hands hard at work making food

local pig

These days, it seems, my best ideas for food comes from other people’s hands.

Have you ever watched the hands of someone who really knows how to cook? Ask him about how to prepare a recipe, and he’ll start pinching salt in the air. He scoops up sausages and flings them into hot fat, flicks his wrist to fill the bowl with two cups of sorghum flour, and pushes the skillet back and forth on the heat. All in memory, his hands curving shapes in the air.

Once, I thought that being a good cook meant finding the perfect recipe. I searched for great food through my head. Now, I know: it’s all in the hands.

Watch someone who loves food talk about it. Did you try that chocolate toffee? (Fist clenched, up against the mouth, trying to taste it.) That meringue was light as air. (Hand open, spinning around like a cotton candy machine going at full whirl.) That was the best meal of my entire life. (Palms against eyes, as though she can’t look at the rest of the world for a moment, to better remember it.) It’s all in the gestures.

Two days ago, the Chef and I stood at the farmers’ market, answering questions about food and signing books. Whenever there was a lapse in conversation, I watched the hands of everyone who went by. Gnarled hands gripped around a bunch of parsnips. Smooth hands with pink polished nails reaching for braising greens. Wrinkled hands with tufts of hair between brown liver splotches, pointing out the homemade pies at the next stand over. We cannot hide our hands.

It started to make more sense to me, that day, why it is I love farmers’ marketsso. It’s not just because the price of the food is so much better than what I find in grocery stores, imported from 1500 miles away. It’s not only for the camaraderie, and the chance to talk to farmers and butchers and bakers every week. It’s just that food tastes better to me when the hands that planted the seeds, watered the plants, and pulled those vegetables up from the roots are also the hands that place the food in my hands.

People who respect the food know how to make it well.

As we stood there talking, the man who runs Taylor Shellfish came up to say hello. The recent rains had obliterated his chance of catching clams that week, so he was walking around the market as a shopper, for the first time in years. Naturally, he began talking about food. “I have some baby back ribs marinating,” he said, stirring with his right hand. “I put tamarind paste, brown sugar, mangoes, and red chiles in there.”
“When is dinner?” I joked.
“Yeah, I know,” he laughed, his hands relaxed at his sides. “I’ve also got this persimmon sauce I’m going to try tonight. One of the girls who works at that stand over there told me about it.”
A minute later, we were talking of something else, when he blurted out: “Hey, that’s her!”
A young woman with a print skirt and bags full of produce stopped to talk with us.
“Hey,” I said, gesturing with my hands to grab her attention. “I heard you made this amazing persimmon sauce. What did you put in it?”
She grinned, and then stretched out her hand, squinched up her eyes, and tried to recite it. “Well, it was mostly persimmons….” At this she put her hand over her eyes, as though to block out the entire world. Her other hand started adding ingredients to a pot.
She looked up at us, hands open in a gesture of defeat. “You know, I don’t go by recipes. I just stand at the stove and make food.”

We all laughed and agreed. Then we waved goodbye to each other, our hands open, not frozen.

apple cider braised pork shoulder

Apple-cider-braised pork shoulder

While we were at the farmers’ market on Saturday, blowing into our fists to warm them, our friends Pete and Kristi came up to say hello. It only took us about two minutes to begin talking about food.

“I made this braised pork shoulder the other day,” Pete said, gesturing to the west. “I got the meat from that stand down there.”
“What did you do with it?” I asked him.
He mimicked cutting up onions, searing them in the skillet, and glugging out apple cider from a jar.
The Chef groaned beside me. I could tell he wanted to eat it.
So at the end of the morning, we mosied over to Sea Breeze Farms for a pork shoulder. These folks grow their pigs and slaughter them humanely on Vashon Island, approximately 15 miles away from that stand. The pork was pink and fleshy, ample portioned and gleaming fresh. We had to buy it.
On the other side of the market was Wade from Rockridge Orchards, who makes the rich, thick apple ciders that taste of autumn and twinging tastes of nutmeg and allspice. For a week, I have been drinking giant mugs of hot cider as I sit at the computer. Swaddled around a pork roast? We both sighed at the thought of it.
A stop at the stand run by the man with the most weather-worn hands for the season’s best shallots, and our favorite stand for herbs for a clutch of thyme, and we were ready to cook.

Frankly, you don’t need this recipe. You could take all these ingredients, stand over the stove, and make beautiful food with your hands.

But if you want a starter recipe, here’s one we think you’ll like.

¼ cup dijon mustard
¼ cup whole grain mustard
2 ½ pound pork shoulder roast
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
6 small shallot bulbs, peeled and rough chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and fine chopped
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and chopped
½ gallon of best apple cider you can find

Preparing the pork shoulder. Mix the two mustards together, then add the salt and pepper. Stir. Slather the entire mixture over the pork shoulder. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°.

Searing the pork shoulder. Bring a Dutch oven (or cast-iron skillet) to medium-high heat. Add the canola oil and bring it to heat. Lay the pork shoulder down in the sizzling oil. Allow it to sizzle and pop for about five minutes, or until that side has browned. Carefully, turn the shoulder over and brown the other side. Take the pork shoulder out of the pan and set it aside.

Sautéing the shallots and garlic
. Turn the heat down to medium. Put the shallots into the hot oil. Cook, stirring, until they are soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the thyme and cook until it releases its fragrance, about 1 minute. Add the pork shoulder back to the Dutch oven.

Braising the shoulder. Pour the apple cider into the Dutch oven. Put the lid on the pot and slip it in the oven. Cook until the warm pork and cider smell makes you lose your mind unless you take it out of the oven right now, about 3 hours, with the internal temperate between 150° and 155°.

Serves 6.

20 comments on “hands hard at work making food

  1. lwc

    Thank you for coming to the University Bookstore to read and share with us. It was a pleasure meeting you and Chef and sharing. Big thank you for your blog, your book and your infectious joy for life and food.

  2. Just the Right Size

    Oh, you’re killing me! Hubby and I want to move to your neck of the woods next year (we’re in Florida). We were in Seattle for our honeymoon last August and fell head-over-heels.

    You really are a lucky duck with all that fresh food and produce. Sigh.

  3. caroline

    Hmm, that explains why us Italians and Italian-Americans are notorious for talking with our hands!

    Do you find that you treat farmers’ market produce differently than the produce you buy at the grocery store? I don’t feel too awful throwing out grocery store vegetables that have gone bad, but I won’t let farmers’ market vegetables get to that point. I know that someone put a lot of effort into growing them– they’re almost like a small works of art– and it would be disrespectful to let them go to waste.

  4. Lora

    I also make an apple cider braised pork roast…my recipe is a little different then yours so I look forward to making yours to compare.

  5. V

    This is a lovely post…it reminded me of one of my beloved books… Here is a quote: “Cooking is done with feeling and a sense of being, which is why the recipes in this book use measurements that are not static and mechanical. We use pinches, scoops, and handfuls as our standards of measure. With touch we imbue the inredients with our energies: this is cooking from the heart.” (from Kundalini Yoga Cookbook)
    You really captured that in this post! It is a peaceful thing to cook with our being… And it’s just plain fun!


  6. EB of www.spicedish.typepad.com

    Ummm so yeah… beyond persimmons… what else goes in that recipe?! It sounds amazing and would go really well with your pork!

  7. Jessamyn

    I love this! I know my hands do weird things when I talk but I don’t dare think about it too much. What a great idea to describe a conversation in terms of the hand motions, especially when it’s about food.

    I’m finding your blog very inspiring, it helps me remember why I love to cook. I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  8. marmoset

    16Just finished reading your lovely book. Gluten is not an issue for me, but making great food is.

    Tried this pork recipe tonight. Tossed in some carrots, too. My husband and I loved it. Normally, mustard is not my favorite flavor, but mixed with the sweetness of cider, it’s magical.

    Thank you!

  9. aubrey

    oh YUM. shauna that braised pork shoulder sounds divine. and so perfect for a winters meal. and thanks for the tips of where to buy local.

    it was great meeting you last night! you write so beautifully on your blog and are so passionate and inspiring in real life. it was wonderful hearing you read your own words!

  10. Shauna


    thank you so much for being there. It was lovely to meet you. I was so humbled and happy.

    Just the RIght Size,

    Oh, we know. We feel daily blessed to live here, let me tell you. Come on back, if you fell head over heels.


    Oh yes, I do. When I don’t eat the potatoes that Brent Olsen grew, I feel personally responsible. I think that’s the thing. Food doesn’t feel anonymous anymore.


    Thank you. That observation makes us all better cooks, I think.


    I’d love to see your recipe.


    What a beautiful quote from the Kundalini yoga book. My goodness, thank you for saying my writing reminded you of that!


    I really don’t know what else went in there! She truly wouldn’t remember, and wouldn’t try. Maybe you could try one and let us know?


    I’m such a hand talker! The Chef always insists I have to stop when I drive. That’s one of the reasons I notice other people’s gestures so much.


    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book (I hope that many who can eat gluten will find it too), and that you enjoyed the pork. i love that mustard taste too.


    Oh my dear, thank you so much for coming last night. It was pure joy to meet you. And you asked such a great question!

  11. Riana Lagarde

    your writing is so beautiful! reminds me of my old seattle days and makes me wish that i paid more attention to those hands around all of us.

  12. Sean

    Great post and insight into the little things that making cooking so personal and meaningful. One qualm though; there is no “humanely slaughtered” meat. One might raise an animal according to better welfare standards but slaughter will always remain a violent and unecessary act.

  13. Karyn


    I’v read your blog for a little whil now, and thought that I would finally comment. I have autoimmune issues, and the next time I get a physical, I’m going to ask about celiac disease. I have enough of the symptoms that it could be a possibility.

    Your blog gives me hope that I could – if I need to – live a life without wheat. I love wheat, and want to keep eating it, but hey, hope.

  14. Catherine


    Karyn, I have endometriosis, and went wheat-free to try to deal with that, and it has made such a difference!


    loves looking at hands…you can see so much about someone from their hands

  15. Mercedes

    Oh so well written. I’m a former dancer so I’m guilty of always talking with my hands, but it has never been described so flatteringly or mouth-watering-ly.

    Last year we made a turkey roulade with apple cider gravy (adapted from Gourmet). I had always hated gravy until that moment, really transformative.

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