broiled figs, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.
The more I cook, the more I want to cook. It’s a self-regenerating process, deeply creative, and also fairly addictive. Thank goodness I’m addicted to figs, slow-roasted tomatoes, and fresh goat cheese instead of some other substance. And as I keep noticing, and remarking on in here, I’m paradoxically less addicted to food than ever before. As with most American women, I went through a chunk of years eating for emotional reasons, never truly tasting my food, stuffing myself for some other reason than pleasure. But now, I want every taste to be exquisite. I don’t want a single taste to be wasted. And when I insist on mindfulness in the kitchen, everything else glows, gloriously.
Case in point? Take a look at what I had for breakfast this morning.
In those years before my celiac diagnosis, food would often languish in the refrigerator. I’d plan elaborately for a big meal, and then be too physically exhausted by the process to cook any more for days. Vegetables would shrink into themselves in the crisper drawer. The corners of hunks of cheese would start to crack from dryness. And leftovers would wither into some strange concoction that would make me turn my head and wince when I went to throw it out. I wasted food, and I always felt guilty.
First of all, I’ve really adopted the European village method of shopping. Daily jaunts to my favorite little stores—A & J Meats for meats and eggs; Wild Salmon Seafood Market for all my fish; McCormick’s for choice wine purchases; the Market for fruit and veg on days when there are no farmers’ markets going on—instead of one big shop on a Sunday. I waste less food this way. But more importantly, I’m also more creative this way. Figs are fresh today? Okay, I’ll come up with something for those.
This morning, I found the leftover figs from the dinner party on Thursday. I should have used them yesterday, but I was too busy grinning at the Rufus Wainwright concert (ah, that boy’s voice) to make dinner last night. In fact, I just brought the lefttovers from the party as a picnic with my friends, Daniel and Jeff. They were suitably impressed, and then perhaps a little overwhelmed, as I pulled one dish after another from my big black bag. It was a good night.
But when I woke up this morning, and the coffee was brewing, I saw the figs. And thought of Christa.
I first met Christa at the door of a penthouse apartment on 66th and 5th in Manhattan. I had just been sent by the tutoring agency—where I was working at the time, tutoring child actors on movie sets—to be the emergency substitute weekend nanny for the year-old child of a famous movie actor. I was a writer, tutor, and book editor, broke after a summer, because no kid has to study during the summer. So of course I took the job. I had no idea that babysitting would lead to a book-editing gig. This is how I met the Crazy Famous People (CFP for short), to whom I allude sometimes. Through these strange circumstances, I became the editor of a destined-to-never-be-published gardening book, working with them for three months in New York, and then living with them in London for five months in Sting’s house. (I was only the babysitter for three days.) But all that was in the future. All I knew when I stood at the door of the penthouse apartment is that I was somewhat curious and mostly, already disgusted by the thought of working with these celebrities. I grew up in LA. I’ve seen too much. And I hate the way we venerate famous people in this culture. But it was money. And sure enough, it was going to be a story. When the door opened, my eyes took a quick sweep of the rooms before me. And of course, I saw an enormous living room, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Madison Avenue. And what was on the table but six champagne flutes and an open, bubbling bottle of champagne. I almost chuckled. And then I took in Christa.
Christa is now one of my favorite people in the world. Blunt, funny, and deeply kind (as long as you don’t let her know that you know it), she had been cooking professionally for nearly forty years when I first met her. Originally Polish, but moved to Germany when she was two, she barely escaped WWII, although her mother did not. She thought her father had died, all her life, but he suddenly reappeared when she was forty. This is an incredible story I should tell another time, or in another place. After all, it’s hers. I didn’t know all this when I first met her. I just knew that she came with the fancy apartment the CFP were renting. She had been cooking for the same man and his family for decades. He moved out of his penthouse apartment to an even better one, which left this one open. What to do? Of course, rent it to the CFP! Unfortunately for her, Christa came as part of the deal.
I say unfortunately because the CFP drove Christa to distraction. She abhors pretension of any kind, and they were oozing it. Madame would call from the living room, in her deliberately syrupy sweet voice, “Christa, coffee?” Oh, but not just any coffee. It had to be a fresh latte, done just right. If, when Christa brought it in, grimacing, it didn’t have a perfect head of foam, Madame would ask for it to be done again. I’d always shrug my shoulders behind her, trying to establish unity with Christa instead. There were three hundred little trilling demands to Christa per day. The poor woman, over sixty years old, walked in a perpetual sweat, her greying hair in damp curls around her face.
She and I became friends through this, bonded by the searing experience, both of us a little too fascinated by the story and human drama to completely pull away. And in the end, we were both just too damn tenderhearted, trying to redeem these people, to no end. But long after we both cut our ties to the CFP, we have remained friends. When I still lived in New York, she would invite my best friend Sharon (who eventually worked for the CFP for awhile too; it was hard to resist at first) and I over for dinner in her little apartment on the Upper East Side. She’d plie us with prosciutto and melon, little spinach tarts, smoked salmon, tuna sushi, and gorgeous desserts. And plenty of really great wine.
Damn, that woman can cook.
Christa is the best chef I have ever met, bar none. She has impeccable taste, an extraordinary eye, and the ability to make beauty mundane, in the best way. I miss her. I haven’t been to New York in awhile, which means I haven’t had the chance to sit at her small dining table with Sharon, drinking great wine and listening to her gruff talk, while she drinks her beer and asks, about every three minutes, “You like? It tastes good?” And Sharon and I always nod, vigorously, our mouths full of bliss. Of course, she had cooked all day for us, and we would beg her to just eat at a restaurant, to spare her the work. But we were always secretly happy that she wanted to cook for us. We felt loved.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, now that I’m choosing my food mindfully, insisting on the best, now that I must eat gluten-free. And when I saw the leftover figs in their little green basket on my dining table, I knew what I had to do.
Christa made these broiled figs often in the penthouse apartment. Madamde CFP loved them. And so did I. Ridiculously easy to make, they tasted decadent, like gourmet candy and expensive restaurants at the same time. So I put little dabs of leftover goat cheese on the figs I had sliced in half, then put the tray under the broiler. Five minutes later, and I was sighing with pleasure as I ate. Softly sweet, with a crunch of seeds, everything melting into one, the smooth taste of goat cheese spreading into the sweetness, and all of it over in thirty seconds. But the taste lingers and fingers its way down to my stomach. I’m happy and absolutely awake.
Food is never just the taste. It’s the memories of the people I’ve eaten it with, the stories in my mind, the places I have stood and eaten these foods, all combined with the sensory pleasure. It all swarms in my mouth and my mind. And frankly, even though most of this crazy country swoons at the idea of being near a celebrity, I would much rather be in my spacious little kitchen in Seattle, eating figs with the memory of Christa in my mind, than anywhere near that penthouse apartment. Because this one is mine.
BROILED FIGS WITH BRIE
Christa always used brie with the figs, and I agree. I just had leftover goat cheese. It sure wasn’t bad.
–twenty fresh figs, split in half
–dabs of your favorite soft cheese (a really good brie or cambozola works best)
Put on the broiler. Assemble the figs. Broil them for five minutes or so, until everything is bubbly. Eat. Just try to save leftovers. It’s not going to happen.