I’ve been thinking for days about that curdled custard.
Not because I feel bad that it didn’t work. On the contrary, I’m actually happy it happened. I’d been having such a streak of great meals that one had to falter, entirely. After all, I wouldn’t want my ego to swell to the size of the fat melon resting on my kitchen countertop right now. It’s good to be humbled.
But more than that, I’ve been thinking about being present in the kitchen. The feeling that stayed with me was how I had forgotten to be present. If, as Kitchenmage had suggested in her comment on that post, I had lit candles, turned on music, and turned off everything else but the cooking, that custard probably would have been wonderful. In the end, the process is the point. The humble moments of chopping and washing up are enough. This triggered a memory, the first time I had learned this lesson before. So I pulled down my copy of Laurel’s Kitchen and flipped through the lovely narrative opening, and read this:
“The local independent radio station used to broadcast an excellent news analysis every day at five-thirty, right in the midst of dinner preparations. For love or money, I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off. After all, you can’t let yourself get out of touch; and it wasn’t as if it were TV–my eyes were still one-pointed. For months I went on working with half my mind, listening with the other.
It took a while for the evidence to mount up. Occasional injuries weren’t such a big deal. Salting the soup twice or overcooking a carrot or two still wasn’t serious. Missing steps in the recipe?–who’s to know, anyway? The real problem wasn’t with the food. It was with the cook. A half hour of the Latest and I was decidedly rattled by the time I got to the dinner table–fragments of half-heard news reports skittering through my mind, veiled predictions of war, famine, and depression weighing me down, leaving a terrible taste in my mouth, distracting me from our family and their more immediate concerns. I was gradually coming to realize that it isn’t just food you serve your family. I wanted to nourish them in subtler ways as well: my state of mind couldn’t help but affect theirs. If I wanted our meals to take place in a congenial, relaxed atmosphere, I had not choice but to come to the table in a calm, cheerful, and relatively unified state of mind.
So little by little, news coverage gave way to music. Before long, though, that too came to be a distraction. If I were going to listen to music, I wanted to listen to good music, and give it my complete attention. Five-thirty was obviously not the time. At last the radio was stilled, and I was able to admit to myself how deeply satisfying it is to work in silence, the mantram bubbling away within, providing a peaceful, regular rhythm to work by.” (46–7)
Reading this brought a long, slow smile to my face. I hadn’t cracked open this stained, yellowing copy of Laurel’s Kitchen in years, even though I’ve never let it go. It has sat on various bookshelves, in several cities of the world, since I was fifteen years old.
If you don’t know it, Laurel’s Kitchen was one of the first major books on vegetarianism published in this country, by Nilgiri Press in Berkelely, in 1976. When the three authors were writing this book, only die-hard hippies talked about eating whole foods, or growing their own gardens. Do you remember the 1970s in this country? Everything fast and wrapped in plastic. Twinkies, TV dinners, terrible foods wrapped in five layers of materials destructive to the earth. This is when I was a kid. I remember it. I’m still working on that childhood memories post, and most of it involves food I’d never eat today. And there simply wasn’t the plethora of foods available there is today. When I was flipping through Laurel’s Kitchen yesterday, I laughed when I saw a recipe for “Chinese Vegetables with Rice.” Back then, no one outside of the Asian community had made stir-fry.
So those authors–Carol Flinders, Bronwen Godfrey, and Laurel Robertson–were mavericks for their days. Except in Berkeley, however, where the old ways had never died out. One of my dear friends, Gabe, once said to me: “You know how most people’s idea of comfort food is macaroni and cheese? For me, it’s health food stores.” He was raised in Berkeley.
But me? I was raised in Southern California, land of shrink-wrapped plastic and the endless vapidity that comes from desperately wanting to look good, all the time, to preen for the camera. How well do you think imperfect, blemished organic fruit sold there? I don’t even remember lettuce other than iceberg. Those were good-food-impoverished times.
Somehow, I found this old battered copy of Laurel’s Kitchen at a Southern Californian garage sale, when I was fifteen. Maybe the original owner had gone on a health kick, bought the book, and tossed it aside. I clutched it to me, immediately. I read it, pages and pages at a time. Not only the recipes, which I dreamed of making, but also the narrative chapters on nutrition and how to balance proteins. And mostly, the introduction, which let me into these women’s kitchens as they baked bread meditatively, talked about politics and how to raise their families, and made everything from scratch. Their world seemed so much more at peace than mine, even though they were discussing the worst perturbations in society. They were doing something about it, rebelling, by making their own food. Of course, I was fifteen, when the interior scene is one long perturbation. But I didn’t know that then. Then, I just felt–someone has it right. I want to go there. I remember the feeling–I wanted to be in that kitchen.
Now that I think about it: how improbable. There I was, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, in 1981, longing for a life entirely not my own. Those were the days of feathered hair, Vans shoes, John Hughes movies, Op shorts, good Michael Jackson songs, Ronald Reagan, prosperity and the trickle-down theory. Greed is good–remember? I was surrounded by mass consumption, bright-white teeth, and the birth of MTV. What was I doing reading a hippie book?
It’s not like my parents were hippies. Anything but. My mother always professed a disdain for anything to do with the free-wheeling 60s. (Maybe because she was already married and had two babies by the Age of Aquarius.) She cooked, but she never cooked Laurel’s Kitchen kind of food. I loved her chicken enchiladas, but the green chiles came out of a can. And the chili casserole was topped with Fritos. The freezer was always filled with TV dinners and tubs of ice cream and frozen candy bars. We never made our own bread. I don’t blame Mom and Dad (who eat much better now), because they didn’t know any better. That food seeped into every part of our taste consciousness. Bigger!Prettier!More packaging! I lived the typical American food life, and I didn’t know anything different.
Until I started reading Laurel’s Kitchen.
I remember trying to make my own veggie burgers, inspired by the book. This was my brief attempt at being a vegetarian, which quickly failed. (It wasn’t until I was 20 that I made the switch for the next ten years.) Mom didn’t support it, so she told my younger brother and me that we had to make all our own food if we wanted something special. At the time, my tender heart rebelled against her edict. (I’m trying to save the animals!) But now, I see how that necessity taught me to experiment with food. Of course, the veggie burgers were a colossal nightmare. I tried to combine raw tofu, barely cooked lentils, and cottage cheese (most of the recipes in the first Laurel’s Kitchen seemed to involve cottage cheese) into patties and cook them on the grill. They flopped and sagged; they mostly fell into the coals. What remained tasted like soggy grit. Andy and I spit them out, and within a few weeks were back to eating the family’s meat.
I bet veggie burgers didn’t taste like that in Laurel’s kitchen.
Years and years have passed since I first read Laurel’s Kitchen. The book, along with others, inspired me to be a vegetarian, but now that’s a fact of the past. And in these past few months, I’ve been so focused on new cookbooks, new recipes, new ways of cooking gluten-free that I really hadn’t thought of Laurel and her friends at all. (Except for a fond smile when I placed the book on my new kitchen shelves.) Looking through it these past few days, and writing about this now, I’ve been swarmed with memories, and a lovely realization.
Here I am, fully an adult, living the life I imagined when I was fifteen. The life I read about in Laurel’s Kitchen. I eat whole foods, close to the ground. I buy only organic fruit and vegetables. I make my food from scratch, slow-roasting tomatoes and simmering soups all afternoon. I make my own bread (albeit gluten-free, and in the bread machine. But the machine part of that is going to change soon). All the hippie health ways have surprisingly entered my life. I thought acupuncture and naturopaths were nothing but woo-woo for years, but a terrible car accident convinced me I was wrong. The women wrote about trying meditation in the book, which intrigued me greatly when I was fifteen. Now, I’ve been a Buddhist for years, and I sit meditation every morning, before I go to school. And as soon as I finish this, I’m headed off to a yoga class, which stretches my muscles and mind three times a week.
(Okay, I know this is ridiculous, but I had to put in this photo of the carrot I found in my bag last night. Doesn’t it look like it’s attempting garuda pose?)
And the other day, after the custard, I remembered that I have to turn off the local radio show while I’m cooking.
I feel good, having arrived at this life that once seemed so exotic to me. But it’s not just me. I sense a slow shifting in this country, away from the fast pace and overly sugary foods. More and more stores have organic foods. More people are starting to cook their own meals. Tofu and stir-fries no longer seem foreign. And everything I’m reading on other food blogs seems to be about the challenge of eating local and the joys of spending hours in the kitchen. With all the emphasis on childhood obesity and the terrible American diet in the media, we’re finally starting to wake up. It’s about time.
And just like the women in Laurel’s Kitchen, I finally have my community in the kitchen, people with whom I can swap recipes, talk politics, and share our lives. My dear friends in Seattle fill my kitchen frequently. But no longer limiting myself to the small world around me, I have this wonderfully funny and loving community of food bloggers around the world. We’re the modern, global equivalent of church ladies putting together a cookbook for each other. And I would invite any of them into my humble little kitchen, any time.
I never could have seen this coming when I was a kid.
Everything good arrives in unexpected form. And I’m filled with gratitude, at having this life, this gluten-free life, this community of wonderful women (and a few men) online. I’m so grateful.
I have to admit: none of the recipes from the original Laurel’s Kitchen stand the test of time that well. Broccoli spears with yeast butter? Zucchini with green rice, which consists of parsley, rice, and cottage cheese? I wanted to make a recipe from the book, take pictures of it, and have it for dinner in honor this post. But I just couldn’t do it. When the book was first published, vegetarianism was odd enough that anything without meat seemed good. Now, of course, some of the best meals available in the world just happen to be vegetarian. It’s easy to make exquisite food that happens to avoid meat. And the updated Laurel’s Kitchen contains some darned fine recipes. But not the old one.
So, instead, I followed the ethos of the book and made do with the vegetables I had in the house. I gathered up carrots, celery, leeks, zucchini, baby bok choy, garlic, and the yellow pepper on my table. You could use any vegetables you wanted for this.
°Preheat the oven to 450°. ° Coat the vegetables in a light drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, and your favorite herb of the moment. (I used thyme last night.) °Pour the oiled vegetables into a roasting pan. (I like to line it with aluminum foil, to keep the pan tidier.) Put it into the oven for a good thirty minutes or so. Some of the vegetables, such as the leafy leeks or bok choy, will be ready sooner than the others. Take them out first. Vegetables are done when they are browned, glistening, and smell so heavenly that you can’t wait another moment to eat them.