I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.Thing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!Still and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.
Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.This includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.) Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!
Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.
Gimlet ['Vodka & Lime', as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.
Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:
S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)These are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!
Being good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.
Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.The work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.
The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.
Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.
The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.
It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.
Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)
Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you're not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.
(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)
When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.
It doesn’t always require a huge investment of time, materials or effort to effect a notable improvement around the house. No matter how gifted I am at procrastinating when it comes to DIY and fix-it projects around the place, I’m always kind of amazed to rediscover how small a thing can have such large-scale impact. It doesn’t mean that I learn from my experiences enough to behave sensibly and just get the tasks done without resistance, but I seldom fail to be impressed after the fact all the same.Take front door painting, for example. There wasn’t anything especially unpleasant, let alone wrong, with the existing paint on our front door. It was, in fact, in good condition, and even a pretty nice color. I do like this trim color on the house in general. What was a bit unsatisfactory to me was that with such a dark color on it, the front door seemed to me to actively recede from view into the shadows of the porch rather than appearing to welcome visitors approaching on the front path.
So I decided to paint the door a sprightly and fresh color that might liven up the entry and seem a little more encouraging to anyone who might be coming to knock there. I chose an apple green that I knew would mimic the brightest greens in the plantings around our yard and complement both the existing deep green trim paint and the earthy mix of colors in our brickwork. I chose a semi-gloss paint to reflect light without glaring and make the door even more visible from the street and path.Then I waited. I put it off for weeks. It was only a couple days’ work to mask, prep and triple-coat the door, but I could find any number of excuses to do Other Things, even put up the also-evaded porch Christmas lights, as long as I could avoid repainting the front door. That’s how I [don't] roll. Lazy People Unite!Well, I did finally get the task done. And it’s kind of impressive to me, yet again, how much this one little thing manages to change the look of the house. For the better, I think; in the name of fair play I must, of course, tell you that the manly member of the household is not yet convinced the change is for the better, but he doesn’t object so strenuously that I’m going to repaint it anytime soon. Besides, even if I do decide to repaint it, there’s no doubt it’ll take a good long while for the project to actually get done.
Ebenezer Scrooge was far from alone. And the holidays are certainly not the only time when Scrooge and his ilk get wound up. Still, big events and celebrations are and always have been pretty predictable catalysts and triggers for bad moods and attitudes of any sort. If we aren’t happy, we’re remarkably good at being as far opposite to it as we can figure out how to make ourselves. High horses are not so high that people don’t try to climb aboard them mighty often. High dudgeons are terribly popular dwellings with the general citizenry, who move into them and dig in our heels as though to that manor born.
Add to this our natural gifts for finding clouds obliterating every one of our silver linings, and t’s not much of a stretch to think that many of us are in a cynical competition to see who can be the snarliest, gnarliest meanie in existence. We’re always looking for the way to shoehorn yet more nasty junk and grim excuses for hideous horripilation into the darkest corners of ourselves and the universe. And when one looks for something hard enough, one almost always finds it. We may be a crotchety breed but we’re still good at some things. The latest news reports are always brimming over with greed and violence and hate. We make the news and we eat it up, too. More’s the pity.
Why even mention it? Because we have choices. And now, in the shadow of the latest awful tales of murder and depravity and betrayal and any sort of human ugliness you can (or maybe can’t) imagine, it’s holiday time once again. Christmas, yes, and Hanukkah, Ramadan, the New Year (westerners and the Chinese, for example, celebrating it in full gear), Kwanzaa, Tet, a birthday or two zillion. So many opportunities for blow-ups and melt-downs and general cussedness. And we don’t have to succumb to any of them. We can be better than that.
And we should. We should, most of all, when it’s time for all that holiday innocence-wisdom-love-light-and-warmth, stuff that can both exacerbate and offset darker things, choose to enhance it rather than the opposite. The greatest possible gift we can give to others and ourselves for any celebration is to be agents of innocence, wisdom, love, light and warmth instead of any passing urge to give in to crass or cranky behavior. Hugs and kisses are the order of the day. Make peace; be nice–it’s a holiday. Give in to it!
Comfort and security, that’s what I want. And I think I’m hardly unusual in that urge. Aside from the rare adrenaline junkies whose craving for danger and life on the edge knows no bounds, most of us like to have at least one place in life, on earth or in mind where we can crawl in, curl up and feel like nothing and no one can assail us there.
While I adore travel and I treasure those people and experiences and grand-and-glorious places that it has brought to my acquaintance, there’s at least a small part of me that may always be leaning toward Home. I don’t think of myself as an adventurer by any means at all, but I’ve grown a bit more attracted to the happy mysteries of the unfamiliar or even the exotic as I’ve gotten older, and I can appreciate much better how much wealth and delight the new and unexpected can often bring into my purview. Now, what I must keep in mind instead of a constant combat against my natural urge to shun all movement outward from my safe, soft center is that my concept of that person-place-or-thing identifiable as Home has changed, and can change, and certainly will change, because that’s exactly the sort of surprising flexibility that an even minimally worldly human can experience, once the crying need for total security is breached satisfactorily.
So here goes: once more I shall leap outward in hope and expectant happiness, and all at the same time remain busily, constantly honing the cozy little hideaway that will shelter my spirit and, if need be, my self when the adventures get a little overwhelming. With a cheery wave, when I’m not too tightly coiled up with my security blanket there, I shall ever bid you all a fond goodbye, farewell, and goodnight–and see you in the morning.
Most of us are taught from when we’re very small to avoid all contact with strangers. Don’t look them in the eye; don’t make friendly overtures, don’t speak to them, and don’t go running up and hugging random unknown characters. Above all, don’t accept the offer of candy or other lures from those who might turn out to be very lurid indeed.
All of that is mighty wise advice for little persons. They have no experience of the world, no basis for comparison or judgement, and no inner criteria to help them have a good chance of accurately assessing the situation. But when are we Big enough to learn that unfamiliar people are not only not all bad and dangerous but possibly in great need of any gracious and friendly contact they can possibly be given? When are we smart and experienced enough to realize that others around us are not always up to something nefarious or trying to sell us something we neither want nor need if they approach us out of the blue? When are we large-hearted enough to make a more hospitable evaluation of the risks or rewards in approaching the unknown with openness and warmth?
I have been told several stories recently that remind me of the opportunities that constantly surround us for making moves, both large and small, that have the potential to do anything from brightening someone else’s day to saving a life. Most of us fortunates have at some time and place in our lives ‘entertained angels unawares’–had a few of those moments of unexpected, extraordinary, beautiful contact with persons we didn’t know and understand that there are such agents in the world, even if we can’t immediately recognize them. Why not look for places where we can be those agents for no reason other than that we know from experience how powerful and life-changing, healing or hope-renewing, or just plain day-brightening such moments can be.
It is possible to be misinterpreted or rebuffed, true. But the vast majority of times that I’ve seen this sort of subversive joy-sharing happen without any ulterior motives, even if the recipient–sometimes me–is not altogether receptive at the outset, the end result is an astonished recognition that life is rather wonderful, that people, on the whole, are good and genuine and caring and fine, and that we have in our own small hands and hearts the astounding power of remaking ourselves and the world into better things by the simplest and least extravagant of means. A hug, a moment of patience where there has been tension. A donated dime or a pint of blood. A proffered packet of food or bottle of water that had been meant for something or someone else. Handing off the little trinket that was mine but that I can see another one admires or opening the box of treats I was saving for the family and sharing it instead with someone I don’t even know. Opening doors and assisting with chairs and lifting the parcel that’s too heavy for someone else.
They may seem tiny and insignificant enough. For those of us who choose to give them, they amount to easily made gestures. But insignificant? Hardly. For those of us who dared not, who may not have even known we could, ask–this one little mark someone offered to make on our day may mean, after it all, the whole world.
A fond farewell should only end the start
Of what emerged from nothing to become
Much greater than its origins, a home
For all that’s good and gracious in the heart–
What had begun in silence has grown deep
And richer than imagining could guess,
A tapestry of joy and tenderness,
A score of blended notes that time will keep–
Whose voices came together first in this
True confluence of sound and sweet accord
Cannot again move aught but closer toward
Such harmony as, now it’s found, is bliss–
For in love’s benedictory refrain
Awakens what all hearts must sing again.
With gratitude to all at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas,
and especially to the choir, for welcoming us so kindly during this past year.
Big pigs: who, me? Yes, I’ve admitted to it many a time. Being a food-loving piggy myself, and being terribly fond of the gifts of the pig to food-lovers. I fully understand that vegans, vegetarians, Muslims, Jews, those with health restrictions, and any number of others have valid, legitimate and honorable reasons (philosophical, physiological, religious, ethical, etc.) for not eating pigs; my own litmus test for foods is also personally derived and has much more to do with how much respect has been given the plant or creature in question in its tending while alive, in its preparation when being readied to eat and, especially in how it is used for sustenance and, often, the building of community. So no, I would never dream of knowingly serving pork to any of the aforementioned friends. But I am content to obtain and prepare and consume it myself with respect and gratitude. I have no wish to offend, any more than my abstemious friends would judge me for my being a carnivore. Those who wish to do so are of course very welcome to skip this post entirely.
Meanwhile, back at the board, I will say that I am often quite happy to eat vegetarian style too. I never feel deprived when the food pleases my palate, no matter what the range or contents of the menu, and I can easily be just as blissful about a superb salad, an ounce of outstandingly fresh pistachios, or a pan of colorful mixed roasted vegetables (on tonight’s menu again, as it happens). And good fresh fruit, well since that combines the flavor and vitamins and juicy joys of good health-giving food with the sweetness of dessert, why, you know that I am happy to plunge right into that when it’s offered.
No surprise, then, that I was so delighted when that scrawny little $4 twig I bought this winter first burst into leaf and then, to my great amazement, produced lovely, plump Brown Turkey figs. It inspires me to think that perhaps I shall be able to grow some produce of other kinds if I put my mind to it, despite the challenging temperatures and soil character here in the roasty-toasty land of north Texas.
But to return to my porcine loves, I have eaten pork in almost uncountable ways and have loved a great many of them. One standby favorite is a well-made ham. I will happily bypass any of those artificially ‘enhanced’ varieties that are injected with water and so many other, less savory, ingredients and often are processed to the degree that they are no longer recognizable as meat, let alone pork. But a good pit-smoked ham, well, there’s a sweet-and-savory treat of which I am immensely appreciative. I love oven roasted and glazed hams, too, even boiled ones, but I think my affections are most readily given to an unadorned and slightly fumy beauty right out of the smoker.
One of the benefits of being in Texas is that I do have access to a few places that produce such ethereal goodness. As a result, I can often indulge in a meal of simply sliced ham with vegetables or salad or, on a wintry day, perhaps with mashed or roasted sweet or russet potatoes. Or, as I did the other day, with a heap of fabulously fresh and sweet fruits. And of course any leftover bits may be tossed into other welcome meals of the same. Or into sandwich fillings. Or casseroles. Or, as on the day following the feast of ham and figs (and avocado and strawberries and pineapple), next mixed with minced roasted chicken, dill and pepper and stirred into eggs for a quick frittata. Because if ham is good one day in my kitchen, it’s probably a treat for three days in a row if I’ve shopped wisely enough.Just now, though, I guess I’d better dash out and check the baby fig tree to see if I can beat the raccoons to the next ripe piece of tree-candy.
It’s said that Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, and regardless of your beliefs, a clean kitchen is surely going to keep you closer to the desirable state of ideal health and well-being than a slovenly one. A rotten, filthy kitchen, on the contrary, may well send you off to meet your maker (or annihilation) with unwelcome rapidity. In my experience, Good Eating is Next to Perfect Happiness.
Simply eating well–whether of the most esoteric or exotic or splendidly gourmet meals, or of the handful-of-greens with some impeccably ripe apricots, a speck of salt and pepper and a drizzle of lemon-infused honey pristineness–that act of tasting and enjoying is its own reward. Love of good eating and the happiness that accompanies and follows it are worthy sorts of pleasures.
The process by which the meal or nibble is achieved can be grand delights, too. Just happening on the desired food serendipitously, even sometimes without having realized there was a desire at all, is lovely. Planning a dish, a menu, an event can be a satisfying challenge and adventure. Hunting (in field, stream or market) can be your surprisingly meditative, endorphin-brewing action sequence to prepare for the meal making itself.
Along with all of this is the primary joy of dining with others: the communal happiness and yes, meaning that can be cultivated in shared eating. The love of good food is magnified, multiplied exponentially, by the reflection of that affection between those at table. With strangers and acquaintances, it is the magnanimity–the largeness of spirit–inherent in hospitality that binds and bonds us. Among friends and loved ones, the food is both expression and enhancement of the finest graces in our connections to one another. And I can think of no lovelier thing to stock in my kitchen than that.