritage and the impact of my part-American, part-European upbringing. Taken together, these theologians are sometimes referred to as calling for a "ressourcement" or retrieval of the "Great Tradition," which simply means the consensus of the Church fathers and medieval theologians that as God made us alive in Christ, so too, do we then participate in heavenly realities while still here on earth, such that in our lives on earth, we can actually participate in heavenly realities.  Without belaboring the philosophical underpinnings, which reach back to Plato, this really means to recover the sense that in the Created world exists more than simply signs or symbols of the heavenly realm; these signs actually point to heaven breaking in.  After the middle ages, thinking began to change and a view that nature and the supernatural (Grace) were strictly separated emerged.  This coincided with what began to be the strict separation of philosophy (literally, philo the love, and sophia, of wisdom) and theology (defined by Augustine as theo, meaning God and logia, reason, reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity).   Said another way, Grace, or the supernatural world, was not able to build on something already present in nature itself; rather, the supernatural world of grace was entirely foreign and other to the world of nature.

These proponents of "nouvelle theologie," in seeking to recover the unity of nature and grace, argued that true reality does not regard the world of nature (our "city" on earth) as separate from the supernatural (the heavenly "city"), but as the gracious gift of the Creator.  For them, the world of nature is never without God's presence.  God reveals this presence through sacraments, "life infused symbols of the heavenly realm, such that we understand reality as beginning with theology.  This view begins with the assumption that what we see around us is the gift of God.  Saint Augustine and most of the thinkers of the middle ages had regarded the created world as a world full of symbols. These were not just symbols in the sense that they suggested some  other reality, rather in the sense that symbol and reality were not two separate entities.  These theologians call for a recovery of the view held by Augustine that these symbols functioned as sacraments in the sense that a sacrament shares or participates in the reality to which it points. Heaven literally breaks in. The sign may not be the reality but it participates in it.

It occurs to me that this view of life fundamentally impacts how we view our approach to the table.  Thinking about this as I walked this morning, it came to me that beyond the obvious issues of the Eucharist, or communion as a sacramental feast wherein God is Present, if this is the case, even the breaking of bread together each night at dinner is more than simply a symbol of the good God has woven into creation.  Embracing this view suggests a reverence for the bounty and gift of the table not often part of our culture in the fast-paced grab it and run approach to meals.  If food is a gift, our approach to eating and  sharing it changes fundamentally. No longer is it simply a commodity that seeks to harness "the elaborate process of growing, harvesting, transporting, selling, transporting again, storing, eating, digesting, and clearing that constitutes the elaborate process of being fed," argues the theologian Samuel Wells in his book God's Companions.  Rather, it invites in us a thankfulness and an understanding of all the labor and the relationships and the gift of life and growth involved in bringing food to the table.

This has significant implications for participating together in the source of our food and those who grow it for us, for getting to know the people who grow our food, for the respect we show them and friendship we offer them.  Rather than seeing it, and them, as commodities in a mechanized process, we might begin to view ourselves as partners with farmers, learning from them and supporting them, and treating their labor and its fruits with the respect it deserves.  Secondly, it has significant implications for our respect for the earth as God's creation, for learning where our food is grown and how it is produced, and that the practices are humane and sustainable.  Third, as we learn to cook and eat in harmony with the seasons, we are more appreciative of the bounty we receive as gift, coming from all that is good God has given us.  We allow the creation to inspire us, to see in its art possibility for the art we might make of this abundance, especially as it is shared. How much more reverential than forcing the transport of unripe produce from some distant place where there can be no connection with either those who grow it or the seasons of our year? Fourth, respecting food means learning to cook without waste, and making the most of all we are given. Fifth, living sacramentally in this way has implications for cooking with our hearts, such that we respond to the Gift of such bounty by embracing all it might offer us.  Food is precious, and should never be taken for granted. Sixth, this view has implications for cooking and eating together: by including our family and friends and especially our children in the growing, preparing and serving of food, we and they appreciate its value and the great pleasure it can give.  Finally, and most importantly, it has implications for eating together: for the way we set the table with great care, for understanding its potential to bring pleasure and communion, so that "mealtime is a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate," advises Alice Waters, the chef who founded the restaurant Chez Panisse, and revolutionized  our approach to food and cooking in the United States.

Wells argues that one of the most important symbols (or a sacrament, for icons help us to peer into Reality, like a window) of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Rublev icon, known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," which depicts three divine persons gathered around a table for a meal together.  There is an empty place on the viewer's side of the table, which seems to offer an invitation to come and dine.  The heavenly banquet is the most characteristic symbol of the life of the Kingdom, and Jesus himself enacts these banquets himself in his many significant meals with sinners, strangers, crowds and disciples. These are invitations to join the feast with God.  By approaching food and the table sacramentally, we affirm the opportunity to grow productively and celebrate the reward for joyful labor.  We join in the feast of the Kingdom. Wells writes: "The heavenly banquet is a depiction of the way God does not just simply meet his people's basic needs: he goes much further, giving them far more than they need, surrounding them with food, friends and his own abundant presence, all in all. This is the purpose of creation, cross and the resurrection: to make possible this everlasting friendship with God, rehearsed in worship and practiced in the sharing of food, "   In the fullest sense, to dine together in this way is sacramental living. It is to participate in the great mystery of  the heavenly reality while still on earth.

And now, my friends, what will follow tomorrow is a suggestion and instructions for making a simple offering that you might share with your family for dinner if you wish.  Come back and see if you might like to try it. I will give you an autumn pasta to make from scratch if you like, using 00 flour, or all purpose if you can't locate the finer grind Italian pasta flour.  It will be a celebration of the solstice, the autumnal equinox, which we observe tomorrow. A bientot, mes amis!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mangia, Mangia!

On Wednesdays, my blog will feature a short little food vignette.

Though French cooking is my heritage and passion, I have long been a student of Italian cooking, and have had many armchair as well as actual mentors. When I was in graduate school in Geneva, I had with me the first of Marcella Hazan's wonderful books, Classic Italian Cooking, which I cooked nearly cover to cover.  We lived in a beautiful little studio apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, with a deck that ran the length of the two rooms (kitchen and great room, plus a tiny entrance hall and bath).  Many wonderful dinners were eaten on that deck until the weather turned, and in the little kitchen, which I adored, I rolled pasta with a wooden pin, and cut fettucine and pappardelle and lasagne noodles with a knife.   Fresh pasta fit my student budget at the time, and the intensity of the cooking was the perfect foil to the stress of jamming two years of grad school into one.  On Sundays, when the budget allowed, I would cook some delicious braise: osso bucco, braised lamb shanks, brasata al Barolo, beef braised in red wine.  The next day the braising liquids and leftover meet would make a lovely sauce to toss with hand cut noodles or bake into a macaronade.  Since that magic time, my appreciation for the food of the different regions of Italy has grown and deepened as my passion and curiousity have led me into more of its treasures.  I have travelled and eaten my through various regions of Italy many times, eating at little trattoria, and doing my best to chat with the owner/chef, as well as eaten in the gastronomic temples of Florence, Venice and Milan as well as many other cities and towns.

Italian cuisine comes principally from two distinct sources: cucina povera, or the cooking of the poor, and cucina nobile, the cooking for the tables of the rich. Since Etruscan times, and echoed in Roman culture, cooking for the different classes has been divided.  Echoing the themes we have been developing in this blog, cucina povera, or cooking from want, has resulted in many wonderful dishes: making the most of leftovers, using what the earth provides through the seasons of the year and preserving. Cucina Nobile, not to be outdone, has also left indelible marks on Italian cuisine as the exotic spices and fruits brought to Italy by visiting traders enhanced the local bounty, and the cooking skills of the Arab world were adapted to the available bounty. The staples of Italy match the regions: rice for risotto from the north in Piedmont and Lombardy, grilled bread in Tuscany, pasta to the South as well as polenta, originally grown around Venice.  More recently, I have been inspired by a wonderful book written by an Englishwoman, Katie Caldesi, married to an Italian, and a formidable food historian, chef, teacher and restaurateur in her own right.  If you want to learn to cook Italian food well, and this is as misleading as "French" food, for it is really a collection of different regional cuisines as it is in France, get hold of her book Cook Italy.

After Hazan, one of my first and lasting mentors has been Lorenza De Medici, of Badia a Coltibuono fame, and her cooking school, Villa Table. The beautiful and urbane food at her estate in Tuscany was as lyrical in style as sophisticated in execution, and she cooked with a triple strand of pearls around her neck, ever elegant and refined (she was a former editor of Vogue Italia). Her family hearkened back to Lorenzo the Magnificent, after whom she was named, that Renaissance patron of the arts and leader of Florence.  But even more fascinating, in the 16th century, the Compagna del Paiolo, Italy's first academy of cooking comprising the twelve best chefs, was founded in Florence by Caterina de' Medici, who was credited with passing on the art of fine cooking to the French.  I was transfixed by her descriptions of the dinners she hosted both at her own estate and the estates of her friends, and each evening, the wonderful communal table and gorgeous food would be punctuated by music: a local string quartet or classical guitarist or pianist, to round out the evening's pleasure.  This was my idea of heaven. Tuscan cooking is particularly instructive, if for no other reason than that expressed by Ada Boni in Italian Regional Cooking: "The task of the Tuscan cook is not easy. He cannot fall back on elaborate sauces and gravies to disquise the flavor of the food, nor may he employ garnishes which are so dear to some schools of cooking.  In preparing dishes of classic simplicity, he must rely on his skill alone, aided by the excellence of his raw materials."  This is a discipline well worthy of cultivation and study. Tuscan food revolves around the old-fashioned hearth, where pride of place is taken by the grill and the roasting spit, Boni argues. Food cooked in this manner is rarely equalled.  In Italy, as in France, food is a passion. In Tuscany, that passion becomes art, as decorous and formal as that of the great masters of the Florentine school.

Lorenza De Medici also has a passion for Italian Renaissance Gardens, as do I, and her beautiful books, The Renaissance of Italian Cooking and The Renaissance of Italian Gardens have given me hours of pleasure and inspired years of study, as have her many books since these were published.  The first great Renaissance gardens were created by Cosimo de Medici in the fifteenth century, and it was Lorenzo de Medici who first introduced the fashion for adorning gardens with statues.  It was also Lorenzo the Magnificent's gardener who reintroduced and outlined the concept of the essential harmony between the architectural lines of the house and that of the garden, although this idea was not a new one and could be found in ancient Greece and Rome.  If you are student of landscape architecture, you will know that these ideas made a rapid journey to France where they were further developed. As with cooking, so too with gardens.  I love the "sweet atmosphere of melancholy," as Lorenza describes it, which pervades the gardens of the Lombardy lakes, particularly around Lake Como, where I once had the most magnificent lunch high above its shores.  One of my lifelong dreams has been to own an ancient, abandoned garden, and as Lorenza says "to liberate trees that have been suffocated by ivy, to discover ancient foundations concealed beneath the earth, and to strip away the centuries and restore something buried."  As this is probably not a dream likely to materialize any time soon, I will have to satisfy myself with listening to Monteverdi madgrigals in my own garden and the Italian dinners inspired by the many I have seen and loved in many regions across Italy.

I love the imagery created by D. H. Lawrence in his book Etruscan Places: "But in those days, on a fine evening like this, the men would come in naked, darkly ruddy-colored from the sun and wine, with strong, insoucianat bodies, and the women would drift in wearing the loose becoming smock of white or blue linen; and somebody, surely, would be playing on the pipes, and somebody, surely would be singing, because the Etruscans (the ancestors of the Tuscan spirit) had a passion for music, and an inner carelessness the modern Italians have lost."  When I imagine this sort of afternoon, my mind often drifts to that wonderful Kenneth Branaugh movie made on the Shakespeare play "Much Ado about Nothing," which was filmed in such a garden, and played out just as Lawrence describes.  I have always wanted to give such a party, and for my 50th birthday, I had dreams of just such an evening (fully clothed!), inspired by that lovely vignette in the play.  Alas, it did not occur this year, but I have high hopes for such a gathering in the year to come.

Tuscany has always held a corner of my heart captive, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly since I learned that the ancient Etruscans shared the banqueting bench with their wives, which is more than the Greeks or Romans did, at this period.  The classic world thought it indecent for a woman to recline as the men did, even at the family table.  I rather loved the Florentine saying, that captured the wisdom of the era: "Whose bread and cheese I eat, to his tune I dance!"  Men might do well to keep this in mind.  The French have always respected the Tuscan appreciation for culture. Montaigne, in his Journal de Voyage en Italie, commented that he "was astounded to hear the peasants in Tuscany with a lute in their hands, and at their side the shepherds reciting Aristo by heart."  Some cultures have an in-born joy of living, and this is very apparent in the land of the Etruscans.  Lord Byron, the English poet, recognized this magic: "...fair Italy! Thou art the garden of the world, the home of all art yields, and nature can decree; Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?  Thy very weeds are beautiful-- thy waste more rich than other climes fertility; thy wreck a glory and thy ruin graced with an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.  Perhaps this explains the love of life of its inhabitants to some degree, non?  Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can salute this joyous embrace of life's gifts:
 "From Tuscan Belloguardo,
Where Galileo stood at nights to take
The vision of the stars, we have found it hard,
Gazing upon the earth and heavens, to make
a choice of beauty."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Theology of Soup (Cuisine de Misere)

In my daughter's fourth grade classroom, her wonderful teacher has decided that this Friday shall be "Charlie Day," an opportunity for the children to experience a small taste of the life of the main character in Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  If you have read the book, or seen the movie, you will know that Charlie lives with his father and mother and two sets of grandparents, both very elderly, and is very poor, but well loved.  His father works in a toothpaste factory, and his job is precarious as well as low paying. In the story, Charlie and his family subsist on watered down Cabbage Soup, which is the primary staple of their diet. And so, to appreciate the plight of children such as Charlie,  the children in my daughter's class are going to eat very meagerly on Friday at breakfast, and at lunch they will all have a bowl of cabbage soup and a roll. My daughter, a devotee of a good meal, and I suspect in an effort to reclaim a little of her lunch, has volunteered me to cook the soup, which has caused me to reflect a little more on the art of cooking from want.  It is an interesting challenge to remain true to the spirit of the soup and at the same time cook something appealing which the children will actually eat, so as not to waste food or serve food which is not delicious while undertaking an object lesson.

In France, La Soupe is fundamental to life. The word is linked to souper (supper), and in the countryside there are still today many households who end the day with a big bowl of broth or vegetables, to which bacon and cheese have been added, eaten with bread often put at the bottom of the bowl and the soup poured over.  Dinner, in some areas, is still served in the middle of the day and is the primary meal of the day, though this old tradition has undergone rapid change.  Often, a great cauldron of soup would remain on the back burner of the kitchen range, and bits of leftover vegetables and meats would be added such that in the evening, all those who worked on the farms might come to the table for a nourishing broth poured over thick slabs of country bread.  The term for soup is potage, which means cooked in a pot, and the obvious implication is that this covers a broad range of dishes, from an elegant bouillon to a thick garbure.  Garbure is a hearty country soup found in Gascony, in the Southwest part of France and there are as many variations as there are grandmeres.  It is made with beans and vegetables, seasoned with meat (I like to use duck confit, but bacon and ham are common, too), and at the end, I like to lift out a  portion of the vegetables, puree them, sautee the puree in butter until it reaches the thickness of mashed potatoes, spread on lightly toasted croutons, sprinkle with gruyere cheese and brown briefly in the oven or salamander to serve with the soup.  I don't remember where I learned this trick, but once you try it, you will not be disappointed. Sound delicious? It is. This is a soup I love to make in autumn; it is a meal in itself.  It is a soup I will probably bring to my daughter's fourth grade class this winter, when the cold is biting and the children are in need of a warming treat.  Cheri/e, mange ta soup! is practically the universal French cry of motherhood.  And at bistros throughout France, one can sit and marvel at French children, gracefully eating their soup as a first course of a lengthy Sunday lunch, as elegantly as any of the adults at table.  Soup is a gift we give, born of making the most of simple things we are Given as Gift, and coaxing them lovingly to make an abundance of love.

To me, soup is a thing of beauty, and there is little that speaks of autumn and winter more than a steaming hot bowl of delicious soup. It speaks of warmth and welcome, and is almost a perfect symbol of hospitality.  It comforts the sick and feeds the homeless, and is a powerful ambassador of good will and love.  I like to make soups for my friends who are ill, or in need of comfort, but also to begin an elegant dinner. Delicate soups of lettuce and tarragon, pureed with excellent stock, or a fresh English pea soup topped with a drizzle of truffle oil and the shaving of a truffle served in a little demitasse cup seduce the diner at table such that each little sip of soup is a palate teaser for the pleasures to come. One can never take soup too lightly, except not to take it lightly enough. One could write a treatise on the nuances of soup, and its relationship to life and family and memory.  Nearly everyone I know has some treasured remembrance of a soup they enjoyed by a family hearth, or at a friend's table. One of my best memories of making soups are the hearty pureed vegetable soups I used to make for my husband when in the autumn he would go to the eastside of our state for duck hunting. Packed into a widemouthed thermos with some crusty baguette, a piece of good cheese alongside, and a little slice of fruit tart for dessert, it was a lunch fit for a king. And eating it on a brisk autumn day, en plein aire, one could have asked little more of life. It is the season for birding once again.

I often think that soup is a good way to teach someone to cook with the senses, as its goodness is often at the margins, and the same ingredients can be made sublime, simply tasty or bland and unappealing.  I have chef friends who ask their potential cooks to make a soup before deciding whether or not to hire them, and I approve wholeheartedly: the ability to make soup sing is an example of cooking which has moved from craft to art.  You can tell a good cook by the soup they make, and you can also tell a young cook by the temptation to add lots of fancy ingredients to make the soup seem "gourmet," rather than attempting to master the techniques which will draw the most flavor from a few key things.  Soup is also a testament to the kind of cooking mostly undertaken by les bonnes femmes de France, which is not from recipes but from the largesse and inspiration of the market, or from the small larder.  When a Frenchwoman asks herself what she will cook for dinner on a given night, she will walk to the nearby shops and purchase what looks best. Voila! A wonderful meal is composed and soon prepared, from soup to cheese and dessert. "Recipes," when they are written down, do not resemble the organization to which most Americans are accustomed, but rather a general description of methods rather than quantities.  Soup lends itself to learning to cook this way, and it is often a good place to begin to cook from the heart and the senses.  Perhaps most important, soup making is benefitted by thinking sensually about the layering of flavors and how best to develop each element for maximum result. The result may be impact, but may also be its ability to complement the other flavors. So thinking intentionally and tasting often is key.

Perhaps the greatest difference between cooking in France and in America, is the practice of cuisine de misere, which in Europe derived from generations of deprivation and hardship, in addition to war, when privation was the rule rather than the exception, and the bonne femme had the task of cooking something with nothing. I practice this to a great degree in my own kitchen, and do my best not to waste any food. Madeleine Kamman, in her wonderful book When French Women Cook, describes this as to adouber a tiny piece of meat with more vegetables, more dumplings, more sauce to make sure that it will stretch to feed a family; making a couple of eggs or a piece of cheese multiply into a pie that will feed six.  These women cooked delicious food with meager supplies, often foraging for things to enhance its deliciousness and appeal. The result is that new lessons were learned that could not have come of plenty, techniques for how to bring the best out of something less than perfect, which yielded many beloved dishes which today are cooked for their own sake rather than their economy.  This is why I often make little soups for a starter course from leftover vegetables or salads from the previous night's dinner, or make it for my own lunch.  Or take bits of meat and make little meat pies to serve with salad, and cheese and fruit for a lovely supper.   On a night when I have little in the larder,  I will carmelize some onions over low heat until they are almost mahogany in color, and make a pissaladiere, a little onion tart, with puff pastry, or pizza dough, or a yeast bread dough, or a foccacia, and make a little paste with olive oil and anchovies and a dab of dijon mustard to brush over the top,  add the onions, some goat cheese and a sprinkling of parmigiano reggiano, and some Nicoise olives and fresh thyme (you can also put on anchovy fillets if you like them).  My children and their school friends devour this after school. It takes only minutes to make once you have carmelized the onions, and it is addicitively delicious, and inexpensive.  If I have tomatoes that are becoming soft in the big bowl,  I make a tomato tart in a similar manner.  There are hundreds of little trucs for converting bits of things to delicious meals without sacrificing any of the quality or appeal of the meal in the process.  However, almost nothing lends itself as well to this approach to making the most of what we are given than does soup.

There are some simple approaches to soup that can yield spectacular results. One of my favorites is to cook a vegetable with whatever onion I am using in butter, in a covered pan over low heat, such that these two vegetables are sweated together. You can do this well with carrots and shallots, for example, and once tender and pureed with some homemade chicken stock, and enriched with a little creme fraiche, it is as noble as soup as one could ask. You can serve it with a dollop of creme fraiche and a little chopped chervil for garnish, and the result is spectacular. I do this with butternut squash, apples and onions as well, for a similar soup, adding cardamon to the soup at the end for flavor. Try it this way, and then the next time you make it, roast the squash, tossed with olive oil and seasalt in a hot (400 degree) oven before adding it to the soup. You will notice the subtle but lovely change in the soup, and you can use both methods depending upon the rest of the menu and what complements it best. A stick blender is a very handy too, and in my holiday kitchen in Big Sur, which is quite small, I use this often.  Also excellent is the wonderful Vita Mix blender, which can handle volume with ease and makes a fine puree.  For a velvety soup, a food mill is a lovely way to achieve an elegant texture, and though it requires more work, the results are often worth it.  When I am cooking for an elegant fete, I use my Chinois, a cone shaped sieve shaped like a Chinaman's hat, which has a very fine screen and results in sublime potage, if sacrificing a little of its rustic charm. A Chinois and Tamis (flat, round sieve with sides) are very good additions to your batterie de cuisine, and as they are expensive, saving for them is a worthwhile goal. Using fresh, cold water in soups to make stock is important, as is starting from a cold water base and heating the ingredients for the stock together. The flavor will be superior.  Never boil soup. Never.  This is just a beginning primer to what making soup can teach. We have scarcely scratched the surface.

Last night at dinner we were speaking of this, and how so many great lessons are learned from cooking with little: chiefly among them how to coax flavor from simple ingredients.  When I begin to teach someone to cook, I am always tempted to put only a few things in their larder from which they might choose, such that they learn the lessons of cooking from want: how to maximize each ingredient and each step to garner the most flavor.  Once these simple lessons are mastered, and applied to a greater largesse, the results can be exponential.  Perhaps this is why we start with a simple catechism when learning the beginning steps of our faith. We want to learn to climb the great mountains, yet we have not yet learned the lessons of the lower reaches, where so much wisdom lies.  We forget these profound little lessons at great loss.  My spiritual director often tells me that our walk of faith is like a spiral staircase: God leads us back to the same places, only a little higher up. So too with cooking, non? We learn to use the same simple lessons to master the more complex dishes. Often, we are afraid of the lessons of the desert, too, the places of darkness, where nothing seems clear.  I often think this is akin to the mistakes we make cooking, which can teach us far more than the successes.  I once read a beautiful book describing this, entitled Hinds Feet on High Places. It describes the process of climbing to these higher reaches, and the perspective once there, gained from lessons of the journey, and how it may be shared with those just beginning the climb. Perhaps this is the magic of a bowl of soup. It is a means of sharing what lies in the places higher up, wrought of all that is below.

And so I will make the cabbage soup for my daughter's class, and try to use the lessons here to take a few very simple ingredients and maximize their deliciousness such that the children in the class will have a view to what may come of want, perhaps that it reveals a plenty they would not otherwise have known. Check back and see how it comes out, yes? And sign up to follow me to the right of the writing here in this blog if you enjoy the journey here. I would love to hear from you, too, if you would like to leave a comment now and then. A bientot, mes amis.

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.