Thursday, July 28, 2011

For The Love of Food

I want to share something with you, my children. It's a lovely chapter in this book I have called Eating My Words: How Marilyn Monroe is like a grilled artichoke and other food observations, by Eve Johnson. Now, I don't like to call myself a "foodie" because of the arrogant associations that come with the word, but I love food beyond the mere eating of it. I know saying "I love food" is kind of stupid; everybody loves food. Everybody loves eating, especially when everything tastes good. The difference between people who love food and people who love food is all in the preparation.

I love cooking. The eating is nice, but the cooking is mostly my favourite. When I cook or bake things for people, the joy I get out of it is in the process of creating, and seeing the reactions of people. I don't always enjoy eating the things that I cook myself, because I am always too critical of my results. It's much nicer to see someone sighing over your Blueberry Vanilla Cream Pie than to taste it yourself and realize it's not as nice as you were hoping it would be (though that pie was one of the best things I ever made).

The chapter in this book always sends my mind reeling into my own imagination. It's written so perfectly, and... well, let me just type it out for you. I hope there are no legal issues with me typing out a chapter from a book, word for word, and posting it here. I don't really see why there would be. I'm not claiming it as my own, I just want to share it with people who might appreciate it. It's long, but please bear with me.



One summer I spent a week on an island too sparsely populated to support a store, perfectly content cooking on a wood stove in a cabin with no electricity and no running water. I came back half convinced that our kitchen don't ask too much of us, but too little.

That doesn't mean that I want primitive fixtures in my city kitchen. (A tiger's love for her kittens pales beside my love for my dish washer.) But once in a while, I like to reconnect with fire. For if cooking is a matter of reading labels and pushing buttons, then how important can eating be? If cooking means evoking the fire god and courting him through the tempestuous drama of roasting a chicken, then what comes to the table is an offering, and thanksgivings are due if it isn't burnt.

For visitors, the island is a place of gently enforced inactivity. People swim in the lake, or row out on the battered rowboat to see the family of loons at the other end. Or they go for walks along the path by the water, or through the fields that a big, hard-working Swede homsteaded in the 1930s. He planted orchards and fruit and vegetables, and built rock retaining walls around parts of the lake, and canned and ate his horse Lindy after she accidently hung herself in one of the apple trees.

Six people bought the island in the early 1970s and built some cabins. In mid-July, the family that has claim to the old farmhouse was there, a couple with two children. So was the property's caretaker, who farms a little garlic and keeps a vegetable garden. He lives there year-round in a cabin close to the old homestead. His son, a four-year-old wild man with hair to mid-back, like his father's, and a grubby fist forever brushing it away from his face, was one reason I wanted to make cookies. The boy had a Popeye doll, and a beaten-up plush parrot. When I held the parrot on Popeye's shoulder and croaked "pieces of eight, pieces of eight" at him, he looked at the parrot with desperate regret, and said, "I don't have those." I wanted more access to the world of a four-year-old. He had a sweet tooth, and I am not above bribery.

Going to the island means going back to turn-of-the-century technology, to wood stoves and kerosene lanterns. Our friend Jerome, known to his partners as Mr. Crisp for his fastidious ways, has a propane fridge that miraculously makes ice cubes. Small quantities of ice cubes, to be sure, but enough to clink in a glass at the end of a hard day's basking on the rocks and cooling off in the lake.

I brought to the island olive oil, basil and thyme from my garden, the pasta shells I like for pasta salad, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, olives, sweet onions, Belgian chocolate, and, on an impulse, a little jug of real maple syrup. Blueberries, lots of lemons, oranges, apples, baking soda and powder. Smoked salmon. Sausage and cheese. A dozen beer, a bottle of Scotch. A roasting chicken, frozen solid, bought from the last big supermarket on the route. The dense, heavy sunflower-seed bread from the bakery down the street. And one litre of milk. If we hadn't had to carry the food on a trail that climbed from the ocean, then dipped into the lake, there would have been more milk.

As for the rationale behind the rest of the shopping list, I reasoned that we could always go to the next big island for staples. But we'd have to come right back to civilization before we found a store selling Belgian chocolate and sun-dried tomatoes.

I can swim and read and lie in the sun only for so long. I take a certain pleasure in hacking back salal so that a walk along the path after a rain doesn't soak the chins, but that's the sort of thing I want to for got only twenty minutes at a time, to clear my head. I had endless time for cooking. And because there was no store, I was blessed by limits. Except for the beans and beets, all coming ripe at once in the caretakers garden, the materials here were finite. What we had was what were were going to eat, so I was free to concentrate on the food at hand.

The first meals where simple, with a minimum of cooking: smoked salmon and cream cheese on slices of sunflower bread, with fresh thyme, a drop of lemon, a little black pepper and a slice of sweet onion. Then a green salad with olives and artichokes for heft, and sun-dried tomatoes for salty, concentrated flavour. Then fruit and chocolate for dessert.

Sometimes in the two years since Jerome had last stayed at the cabin, someone had borrowed the sugar. No one wanted sugar on the coffee or on cereal or fruit. But once we lit the wood stove, I wanted to bake. We had fresh flour. There was a copy of the aptly named Joy of Cooking on the shelf, and two flour-company cookbooks, the kind that are a monument to the marriage of commerce and cooking. My mother used to say: "They want to sell more flour, so everything in there is guaranteed to work," and she was right.

We first lit the oven to bake the chicken. And if the oven was on for chicken, then there was no reason, apart from the sugar shortage, not to bake cookies. I studied the Joy of Cooking, and with the help of the sugar substitution chart, made thin, crisp, elegantly coffee-coloured maple chocolate chip cookies, the chips cut from the clock of Belgian chocolate. They tasted magnificent. The chicken roasted to red-brown, crisp on the skin and juicy inside. I was in love.

I had never been in charge of a wood stove before. When I was a child, and saw them in my prairie aunts' kitchens, they frightened me. You would burn yourself if you brushed against one, which was not true of the electric stove at home. To me, wood stoves were just one more proof that the country is full of dangerous unknowns, and the city is safe. Later I stayed in cabins with wood stoves, but I was unsure of my skills. Besides, there was always someone there first, already weaving the dance of fire. Poke the fire, or add a stick or wood, and you would only throw them off their game.

My knowledge of fire is far from perfect. But I can light one, and keep it going, and modulate its temperature. As days went by, I studied the science of the damper, opening and closing it to feed air to my fire or starve it. I leapt to the pleasant challenge, at the end of baking time, of stirring up the coals just enough to keep the oven heat constant, without having to add more wood. I was playing with fire, a game made all the more because of the stove's defects. Rust had loosened the oven handle and opened a hole in the oven wall above the door, and another between the oven and the top of the firebox. When the fire was too hot, you could see orange flames rush over the oven roof. The required adjustments were minute but constant.

I never got around to learning to tell the temperature by the number of seconds that I could keep my hand in the hot oven. I'm told that's the sign of a wood-stove master. But I cooked, using a far bigger chunk of attention and skill than it ever takes to set a number on a dial. On the last afternoon, I made cinnamon buns. I had time to nurse the dough, and the classic place to let it rise: the shelf over the stove. When I lifted the bread bowl to put it in it's place, I felt centuries of cooks with bread bowls stretch into the past behind me.

I put the buns in to bake after dinner, while we did the dishes. We waited for them on the deck, drinking plum wine that Jerome had made seven summers before. Six rainy winters in the back of a kitchen cupboard can have good effects or ill. The wine was as clear and as rarefied and good slivovitz, the dry, slightly bitter, plum brandy.

The oven was warm and glowing. Too warm, I realized, when I saw through the hole over the handle of the oven door a stream of molten air, quick with sparks, flowing over the oven roof. I put a light pan lids in place to protect the buns, but it singed the top of some of them. By the time the dough was baked, the surfaces that weren't under the lids were charred.

From Jerome's deck, you can see lake through the trees, and hear loons on the lake. We drank plum wine and ate cinnamon buns brushed by fire and spread with the last of the butter. While we ate, the bats came out to trace the rapid kiss of their black shapes on the sky.

I have never since found myself with maple syrup, a need to make cookies, and no sugar, but I have made these cookies again. They're perfect cookies to make on a whim, a small batch that mixes up in the time it takes the oven to heat, and irresistible while they're still warm. I make them small, so they have plenty of room to spread on the cookie sheet.

Maple Syrup Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/2 cup very soft butter
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Belgian semi-sweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350°F

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the butter and syrup together with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well mixed. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and chocolate.

Using a teaspoon, drop the dough onto a greased baking sheet. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the edges are browned.

Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

(I know, I know, it doesn't mention salt anywhere in the ingredients, but then makes reference to it in the directions. You could probably leave it out and it would be just fine, but a pinch of salt for good measure won't hurt a thing.)

Sigh. I feel like I've just returned from a tiny island with a cabin and wood stove myself. If after reading this you don't feel this deep longing to eat chicken and cookies and cinnamon buns cooked in a wood stove while drinking plum wine and listening to the loons on the lake, then I am saddened to have to be the one to tell you that you don't have a soul. My condolences.

I could personally read that chapter over and over and over again and still want to go that island. The cool thing is that the author is from Vancouver, so she's probably talking about someplace on the Sunshine Coast! I wonder if I can email her and ask where? I would love to go. It sounds to me like it's one of the ones around Saltspring, Gabriola and Galiano Islands.

Well, it's late now, so I bid you adieu. I hope I've given you some lovely brain fodder to mull around in your pretty heads.

PS. Still obsessed with that song by La Roux. It makes me want to dance all the time.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting... I may try it. We tend to run out of things at my house a lot >_>; (I'm the only one who bakes)

    Also, your dance music is strange. Mine is a lot more... dirty. =P

    Your condolences made me laugh too. I want chicken.