My father loves to tell this story.
Apparently, when I was three years old, my father entered the living room, where he saw me sitting on the edge of the couch. He was horrified to see me clutching my head in my hands, firmly.
“Shauna, do you have a headache?” he quotes himself.
He swears that I looked up at him and said, “Does it ever stop?”
“Does what stop?” he asked me, confused.
“My brain. Does it ever stop working?”
Now, I don’t remember this, but it resonates. All my life, I’ve been thinking, hard, about everything that happens to me. Most of my life, I was over-thinking. Spinning, my friends and I call it, when ideas whirl around in there like a jangling top, threatening to topple over at any point. That thinking? Useless. After learning how to meditate — and particularly after falling in love with the Chef — I have found a stillness I didn’t know I was seeking.
Thinking, however? That still goes on all day long. And for the past few days, I have been thinking about a post I wrote last week. Innocuous and sweetly sly in the writing, this post took on a life of its own. Eventually, it reached its tentacles into the farthest reaches of my mind.
* * *
The personal attacks? I hadn’t expected them. I didn’t publish the worst of them, but they have tugged at my memory, of course. The internet seems to breed a certain pernicious malice — people feel they have the right to bash and smack and sadden the people who are trying to write their lives. And then they sneak away, safe under the moniker of “anonymous.” However hurtful the comments were, I tried to remember the paucity of life of anyone who writes long, vitriolic attacks on the mind and body of someone he has never met. This happens to everyone on the web. I set those aside.
The letters that poured in, urging to me to keep writing in spite of the nasty comments? Those were dear to me. They also surprised me. Stop writing? Banish the thought. No matter what happens, I’ll be writing here, in some form. Who knows what this website will contain a year from now? All I know is that it will remain here, steadfast.
One letter, in particular, however, moved me to tears. This is what I have been thinking about most, these past few days:
“I am not much of a cook but I have always had aspirations of at least improving upon my very basic skills. My boyfriend moved in with me, from out of state, a little over a year ago and I began to test new recipes. We were cooking together and experimenting with new vegetables and spices. I was eating less and less pre-packaged foods. I was beginning to really enjoy my time in the kitchen and was feeling healthier than I had felt in some time.
But the secret that I will share is that my boyfriend also spent that time battling (and succumbing to) his addiction to alcohol and drugs. He slid and slid until he became non-functional. So my kitchen time disappeared as I had to take a second job to support us both (plus the dog and two cats). And my food budget has gone from feeding us the healthiest foods possible to the cheapest foods possible. His family has very little to offer by means of financial (or emotional) support and I feel as though I’ve let my family down when I ask them for help.
I felt a need to send a reminder that “obesity in the United States is very much an economic issue.” (Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) “It’s a question of money,” Drewnowski said. “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.”
Thanks for letting me share my experience with you. I don’t want you to stop your game. I love anything that brings a couple closer together. The only reason that I’m sharing this with you is because I need for you, or maybe I need the universe to know, that the food in my cart in no way reflects the person I am, or wish to become again. I am college educated, middle-class (or used to be), and very aware of what I need in order to live a healthy life. I also know that right now, I am just trying to live. But my, hopefully, brief “bout” with poverty has opened my eyes to the plight of the poor.
Best wishes to you, and the Chef!”
(The above passage is quoted with the author’s permission.)
I have to admit this — since we read this letter, and discussed it for days, the Chef and I have not been able to look in other people’s carts and make disparaging comments.
* * *
I don’t know much, in the end. As compassionately as I try to behave in this world, I have never truly gone hungry.
Good food — sadly — is a class issue.
We try to buy organic, from small farms, free-range, cage-free, well-fed, local, fresh, in season, and consciously. As much as I believe that buying good food, in whole form, is cheaper than all those boxes, I may be wrong. I have never tried to live within the food budget of someone on welfare, for example.
If you read this story, which appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week, you might start thinking for days too. Read, particularly, about the woman who has diabetes, and knows how she should be eating. However, all she can afford are those tv dinners that cost 10 for $10.
How many kids with celiac are living on frozen fish sticks and remaining sick, because their parents cannot afford specialty gluten-free foods? Or even fresh fruit? (I won’t even go into the inequity in health care here.)
Not many people keeping a food blog, and very few who read them, lives below the poverty line.
As one of my friends wrote to me, after reading this piece: “It’s easy to think that just by shopping smarter/healthier and eating less (as Pollan suggests) that you
can get by, but that comes from a pretty privileged point-of-view.”
* * *
So many readers, last week, commented to me about my transparency, how much of myself I share here. Honestly, I don’t know how to write any differently now, as I wrote about in this post.
But I also realize it is a choice. I am choosing to write this, now, with the permission of the Chef, rather than penning something political and removed from myself.
You may believe, if you read this blog regularly, that the Chef and I live outrageously well. We do, in love and presence, but not in cash.
The fact is, we have decided to follow our grand passion. It so happens that good food is essential to us both, one of the fuels of our relationship, as well as one of the ways we connect best with the world. In order to eat as well — and play with our food the way we like — we have to make the conscious decision, every day, to spend most of our disposable income on good food.
And maybe we should. If those of us who can afford it insist upon the best food supply possible, maybe good food will become more ubiquitous, eventually.
However, we do choose, consciously. Some might call it sacrifices instead of choices. We buy all our clothes at Goodwill and Value Village. We drive a ten-year-old car, kindly donated to us by my parents as an engagement present, because the twenty-year-old car I was driving was pronounced a hazard to the road by the mechanics. We don’t go to the movies, even though we both adore them. Most months, we limit ourselves to the two-dvd maximum on Netflix. We rent, not own. We have little in savings. Whatever we do put aside at the end of the month goes toward future travel. Since we met, we haven’t bought any new electronic equipment or furniture. We allow ourselves one new book or cd a month. I haunt the libraries of Seattle for new favorite cookbooks. We only go out to eat about once a month, perhaps more if we are really feeling flush or celebrating. Almost all of our kitchen equipment has come through hand-me-downs or thrift store finds from Brandon.
And my beautiful engagement ring? I bought it for myself, a year before I met the Chef, at a thrift store. It called to me. It cost ten dollars. I hoped I would need it some day, because it looked like an engagement ring to me.
He was utterly thrilled that he didn’t have to buy me a diamond.
But I have been mystified by the numbers of female friends who have insisted that he should.
Don’t feel bad for us. That is not the point of this writing. We are gloriously happy. And we agree — we don’t need things to make us feel happy. We prefer to live more simply, as close to the ground as possible. A decent apartment, lots of light, a computer for me to write on, a camera to take photographs of the food we make, and each other. Mostly, each other.
And even though in archetypal American terms, we don’t have much, we know that we are blessed. Contrasted with a huge sector of this country, we live like kings. And in contrast with most of the rest of the world, we live embarrassingly well.
We are blessed. And even though I wrote about the little snarky habit we have, sometimes, of being horrified at processed food, most of the time we are counting our blessings. It’s hard to look down at our grocery cart full of food and not feel blessed.
* * *
In the end, it’s about bounty. How much we have been given, and how much we can give back.
Living with the CFP in London taught me, most viscerally, how sickening too much money can be. They threw away their money in fistfuls, always demanding truffle oil and caviar flown in from Russia that morning. And yet, they were desperately unhappy. A little dead inside. Simply having the money — and the snottiness of a “foodie” — to buy the best food in the world did not nourish them.
One of the best foods I ate when I worked for them doesn’t cost much to make. Christa, the cook in New York, made the best potato-leek soup I had ever eaten, up to that point in my life. Madame CFP thought it a bit dull — there was nothing in it that demonstrated she had money — but Mr. CFP couldn’t eat enough potatoes. He requested that Christa make a big pot of this every Saturday, so he could eat bowls of it on Sunday. Usually, there was just enough left for me.
This recipe is from the Chef. He makes it in his restaurant, where customers and wait staff alike moan a bit when they taste it. But look at the ingredients: it doesn’t cost more than about $10 to feel like you are living in luxury.
¼ cup good-quality olive oil
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
4 leeks, white part only, cut in half lengthwise, rinsing in cold water
5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Bring a large stockpot to heat on a burner of the stove. When a drop of water sizzles on the surface and evaporates, add the olive oil. When the olive oil runs around the bottom of the pot as easily as water, add the onions and garlic. Cook them for a moment, stirring occasionally to make sure they do not burn.
Drain the leeks, pat them dry, and chop them, roughly. Add the leeks to the onions and garlic cooking in the stockpot. Peel the potatoes, then quarter and chop them. When the onions and leeks are soft, add the fresh herbs to the mix. Cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes. Cover with cold water by one inch.
Cook on high heat until your paring knife will slide right through one of the potatoes, which might take about fifteen minutes. Puree the soup in a blender, in batches. Strain each batch and put it back in a pot. Repeat until you have pureed and strained all the soup.
Add the cream and butter to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer. Simmer the soup for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure that you stir the bottom of the pot, because that is where the soup will burn. When the soup has reduced to the point of being as thick as the soup you want to eat, take the soup off the burner and serve immediately.
Of course, it will taste even better the second day.
Serves six to eight.