“i’m sure you like your work here. i have no idea what you do. no, please don’t try to explain it. but i feel like i have to tell you, for what it’s worth … feeding people is really freakin’ great. there’s nothing better.” (sourdough, kate, 75)
two weekends ago, i got a baby tripod and made pasta. i had a craving for ragu, though i don't know quite what brought that on, but i decided i wanted something tomatoey and meaty and comfort-y, and ragu popped into my head. i looked up a few recipes, learned that a ragu and a bolognese are made with similar components but differ in how they're prepared — in a ragu, the meat is braised; in a bolognese, it is not — and, so, on sunday, or two sundays ago, i set about cooking.
at the brooklyn book festival last month, the cookbook panel touched on the question of who a cookbook is written for, if a cookbook can "have it all." can a cookbook be both a beautiful coffee table book and a book an average home cook can (and will want to) cook from? and, spinning off that, is the average home cook the target audience for a cookbook, anyway? and who is an average home cook? can a cookbook truly be both a beautiful work of art and a utilitarian book from which people might be inspired to cook?
(why do i spend such a stupid amount of time thinking about who cookbooks are marketed to and/or written for and/or whether i am in that target group?!? is that self-centered of me?)
in her book, my kitchen year (random house, 2015), which i (disclaimer) have only flipped through in a bookstore but have not read, ruth reichl writes that recipe writing is as much attached to culture as any other kind of writing — as in, the ways in which recipes are written change as culture changes. in her memoir, garlic and sapphires (penguin, 2005), which i have read and enjoyed, she writes that there is a language to food that is strange and requires translation to those who are not familiar with food — like, what does it mean to toss a salad? to sauté? to julienne? what does it mean to render out fat or simmer until liquid is reduced or whip egg whites to stiff peaks? how do you fold flour into batter?
one of the panelists at the festival, cookbook author stacy adimando, explained this, too, that you can't just write, sauté the onions; you have to spell it out — heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan. add onions. stir until translucent. chef sohui kim shared a story of first starting to write recipes for the good fork cookbook, how she laid out all her ingredients and thought it'd be a simple task to get this recipe down, only for her co-writer to come in and be like, uh, no, you can't just cook like you would cook. you have to do everything precisely and measure everything out. what comes intuitively to a chef will likely not come intuitively to someone at home.
at the panel, i learned that clarkson potter has it written into their contracts that all recipes need to be tested in a non-professional kitchen. ina garten watches as her assistant tests all her recipes. there is such a thing as being a good recipe-writer.
this has been one choppy introduction. transitions have not been my friend this week.
sometimes, maintaining a personal blog feels like an act of stupidity, this thing of sharing and sharing and sharing. you could say this in and of itself is stupidity, to think this but to continue to do it, to find some kind of meaning or value in it while feeling uncomfortable.
then again, maybe, if you feel totally comfortable doing whatever you do, it’s not quite worth pursuing.
does that sound like a contradiction? but it’s true, isn’t it, that it’s that sense of discomfort that edges you out of your comfort zone, out of the familiar, into territory that requires a leap of faith, and we all need to take leaps of faith to get anywhere that counts.
and maybe there are inherent contradictions in all this, too — that i have no qualms using canned tomatoes (always whole, always peeled, never salted) but dislike using packaged broth, even if it's organic and low-sodium, that i hate amazon but can't seem to stop going to whole foods (i really need to find a good butcher counter near me), that i feel so weird putting my face and body out there but do so with more frequency anyway.
part of it is just discomfort with my body, that i don’t like it, i don’t like the size of it, the softness of it. another part is just discomfort with how it feels like an act of vanity because to put your face out there is to have some measure of confidence in it, whether it’s pride or defiance. yet another part is just hesitation because do i want to be seen, do i want to be recognizable, do i want to be identifiable?
is this all just ego?
last week was banned book week, and the fact that people get so terrified of books they want to ban them at all says all we need to know about the power of stories — or, at least, it says all i need to know. i’m sure some might want to argue that, no, they’re not terrified of books, they’re just offended by them or displeased or something something blah blah blah, this book is immoral, that book is hypersexual, that one disses the bible — but i don’t know, at the core of all that offense and outrage and whatever, isn’t there terror? fear of having your beliefs challenged, your worldview shaken up? aversion to risk of changed perspectives and views?
i don’t get that. i don’t get risk aversion. i don’t get beliefs that need to insulate themselves and surround themselves with sameness to exist.
then again, homogeneity of any kind freaks me out a little.
like i said, transitions have not been my friend this week. this whole post is going to be chop, chop, chop. also, i own a stupid number of aprons.
two things cooking over the years has taught me:
one. it's okay to trust myself. yeah, my technique is shit, and my knife skills are laughable, and i still won't even attempt to cook certain things like fish, but i generally know what i'm doing in a home kitchen. i'm getting better at understanding how to season things. i know what tastes good. it's okay not to be perfect or brilliant or whatever; it's okay to be good enough. so trust yourself.
two. things take time, and things take practice, but you can get better with time and practice. that sounds like such a stupidly obvious thing, but i think it's often easy to forget, to get discouraged, to want to give up when things (whatever "things" are) don't turn out right the first few times around.
take this pasta for example — it's still not great. i still need to work on my rolling (and on rolling thinner), and i still need to work on cutting it into noodles of even width (omg, seriously). the texture is still off, and i still don't have that semolina to APF to yolk to white ratio down. i still don't know how long i'm supposed to cook the damn things. and yet, i can see and feel and taste that this attempt has improved vastly from the first time i made pasta months ago. practice makes better.
it's funny, maybe, because you'd think that's something i'd already have learned after a lifetime of classical music, after a lifetime of writing, but there are certain lessons you keep being reminded of, over and over again.
last week, i read robin sloan’s sophomore novel, sourdough (mcd books, 2017), and i’d loved his debut, mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore (FSG, 2012), and was thus very excited for sourdough. i did enjoy being back sloan’s san francisco, in his take on the tech world, but i can’t say i loved sourdough like i loved penumbra — there was something about it that felt kind of empty because sourdough lacked the vibrancy and vivacity penumbra had. the rollicking fun was gone. sourdough was almost too earnest in its presentation of its world, the artisan food world, too appreciative, maybe, and less poking at (good-naturedly but still).
also, i admit i have difficulties going into a book with a first-person female narrator when the book has been written by a man. maybe that’s unfair prejudice; maybe it’s warranted wariness; but i require convincing in ways that i normally wouldn’t if a man wrote a male voice or, even, if a woman wrote a male voice.
and it’s not like i could tell you, this is what i mean by a convincing female narrative voice, because i don’t think such thing exists. women come in all kinds of voices, just like we come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities and beliefs and worldviews — but maybe that’s not the point, an idea that you can characterize what makes a gendered voice, because the thing is that i find many female characters written by men to be so flat, one-dimensional, and fantastical, like they’re there principally to fulfill the male writer’s fantasy as to how he perceives a woman “should” or “might” be, to satisfy his ego that wants to believe he can convincingly occupy a woman’s perspective.
it’s not like lois, sloan’s first-person female narrator, didn’t feel real or sincere in sloan’s attempt to inhabit her. she didn’t really seem that fleshed out a character to me, though. her story (or her quest) didn’t engage me because she was kind of just there, this sourdough starter fell into her lap, and she somehow ended up in an intriguing alternate farmers market — and my disinterest and kind of lack of enthusiasm for sourdough is just flat-out weird because i love food and i love reading about food and i loved sloan’s penumbra, but my appreciation for sloan’s depiction of the artisan food world and amusement over how he stuck in tartine and alice waters and chez panisse still could not bring me to a point of enthusiasm for sourdough.
in the end, a book must deliver more than satisfactory parts.
on the rolling pasta end, you’d think i’d just invest in a pasta rolling machine thing. i’m not a big fan of kitchen gadgets, though; they take up too much space, cost more than they’re worth, and aren’t quite necessary. i tend to think all you need in a home kitchen gadget-wise are a food processor, a blender, and maybe an immersion blender, and that’s about it. maybe a crockpot if you’re into that kind of thing.
as far as putting myself out there, though, maybe there's this: that, yes, there is intentionality here because it's important to remember that all these online spaces, whether it's this blog or instagram or twitter or facebook, are all curated spaces. they cannot help but be curated spaces, and curation, honestly, is not inherently right or wrong. it simply is, and we attach whatever moral meaning to it as we please.
and there's intentionality here because it's good to remember that not all bodies look the same. i am thinner than some but larger than others, and i can pick on every single flaw i see in every single one of these images. there are things maybe i shouldn't share; there are angles of me maybe i shouldn't put out there to be seen.
and yet there's a lot of privilege in this, and i recognize it. i am able-bodied. i am physically capable of caring for myself. i am conventionally passable as pretty (or, at least, not ugly). i may be uncomfortable putting myself out there, but i don't necessarily have to be afraid to do so. i can convince myself that my body dysmorphia is just that — dysmorphia, distortions in my head, when the reality of my body allows me more ease in existing in the world than it does others.
sometimes, that makes it difficult for me to talk about my body dysmorphia because it doesn't feel valid.
here’s another non-transition: sometimes, i think one of the stranger things about being a writer is that i simultaneously believe in the power of words and find words almost stupid. the latter particularly kicks in in the aftermaths of tragedies, particularly those caused by gun violence, because, like ryan lizza wrote for the new yorker, responses to gun violence have become parodies, words that are copy-pasted from previous statements then forgotten, no action taken because we’ve gotten so inured to these senseless brutalities.
it's easy to write a statement, post a tweet, record a video saying what a tragedy this shooting was, how egregious and heinous and evil, here are thoughts and prayers and condolences to everyone who has lost someone. it's easy to draft the words. it's easy to make a spectacle of grief, to play the part that is expected of you and pat yourself on the back for doing your due diligence.
the thing is, though, when something is as solvable a problem as gun violence, i don't give a rat's ass about anyone's "thoughts and prayers." thoughts don't solve anything. prayers don't mean anything. condolences are shallow, hollow offerings, especially when they come from the people in power who can do something about this but choose not to.
and how does any of this fit into this post overall, anyway?
i spent my last two sundays ensconced away in my kitchen, cooking and reading and keeping the world at bay, which maybe is a form of escapism but is also a way of caring for myself. being active citizens sometimes requires us to do that because we're in this for the long haul, we can't burn out now, and it's not enough to be sad at the happenings in the world, to tweet outrage every so often, to settle in grief for a few minutes after a news release.
it’s easy to think that we can’t do anything, too, that what contributions we can make are so small as to be inconsequential. it’s easy to think that there isn’t much we can do; we aren’t public figures; we aren’t wealthy; we’re busy enough trying to make rent and pay bills and put food on our tables.
the thing, is, though, it's not about heroism or wealth or fame. it’s about doing what you can when you can if you can. a little bit on its own might be nothing, but a little bit when everyone is doing her/his/their little bit can amount to a whole lot.
so donate money if you can. donate blood if you can. donate supplies and food if you can. donate your time and physical strength if you can. donate your time and skills and experience if you can.
it's not about doing a lot, about doing more than you can. it's about doing something, anything you can because maybe, on its own, your contribution might feel small and inconsequential, but, together, our small, seemingly inconsequential contributions can add up to something big, and this — each of us doing our tiny, little bit — is how we bring about change.
on instagram, someone asked for the recipe for this pork braised with apples and fennel, so here it is.
peel and smash garlic. peel and slice apples, fennel (just the bulb), and shallots. salt and pepper pork shoulder.
heat oil with smashed garlic in dutch oven on medium heat. when oil is hot (and i mean hot), bring to high heat, and sear the pork on all sides, a few minutes on each side. remove pork from dutch oven; set aside. add shallots to dutch oven; sauté. add apples and fennel to dutch oven; sauté. return pork shoulder to dutch oven. add rosemary, thyme, red pepper flakes.
pour hard apple cider over everything; add some water. bring to a rolling boil. when it's boiling, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. salt to taste. occasionally skim fat from the surface. simmer until liquid has reduced by half.
remove pork shoulder; let cool enough to handle; shred. smash apples/fennel/shallots/garlic in dutch oven using potato masher. returned shredded pork to dutch oven; stir; let heat through.
eat with rice.
i am not a good recipe-writer, but you know? that is okay.