Tag Archives: The Art of Eating

Eat, Memory

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Thank you for the photo, Lori!

Last month, three girlfriends and I attended a dinner featuring dishes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. The event, a labor of love co-hosted by Chef Shaun Heaslet of Harmons Bangerter Crossing Cooking School and Sheral Schowe of Wasatch Academy of Wine, paired five courses with five wines, each thoughtfully selected to highlight the terroir surrounding Keller’s renowned California restaurant.

At the dinner, I met a cowboy – not my first, but the most memorable thus far: a cattle rancher wearing a plaid shirt with pearly snap buttons, a worn brown leather belt, and faded Wranglers. He introduced himself as Spence and I told him my name in turn. He looked to be in his fifties, with tanned, wrinkled skin from years of working under the sun. We shook hands. It didn’t take long before he asked where I was from, to which I gave my usual response: “Everywhere.” His smile faltered, so I elaborated. “I grew up in Coney Island, but my dad and grandpa lived out West, so I spent most of my summers here… I’ve also lived in Arizona and Florida and…” Spence nodded, waited a beat, and said, “And that was what you hoped you wouldn’t have to tell me, right?”

*

Shortly before his death, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his manifesto, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s essays and anecdotes explore taste and the senses, the elements of a proper culinary experience, and our responsibilities as diners. “The pleasures of the table are for every man,” he writes, “of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest.”

Every man and woman, I might add, with essays titled “Portrait of a Pretty Gourmand” (in “full-battle dress,” her eyes shining and gestures “full of grace”) and “Women Are Gourmandes.” I discovered long ago that I fall into his category of “predestined gourmand,” which is fortunate because he also classifies writers as those who benefit the most from good eating. My friends and I were there that night to eat well. It’s safe to say that we four lean toward indulging our sensual impulses, as was evidenced when we all fell wildly in lust with the evening’s tomato sorbet, and struggled bodily to refrain from licking our plates. Spence tried not to laugh.

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn't for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn’t for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

*

Spence charmed me by the first course. He turned to our group and asked, “Which one of you’s in charge here?” Casey raised two fingers and assumed the role of lead provocateur among the sixteen guests seated at the long, low-lit table. Spence did his best to keep pace, regaling us with decidedly non-PC jokes (about Mormons, minorities, and the blind, to name a few). His wife, Cindy, rolled her eyes; I suspect she’d heard the jokes a few times before, but the rest of us cackled. Casey tried valiantly to suppress repeated fits of giggles. By the third course, we were swapping pictures of the animals we love. He and Cindy showed us their pack of small dogs. “This one had one eye and was in bad shape when we got it,” he said, pointing to a brown toy poodle on his phone. “Rescue cost me $1200 bucks.” He grunted and mumbled, “Sweetest damn dog in the world.” Spence warned that he was hard of hearing, yet chuckled when we mimicked his “I can’t hear you” gestures. Cindy egged us on.

*

At the start of each course, Sheral provided her own stories and experiences with the wine she’d chosen, giving us a relatable sense of the geography and environment in which the grapes grow and are harvested, and sharing the provenance of the wines and winemakers themselves. We sniffed and swirled our glasses, pausing to observe the flavor of each wine and noting with pleasant shock and delight the changes evinced by our senses of smell and taste working in tandem.

Perhaps because we were so immersed in each sip, so intently focused on each sumptuous bite, I started to feel a little uneasy thinking about other meals I’ve eaten. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast, but could I draw a mental image of it? What did it smell like? How did the first bite taste? Was it as good as the last bite? Sheral’s sonorous voice drew me back into the moment, but my inner Brillat-Savarin clucked, Exactement. “In eating,” he writes, “we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our instinctive realization that by the act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.” I resolved to pay closer attention to that which sustains me.

*

Though Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, his written legacy was central to the formation of the food writing and gastronomic world we know 190 years later. He posited, among many other things, that the company one keeps at a meal is as important as what is eaten; that hospitality and conviviality are essential and serve as direct aids to good digestion. Granted, his social circle – and the time required to dine as he did – differs greatly from what most of us recognize as the norm today.

It can be a struggle in this day and age to sit through a long meal, but it’s worth the fight. In the company of strangers brought together by passion and chance, removed from the expectation of cleaning up, we talked, drank, and ate for three hours. Who wanted to leave? We intoxicated ourselves with the spirit of joy.

*

We arrived to the dinner as strangers, but left with a feeling of satiation and heightened intimacy, which, I think, resides at the heart of any good dining experience. At the evening’s reluctant end, I heard a soft whistle behind me. Spence stood nearby, gazing at Casey with something like awe. “Man, you are tall!” he declared, smacking his leg and whistling again. He added, more to himself than to her: “And so pretty.” I am not sure if Casey heard his comment. I smiled inside and out. Spence tapped my arm and tipped his hat. “Y’all stay out of trouble, now.” We promised we’d see him again soon, but couldn’t speak for trouble.

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Saucy, sexy, and undeniably smart… Thank you for making the evening a night to remember!

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Thanks Be

Dear Mary Frances,
Thank you for pioneering the genre of food writing.  Your smart prose blazed the way for thousands of writers today – most significantly, female writers –stripping stigma from a field once thought to be solely esoteric and reminding us that food offers so much more than its nutritional content.  Your writing rallies interest in the pleasures, no matter how modest, of the plate.  I have read The Art of Eating at least half a dozen times, and I always discover new meaning with each reading.  You are my idol.

Cher Jean Anthelme,
Your immortal words set the tone for each episode of Iron Chef.  What would the tone of the show have been without them?  Would Chairman Kaga have appeared so Chairman-ish?  The Iron Chefs so ennobled?  Your keen attention to the virtues of culinary enjoyment is rivaled only by your witty social commentary.  I really appreciate that level of attention.  I’ve been wondering… If I believe that wine, cheese, and bread are major food groups, does that mean I’m actually French?  Do tell, do tell.

Dear Julia,
I’m thankful that we share a common first (and nick) name.  I’ve often envied what I’ve read about your marriage to Paul.  He wrote you lyrical love poems for your birthday, for goodness sake!  Together, you created personalized valentines to share with friends each year.  You had what truly seemed like a passionate storybook relationship.  I envy that.  But I also envy – perhaps I should say admire – your robust sensuality.  You would have been so fun to party with! I would have loved to watch you at work in the kitchen.  Sometimes I pretend to be you. (My daughter, Rory, finds these reenactments hilarious.) I think of you every time I accidentally drop a piece of food.  Thank you for making it okay to use the five second rule.

Dear Laurie,
Your writing gave me the idea to host a tea party in honor of my daughter’s birthday.  As I draped beaded garlands over the lights and scattered lavender buds across the table, I thought I heard your voice calling out in singsong approval.  Thank you for writing about your daughter with warmth and affection.

Dear Calvin,
Though I think your wife, Alice, was spot on when she coined the term “food crazies,” and though chances are likely that I am one myself, I appreciate your sustained interest in all things food-related. Thank you for being a “food crazy.” Your version of the first Thanksgiving is far better than the one I learned in elementary school.  I fully support your campaign to make spaghetti carbonara the official Thanksgiving dish.

Dear Harold,
You know you’ve got real cred when chefs all over the world refer to your tome as their “McGee,” as in, “I’ve got my McGee right here!”  I thank you for your tome and your cred. You’ve helped me through many a food inquiry.  I hope you don’t find this too creepy, but I think of you as Uncle McGee.  You seem like the type of person I’d enjoy spending time with on my deck.  As the sun descends over the western mountains, I might casually turn to you and say, “So, Uncle McGee?  Tell me the story about when you wrote your book.  Did you have a grant to fund your daily expenses as you researched?”  And you might chuckle, take a sip of your Malbec, and say, “Well, it all started back in the eighties….”

Dear Jeff,
You are an enigma when you guest-judge on Iron Chef America and Top Chef.  You share the same name as one of my first “real” crushes, a sous chef named Jeff who worked at the finest dining establishment in my college town.  The state he left me in was not funny, but you are.  Thank you for giving your assistant a comically disproportionate amount of work to do and for fielding so many marriage proposals. Thank you for accidentally poisoning yourself with taro leaf and writing about it with humor.

Dear Jane,
Mushrooms, onions, butter, sour cream, and dill…  Who knew? I serve your sour cream sauce over a big bowl of rice.  The mushrooms whisper, “We are so happy,” and so am I.  Thank you for loving fungi enough to dedicate an entire book to them.

Dear Tony,
I started watching your television show before I read any of your work.  I (unfairly) assumed you had writers.  Then I read your books, and your writing bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it!  Your prose is tight!  I haven’t had the good fortune to travel the world like you, but your writing amazed me with its ability to make me ravenous.  I’ve never tried pho, and yet I feel as if I have tasted it with you on the streets of Vietnam.  In my imagination, we traipsed across the globe throughout A Cook’s Tour, loosening our belts and belching happily.  I was your Zamir.  Thank you for making me hungry.  Even though No Reservations is over, never stop being hungry for more, okay?

Cher Jean Louis,
Will you ever find me indispensable? I think the world of you and would gladly be your scribe.  Thank you for renewing the zeal of my Francophilia.

Dear Readers,
Thank you for reading my work. I’ve been busy with a new job and haven’t been in the kitchen as much as I’d like, but I really appreciate all of your continued support. I am thankful for you.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Love, Jules

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The Buzzkill Diet

Life is short. Stop the insanity.

All of the men in my immediate social circle are on diets.  Some of the women are too.  They’re ramping up their exercise routines, and going for longer walks and bike rides.  They’re encircling their biceps, waists, and thighs with measuring tapes.  Shared mealtimes have generated extended discussions about the evolutionary differences between the male and female anatomy.  The men concede that they are, as a gender, luckier than women, who, as a gender, find it more difficult to lose those last few pounds because of the dictates of our respective genes.  It’s a little squirrelly to overhear the guys swapping calorie facts, but overall I respect my friends’ resolve.

I’m pondering their diets as I sit down to a dinner of habanero-deviled eggs, a few slices of Irish cheddar and pear, and a glass of red wine.  I do not diet.  The very word makes me ravenous.  I run when I can, and I try to stand up and move around every hour or so, because I’ve read that this will prolong longevity. My weight remains constant, and I’m okay with a little extra curve.  Heaven help the unwitting soul who makes the mistake of trying to recruit me to a stricter diet and workout routine.  Food is the only variable in life that I can completely control.  I eat what and when I want.

MFK Fisher, my idol and muse, writes: “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be ‘balanced.’” Fisher, an outspoken opponent of the “sad rigmarole” of “three daily feedings” based on static, uniform “conditioned appetites,” suggests an alternative approach to eating.  “Balance the day,” she writes, “not each meal in the day.”  Moreover, she proposes the radical notion of enjoying the food we eat: savoring each bite; lingering over textures, tastes, and smells with sensual appreciation. I wholly ascribe to her philosophy.  Sometimes dinner is a briny salad of butter lettuce heaped with sliced olives, red onion, tomato, feta, and Dijon vinaigrette.  Sometimes dinner is the cheese course; sometimes a hunk of boule, ripped from the still-warm loaf.  Though I’m trying to eat less meat, I readily partake of the power player known as bacon and indulge in the luxury of a great rib eye.  Since I have yet to contract pellagra or rickets, I believe my diet is reasonably sound.

Is it better to eat three nutritionally-composed meals a day, or to experience the high from eating a terrific plate of what you love the most and filling in the rest of the day with foods that balance it all out?  Sensible is sensible.  But no one receives an award for sensibility.  St. Peter doesn’t slap a golden certificate in your palm when he meets you at the Pearly Gates.  When I die, I would rather my friends remember me for my marathon cookie sessions or my spicy guacamole.  I’d like them to think of all the dinner parties, wine, laughter, and Dance Central battles.

I am baffled by the masochism of ignoring cravings, a twisted agony of will that has caused many a person’s dietary downfall.  I succumb to cravings because I have a relentless single-mindedness about food, and if I do not cede to my cravings, they consume my senses until I do.  I lose touch with reality.  I obsess. If every cell in my body is screaming for a piece of fried chicken, then my body must be in need of this coveted protein.  My cells sing for all kinds of foods: artichokes, Gouda mashed potatoes, mountains of fat blueberries resting on mounds of tart Greek yogurt.  I give in, and it frees me of my obsession.  Peaceful accord restores my glow.

Fisher lived through war, food rationing, and times of widespread hunger.  She makes a strong case for mindful eating from the standpoint of multiple economies: financial, domestic, and emotional.  “Breakfast, then, can be toast,” she writes, offering one example among several other hypothetical meal suggestions for the day.  “It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.  You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive.  You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.”  I don’t particularly mind frying eggs and dealing with dishes, but I agree with her underlying point.  Simplified, unstructured meals cost less money and demand less clean up.  This, in turn, encourages overall emotional wellbeing and heightened satisfaction from the foods we eat.

If, one summer night, I eat a bowl full of sweet, ripe tomatoes and wash it down with a bottle of my friend’s homemade apple cider, my meal might cost me $2, as opposed to $1.50 for a chicken breast, $3.48 for salad fixings, and $1.69 for a package of dinner rolls.  (Adding the family to the equation complicates the meal plan further, driving up costs and time spent catering to their preferences, but you get the gist.)  Cheese is my costliest indulgence.  It is worth every cent.  You can’t put a price on cheese-related euphoria.

I started writing this essay in response to one particular male, who, in addition to adopting a(n enormously boring) diet, is also fasting twice a week and smells faintly of peanuts.  His approach strikes me as full-fledged lunacy, but it works for him.  (Since he also happens to live in the same house as me, I cringe and bear it.)  I prefer to follow the approach of a gracious grand dame who lived a long, sensual life, eating as she pleased and writing some of the most rapturous, compelling food literature in existence.  I think of Mary Frances every time I raise my glass. “Try it,” writes Fisher of her philosophy.  “It is easy, and simple, and fun, and – perhaps most important – people like it.”

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