07 June 2007

Strawberry letter #23

Memorable meals with people I love are just stupendous. Food and drink really should be cause for celebration, and should take time (no, to molecular gastronomy, but a resounding yes! yes! yes! to slow food...and I'm not talking just preparation).

Tonight, I was reading in Saveur magazine, a writer's story of the profound impact that meals with an older French friend had had on his life and approach to food. I have been cooking since a pretty young age. I think I first "made" something when I was 4 or 5. My mother had been cooking navy bean soup, and I remember playing with celery strings and leaves and stray beans and bits of carrot. I put them all in a tiny medicine cup with a little water and let it "cook" on the counter for several hours. I insisted that my mother eat my delicious soup, but she demurred. In retrospect, I don't blame her at all. But that day spent in the kitchen with her certainly had an impact on my desire to cook.

Oddly enough, today I also came across a contemporary recipe for the first dessert I ever made: Lemon Pudding. It's not what it sounds like. It's actually a lemon cake that creates a lemon "pudding" in the bottom of the baking dish. My first dessert and my first technical error. I didn't know how to fold in egg whites, but there was a "fold" setting on the electric hand mixer. Whoops. Not quite the same thing.

I plan to teach the son and daughter true cooking over the summer, and have promised them that they will each plan a meal and cook it from soup to nuts. They are very receptive to this idea, and I remember how excited my brother and I were when we did this with my mother. We planned the meal, and we were allowed to choose table decorations, too. We both had so much fun. He and I both grew up to be quite good cooks and neither of us fears entertaining.

Historical cuisine fascinates me as well, and when I was in college, studying literature, I took the passages where the characters were eating very seriously. I've already mentioned that I couldn't get on board with Proust and his madeleines (*and* a recipe for madeleines today, too!), but there are fabulous feasts and descriptions of food to be found everywhere from The Girl with the Pearl Earring to War and Peace.

I also studied several languages, and came to the conclusion that food, language, literature and parties are essential to understanding culture. Besides, the more vodka you drink, the better that Russian rolls off your tongue. Garlic and salt are a must, and wow, that's another story altogether. So is blowing up an egg while making huevos rancheros...bet you didn't know eggs explode when they hit too-hot oil. Neither did I.

But back to memorable meals. One evening my dearest high school compadre L. and I were at her house. It was a Sunday evening, and L.'s mother invited me to stay over for dinner. "Just beef stew," she told me, but what a stew. She put fresh dill weed in the stew (L. refused the dill with a sort of horror), and it was one of the most savory meals I've ever had. We ate and debated the relative merits of dill weed and dill seed, and I still tease L. about dill weed (she claims that she actually likes it now).

At a bar in Leningrad, my friend S. and I drank a bottle of the most stellar Georgian sparkling wine ever. It was bright and fresh, and perfectly chilled, and delightful with caviar (yes, I eat that, too). I have no idea what we were drinking but I know that it would never taste the same were I to find it again. The bar itself was memorable with its chilly neon blues and stainless steel, but it was warmed by a wedding party that insisted we join them for the Chicken Dance.

The most delectable smell of mushrooms cooking in butter wafted through an early morning farmer's market in a newly-reunited Berlin. The husband was too busy buying his grams of salami to be bothered with getting me brot mit champignon, but my god, the aroma was heaven in the cool autumn air. He did make up for it later that evening, when we shared mixed plates of grilled foods at a boisterous Yugoslavian restaurant in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

My first really real coffee was at the Espresso Bar in Pasadena, and I was a regular for years, drinking lattes and mochas (and eating madeleines). We would gather during the day, in the evening, in the clove-scented cigarette smoke, writing mid-term papers, or in the words of my roommate S., "whipping off a pair of glasses to make an important point." Posing and laughing about it is ok when you're 20. Especially if you have the sense to laugh about it.

Last summer, the spouse's parents, the son and daughter and the spouse and I went to Europe together. It was the children's first overseas visit, and they were wide-eyed and excited about everything. Our first meal in Amsterdam was dinner at an Indonesian restaurant near the Floating Flower Market where we accomplished ordering using a combination of English, German and pointing. Truly one of the best meals ever, though the food was great most of the trip. What can compare to a smoked herring and local beer on a tiny island you've just biked across? Is there anything more bittersweet than sharing an after dinner drink with an elderly parent, knowing that you have to make the most of the time you have left, and that you're spending it laughing and cheering the barman who has just set your glass on fire?

Bittersweet is the memory of four women and a silly Bad Dog eating cheese and strawberries on the back patio and the dog is so happy that the four women are surreptitiously feeding her cheese and making much of her, and the women are so happy because they are eating cheese and strawberries and drinking wine and making much of a dog, together.

Go listen to some good music: "Strawberry Letter #23" from the album Greatest Hits by The Brothers Johnson.