Humans must be the only creatures on God’s green earth who need to be reminded to rest.
We race through our days, working at our various tasks. Hydra-like, they multiply, two to-do’s rearing up to take the place of their slain predecessor. We race furiously to the point of exhaustion. I doubt I’m the only one who finds herself mulling on problems of the day long after I’ve told myself to quit. I should have read another article today. Which lines do I have to translate for tomorrow? Maybe I should get up and send that email now, before I forget.
Once in a while, an 18-hour sprint day can be helpful. But for me at least—others may be blessed (or cursed) with hardier constitutions than my own—overworking more than once in a while is a bad, bad idea. I’ll stop doing the things I love. Cooking, reading, making beautiful things, all fall by the wayside. I get too little done, and can’t stop chiding myself.
And then I remember the sabbath.
The mountain’s asleep: its dingle, and rise;
creeping things that the black earth bore,
hillbred beasts, and the hum of the bees.
Strange creatures dream deep in the salt purple sea,
the wide-winged birds slumbering above.
Time to be slow.
You can’t predict the baking itch.
It might hit you in the morning. You open your eyes in the pre-dawn dimness, groggy from sleep and odd dreams involving Latin composition. You can hardly tell which way is up, which down, but you are certain that you should—nay, must get up, turn the oven on, and start making a mess with flour.
It might strike you in the afternoon, as you sit with a cup of tea and a pile of work. Suddenly you realize that something is missing from the arrangement, and that you can only fix the problem with a pan of brownies.
Or it might hit late in the evening, as you stagger home on a Friday from a week of long days and short nights. Suddenly the only thing keeping you from collapsing into a heap of overwork and nerves is the prospect of the aroma of melted chocolate filling your apartment as you curl up on the sofa with a novel.
Whenever the itch descends, brownies are the cure.
I know butternut squash get a lot of the limelight this time of year, but there is such a wide world of winter squash out there. Kabocha, hubbard, acorn, spaghetti, kuri, turban…an astonishing variety of shapes, tastes, textures, all of them worth making friends with. I must say, though, that I was especially excited to find delicata at the the market this week. Dainty and a cheery yellow, delicata squash are so beautiful I am tempted to scatter them around my apartment as seasonal decoration. But then I remember how lovely they taste, and earmark every squash for a recipe.
After a two-week project reorganizing the living room and kitchen, I have my cookbook collection on hand near the galley, rather than hidden away on a shelf in my room. This has prompted me to go on one of my periodic recipe sprees: instead of my normal habit of throwing together a bunch of vegetables in whatever way comes to mind, I’ve been letting other, wiser cooks guide me out of my ruts.
As usual, Heidi Swanson does an excellent job of this, putting together tastes I don’t normally associate in wonderful and inventive ways. Delicata squash, miso, and Thai curry paste? It doesn’t sound as though it would work, but it does, beautifully.
I think everyone must have at least one food that they tend to buy out of a sense of duty. I never need to say to myself, “I ought to eat kale,” or “I really should have mushrooms sometime,” or “Those local strawberries are probably full of antioxidants—I should eat some.”
Beets, now—that’s another story.
I feel I ought, as someone who’s spent a good deal of time on organic farms, and as someone who believes strongly in natural, healthy, veggie-filled food, to like beets. And so I buy them, and they linger in my refrigerator like unconfessed sins. Guilt seeps out of the refrigerator and into the kitchen until I either manage to forget about the beets or throw them into a righteous salad.
Weigh on my conscience no more, ye vibrant root vegetables!
For I have found a way I truly relish beets.To wit: beet hummus.
I will now preach the good news of beets with a new convert’s zeal. Sinners, repent, and spread your beets on crackers!
One of my favourite rituals of the week comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays: after an early-morning syntax class, we troop, en masse, to the department’s kitchen to supply ourselves with something hot to drink. For most of my comrades, this means coffee—I am feeling a good deal of peer pressure to begin drinking coffee, but am, for the moment, resisting—but I ransack the cupboards for tea. Mugs in hand, we climb up the stairs to sit in a row outside our professor’s office, waiting our turn to have our compositions marked. It’s a time for odd bits and pieces of conversation, laughter, and last-minute corrections to Latin exercises.
Earlier this week, the hallway conversation revolved around chai. I had fished a chai tea bag from the back of the closet, and it smelled heavenly. Everyone started sharing their stories of chai—real chai, not powdered stuff in bags, but made with milk and whole spices and time. I realized that I had never had real chai before, and was inspired to remedy the situation forthwith. A few concessions to the pantry had to be made, but the result was wonderful, infinitely better than the tea bag version.
Which is, perhaps, a good thing, as I’ve exhausted the department’s chai supply.
One of the odd things about moving is that you can, without noticing it, drop habits have been ingrained for years. Something that has become so natural that you never even think about it is missing; you can feel that this is so, but the habit has been out of your conscious mind for so long that it takes a long time to discover what it is that filled the empty space you sense. There are so many obvious chasms—loved ones left behind, well-known places you can no longer see, paths that have grown comfortable and familiar to your feet—that it’s hard to identify these smaller gaps.
I have been wandering about for weeks with such a gap. At first I put it down to homesickness, which, given my current state, is a safe bet most of the time. But this was different, somehow.
A trip to the market solved the mystery.
I was wandering the stalls, and came across one I had not visited before, selling an interesting array of Asian vegetables: Japanese sweet potatoes, young ginger, others I could not identify—and mushrooms. “Good heavens!” I said to myself. “I haven’t had mushrooms in weeks!”
And so, marveling at my own obliviousness, I bought some mushrooms, and put one piece of my jumbled-up up-rooted life back in place.
αὐτίκ᾽ ἐγών ἀνόρουσ᾽ ὑπὸ χάρματος, αὐτὰρ ὃ λάθρι
ἔμβαλέ μοι ῥοιῆς κόκκον, μελιηδέ᾽ ἐδωδήν,
ἅκουσαν δὲ βίηι με προσηνάγκασσε πάσασθαι.
I leapt up in joy, but he stealthily
slipped me a pomegranate seed—honey-sweet food!—
and forced me to eat it unwilling.
—Homeric Hymn to Demeter 411-413
The last hotel we stayed at in Greece this past summer was outside of Nafplion in some farmland. There were some sheep across the road, and behind the parking lot—mainly occupied by a the vehicles of a group of middle-aged British holiday-makers on a motorbike tour of Greece—was a big field of artichokes. How strange that we have learned to eat what are essentially giant thistles!
And yet how beautiful, too. The humblest plant, what we might think of as nothing more than a weed, is a delicacy.
Now I’m able to walk past an artichoke plant every day, as the heads move more and more towards going to seed. The pale green of the leaves gives way to the deep, feathery purple of the choke, and two worlds, a field in the Peloponnese and a college campus in California, move closer together.
When I lived with my parents, my father would joke every time I cooked that a bomb had gone off in the kitchen. While this is something of an exaggeration—I haven’t destroyed the kitchen yet!—it is true that I tend to use a lot of dishes when I cook. One pot for rice, one pot for dal, and a sauté pan for a vegetable; a big dish for some roasted vegetables, a sticky polenta pot, a food processor for some pesto…I know one-pot meals exist, but, like kookaburras and wildebeests, they don’t often show up around here.
Well, a charming little kookaburra appeared in my kitchen this week, and I think he means to stay.
His name is Kitchari.
Kitchari is a dish usually associated with Ayurvedic medicine. In addition to being nourishing and easy to digest, it is supposed to be particularly balancing for all three doshas, or constitution types. The system looks very familiar to someone steeped in the Renaissance conception of the four humours: vata is associated with air, pitta with fire, and kapha with water. Everyone is inclined to have one or more of these doshas in excess of the others, and practices such as eating certain foods and spices can help bring the three back into balance. For example, I, as a vata, should turn to warming foods like carrots, ginger, and so on. (Perhaps my obsession with ginger pickled carrots is instinctive?)
Scoff as Western medicine will at any system based on the elements, I think there may be something to it. I certainly know there is something to kitchari—simple, tasty, nourishing. It will be on my table often.