Over the years I have started and stopped, picked up and put down working on a book about my relationship to food, trying to gather and put order to my thoughts and recipes so many times as to be farcical. I have played endlessly with layout software, exploring various page designs, only to find myself disenchanted by the process—probably a ploy on my part to really not get down to business. But I truly have wanted to get down to business compiling thought and recipe and error and discovery in the simple, solitary way I have gone about deepening my relationship to vegetables and the instinctive process involved in cooking them into dishes that tell my palate and taste buds stories.
Perhaps what has been a cog in the wheel has been my "adamant" ways : no glossy pictures, no cups and ounces as measurements, no one looking over my shoulder editing my words… Guess I need my relationship to writing a book of recipes to be as intimate and homespun as the way I teach those same recipes in my cooking classes.
In truth, I mostly shirk at, shrink from the fancy, the sculpted, the trendy, the let-me-entertain-you, the blow-your-mind aspects of what is or has become—to a great extent, it feels to me—the world of food-ing. The swirling onslaught of it all so clouds my thoughts and hampers me—I know, I should just not let in all the clamor. But it seems hard to keep it out; it has so exploded—with such spirit—everywhere. And yes, there is a multitude of wonderful enthusiasm therein.
So what to do? Retreat and quietly write, posting the pages of my book weekly on my blog. I'll follow the seasons in the kitchen and with my pen, and figure it’ll take at least a full season cycle to complete my work. Then I'll finally give it book form.
So here goes! Do hope you'll follow along through the weeks and seasons.
UNDRESSING VEGETABLES : an unfolding book of recipes
UNDRESSING VEGETABLES : an unfolding book of recipes
INTRODUCTION : a bit about my journey
It all started back one day in 1962 when my mother came home toting a Challenger juicer. Before I knew it I had a glass of fresh carrot juice, almost neon orange, in my hand. Do I remember the initial sensation as I took the first sip? Suffice it to say my mouth was aflame with a tale of tastes and sensations theretofore unknown, and I rapidly became a fan.
Then followed cashew butter and whole wheat bread—out with the Wonder loaf. Butter took the place of Margarine, Crisco disappeared from our chocolate chip cookie dough. As for our breakfast cereal, Swiss muesli—the raw stuff—became a staple. Although I do remember the first time I put a milky spoonful of it in my mouth. I was home sick and, playing up my woeful state, pleaded my mom to bring me a late morning snack of sugary cereal, you know Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops and the like. She obliged, arrived at my bedside and handed me a bowl, which I greedily took. Looking down I saw something quite unfamiliar and gave her a querying glance. "Muesli,” she said, assuring me it was quite delicious. I almost spit the first spoonful across the room: a sensation of straw or wood chips suddenly filled my mouth and, mind you, it was completely void of that usual “onslaught” of sweetness. I did grow to love that totally raw cereal, still quite artisan at that time: its texture, the subtle yet lingering flavors.
There were also the huge raw salads my mother started preparing: fresh broccoli, carrots, green beans, green onions, cauliflower, apple, surely sunflower oil—not yet extra-virgin—and lemon juice. We’d all pitch in cutting and tossing and before long there’d be a mountain of earthy goodness to dig into.
Why this sudden change in our diet? My mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Now being a born-again Christian who took the words of the Bible at face value—“by my stripes you are healed”—she had elected to let Jesus heal her, and never returned to her gynecologist, who had wanted to schedule an operation. She saw "no reason to cut out those good organs that have served me so well," as she later told me. She had given birth to 6 rambunctious kids.
Through a dear German friend and fellow Christian she was introduced to a physician, Dr. Pfleuger, who had immigrated to the States from Germany and was treating cancer patients in his Los Angeles home with “diet,” convinced, as we're other doctors and medical researchers from across the seas, such as Catherine Kousmine, of the connection between a healthy diet and the remission of cancer.
Whether it was her faith, her will, the carrot juice and raw salads, a slight misdiagnosis, a spontaneous regression, or a mixture of them all, she is alive today and as feisty as ever, not having stepped foot into a doctor’s office again until well into her eighties.
The upshot of this bit of familial history is that my siblings and I, from an early age, became converts of healthy eating. Indelible the impressions of all those brilliant, complex flavors and the stories they tell that impregnated our taste buds and memory.
Plucking another memory from those sifting, shifting sands of childhood, churning with its endless discoveries. Up until the age of 7, I was simply ignorant of where the vegetables served to me at mealtime came from, city kid that I was. Or I had just never thought about it. Well one day the question bounced into my mind and came straight out of my mouth. My mother's reply came as quite a shock, leaving me teetering as I tried to grasp the fact that all those carrots, onions, potatoes, broccoli, green beans, sweet peas that I ate were grown in dirt, harvested from it. Wasn't dirt dirty? The idea of fertile soil burgeoning with microscopic bacterial life was nowhere in my mental landscape. I remember wandering out to the lawn and positing myself in front of the large landscaped planter gorging with succulents, cactus and the like that lined the facade of our house. And there I had a talk with the dirt. Perhaps our chat reassured me that all was in order, the natural order of things, or it just suddenly didn't seem like such a radical—even disgusting—bit of reality, as I do recall making piece with the concept. I think I even brought a pinch of dirt up to my mouth and tasted it—the beginning of my understanding of "terroir."
Stride forward a few years to when I was 18 and had just moved into my first apartment, a little studio with windows round like those of a ship's, beautiful wooden paneling from floor to ceiling, like a captain's quarters, an open kitchen and the waves of the Pacific just across the lane and a slight strand of ocean sand called Sunset Beach that snuggled up to Santa Monica.
After moving in I dutifully went to the supermarket for a big shopping then got to stirring up my very first dinner on my own. I remember frying up a choice cut of meat I had chosen to inaugurate this propitious moment. Sitting down to dig in I put the first bite into my mouth. Ohhh, the sudden swell of blood!
Now I don't recall my mind—or palate—having ever questioned the practice of eating meat at home around the table with my 5 siblings and mother. In fact I was most often the one doing the cooking. Was it family ritual, the scents and flavors of food underpinning it; the already braying commotion of life together and not wanting to rock the boat; the being one of a unit and wanting to do my part to hold it together that had never brought to my senses the slightest questioning of eating meat? I imagine so.
But that night on my own something seemed suddenly awry. I put my fork down and that was for the most part the end of my life as a carnivore. It was also the end of supermarkets on the whole—I thank my mother's influence for that! I began shopping at the small "hippie" health food stores scattered here and there around the beachfront—when organic was still a “suspicious” word—and eating organically and I've never stopped.
Now all this healthy eating was wonderful, but it was also that summer that I decided to "go on a diet” though there was absolutely no need for any such regime. I was one skinny lady, having been blessed with quite a fiery metabolism, and I could—and did—eat large amounts of food without gaining an ounce. My "diet" was actually something more psychological: anorexia would be the term. It consisted of a couple three peaches a day, a program I faithfully followed for a couple weeks, quite proud of my willpower and accomplishment. Preening in front of the mirror, I was more than pleased at what I saw—or imagined I saw.
It was then I went off on a weekend to the Russian River with friends. There was an 8-mm camera among the bunch of us and a short film was shot of our frolicking, which was screened the following week in my apartment. Gathered around the portable screen (or was it a hung white sheet) the lights went out and the film filled our vision. I was having a great laugh with the others at our cavorting until suddenly there I appeared, center screen. I was so taken by aback, stunned, completely aghast at the image of myself: emaciated, almost skeletal. I hadn’t prepared for such a viewing in my mind’s eye and it was a stark wake up call. So stark that any further intent at anorexic behavior was expelled from my being.
Not that I was over the hump regarding my sense of self—or lack thereof—which surely was at the bottom of my behavior, and thus the relationship to my body and self image, and likewise to food. Emotional wounds run deep. I simply shifted from one eating disorder to another: bulimia. And I found myself increasingly caught up in an impelling cycle of binging and purging that lasted into my early thirties.
I’ll never forget the day I finally triumphed over it. That morning I woke up deeply frustrated, utterly distressed at my inability to control the impulse to stuff my belly, my body, my “self.” It was shopping day, time to stock the fridge for the week. Well this time I was determined not to fall prey to binging, as was the case after each big excursion to the market; once I’d put everything away, I’d start right in gorging.
As I crawled out of bed I made a pact with myself: I resolved this time to control myself, to overcome the intensity of the urge to eat. I got dressed for the day and off I went to Mrs. Gooch’s, my natural food store of predilection, joyously filling my cart with fresh produce, my favorite dairy items, honey, nut butter and the like.
Back home, I attentively emptied my shopping bags, consciously placing each item in its place. But no sooner had I finished than I crumbled, overpowered, as by a powerful tide, by the “need” to gorge. Before I knew it I was licking almond butter from a knife, ripping open a package of crackers, lifting the lid off of the cottage cheese. Then a spring broke: boing! A fury flooded me. My voice flew from my chest in hurling, blood-curdling screams. I began to dance a bestial dance of trance, flinging cottage cheese on wall and carpet, frenetically smearing it on my my body, lathering my hair with it, honey, almond butter, any food substance at hand. Crushed crackers flew through the air, falling like pattering rain to the ground. And I stomped and I howled and I “burned the house down.” I have no idea how long this went on, thirty seconds, a minute, two at most, though it seemed like an eternity. Time had disappeared; I had entered a vortex.
When I came back to my senses, I was purged—yes—and haggard, dizzy, trembling, sobbing. The house looked as though it had been through a cataclysm, as did I dressed in a lather of sticky, oily, greasy foods. It's a wonder no one called the police; it must have sounded like someone was being murdered. Perhaps in a sense that is what went on. But what was murdered—or exorcised—was a force that had held me prisoner for so long.
It took time to weave together a healthy relationship with food, with eating, with nourishing myself. That's where France comes in the picture. In 1980 I took off for the City of Lights, my guitar in stow. Over the months I lived there I “discovered” a culture of food and table that would bit by bit become a precious aid in my learning how to eat, how to savor what was on my plate—not difficult given the amazing fresh produce and artisan products of French cuisine back then—how to sensibly nourish my body and spirit, and take away from the table a sensation of healing satiety. What a blessing!
Finally came a trip to Italy a year or so later. Genoa to be exact. I don't know what it was in the air, in the landscape, in the Genoese attitude and manners, but I couldn't get away from this image of dirt under each person's fingernails, embedded in the lines of their hands. Something so earthy, so robust, so simple inhabited their culture. Perhaps because Italian culture is so connected to its regional and rustic cuisines and thus to the humble earth and its greens and roots, bulbs and fruits...
Invited for dinner to the home of my Italian friend one evening, I stood in the kitchen talking with his mother and watching her make a salad. Mounds of succulent lettuce leaves she dressed by simply drizzling them with olive oil—that excellent Ligurian stuff—gently tossing to coat them before adding a splash of good wine vinegar and a sprinkle of salt. It was simply exquisite! Simply humble. Simply dressed—or was it simply undressed.
Which brings me to the present and my simply wanting to undress vegetables, to give them their noble, humble nakedness. Let them tell their story unadorned. What better way to nourish the body, to nourish a connectedness with the earth, to nourish the spirit.
See you next week!