Food and the pleasures of food have been a small but important part of my life.
I survive Lenten restrictions and fasts. I knew from an early age that all food did not come out of a box or jar. I knew that there were potatoes and then again there were potatoes.
It was some time before I found that roast beef need not be crunchy and dry.
Must and always are two words that may or may not be valid. The commands and the warnings are really there for those who would cook frozen vegetables in their boxes and in a toaster oven. Boiling water is the test of nothing. The real test is the use of pot holders.
My fascination with food and the memories of those who introduced me to the world beyond the spare diet I had had in my mother's kitchen. She was a cook of habit and not an adventurer in the world of cuisine. Her expertise was the ability to introduce new methods for traditional dishes. Spice and herbs were included with a very spare hand. We ate more of the root vegetables than our friends and she was able to convince her sons that the green bean was a treat to be valued. However she erred on the side of safety. The days of week were dominated by traditions. We had no need for a calendar to know what day of the week it was. The days of washing clothes became the day of long simmered meals and the days of her pinochle group was a day of hurry up what ever.
The name came about for a specific reason but people are intrigued by the idea of it. Grilled eggplant is more an idea than an event. The eggplant is either loved, hated or endured. But it has one thing that can not be denied. It goes well with a great variety of elements. The history of eggplant shows up in its name. The common appellation suggests that those who observed it noted the shape and thought of the egg. The shape in other varieties is elongated and some are more suggestive of melon and gourd.
My experience with eggplant began while I was in high school.
Our neighbors had a friend who would show up at odd times during the growing seasons with provisions from his garden. He would cook what he brought and he introduced us to several variations of eggplant uses. One he called poor man's caviar. It was a mashed concoction of roasted eggplant, roasted garlic, chopped mint and olive oil. He admitted that other forms of the dish included yogurt but he preferred the absence of the dairy. He said a poor man was defined by his lack of funds but not his lack of taste. The flavor of the eggplant depended upon the skill of roasting and of amounts of salt and lemon. Lemon in the old world was at hand on the local trees but in Western Pennsylvania it was seasonal and seldom suitable for anything more than lemonade. He asserted that lemon and mint were often the making of disaster for a good eggplant.
He said you did not want to taste the presence but only to notice its absence.
He told us not accept what was available but always search for something that would enhance and satisfy.
I know now that he was talking about flavors that were to be sought and by dishes that were complex in flavor but simple in achievement. He was by culture eastern Mediterranean but his palate was subtle and searching.
In those days, the mid-fifties in Pennsylvania, it was rare to find someone who used his broad spectrum of herbs and flavors.
He knew how to bring the fresh sea flavor to a locally hooked catfish.
This friend of a neighbor became a part of the back of my mind and over the years I have had others who were wound with thread from the same spool. Here and there I came across others who were there when I was ready for new food and new adventure.
Bread and water is a punishment for some and a feast for others.
Too many errors have become established by too many agencies.
The concept of more food stamping out hunger and famine is based upon a false premise. The lack of food in a country may mean that the food is not being distributed equitably. An army of well fed soldiers under a tyrant will stand guard over a mass of starving slaves.
Why is the distribution of food left to those whose main intent to gain profit. The garbage of some suburbs is greater in volume than the amount being served in the restaurants of a near by town.
The livestock of a ranch become fatted by the remnants to the greens grown and discarded in processing. What weight of the total amount of romaine lettuce is there over the amount sold to the ultimate consumer? What part of a carrot is destroyed in the preparation of the baby carrot in a plastic bag? ETC. ETC.
Reread the novels of John Steinbeck and see the effect of the food industry on the availability of food to the consumer of the food.
What tonnage of plums is kept from the market for lack of a category in grading for size and color?
So often the literature of the poor is marked by the smell of cabbage in the slum. The carrot is used as a color in a broth but the carrot fiber is sieved out and becomes part of kitchen waste. Cook book after cook book specifies the parts of the vegetable that will be used in a dish. The rest is disposed of in one manner or another. They may cry tradition and proven history in the cuisine but it is not valid. They have forgotten the sources of the dish. Often there was no discard in the kitchen of a king. The total was used by the people in the castle. The great traditions of broths was in the constant soup kettle that accepted all scraps.
I have worn out cook books by reading them. I have included cookbooks in my writing. The first thing I read in the magazine is the food section. I read food.
The more you know the more you realize how much there is yet to know. The very idea of fresh pasta at one time was daunting but now there is a possibility of a variety of the goddess noodles. The cross of cultures that pasta alone presents is wondrous.
Two big secrets that are known to all but the clueless that pastry dough and pasta are simple and wonderfully available to the least skillful cook. The secret is not the mixing The secret is in the resting. Clear plastic wrap and a cool period will make the magic happen.
Show me your ideal eggplant and I will know you well.
Do you have first memories of the vegetable? Do you have strong feelings of size and weight? Do you get that look in your eye when you take that first bite?
Does that dip you have doubled so many times still seem to be not enough and you are convinced that some guests are slipping some of it into plastic bags to take home to analyze it? Do you notice that at pot-lucks they never serve it but expect your gallon?
Do you forget a few of your steps and several of your choices?
Do you carefully measure the seasoning and then add a dash or two on the sly?
Invention and improvisation is the center of cooking stage. The theater of approximation and the little bit less and the unmentioned more are in each dish.
Allergy and sensitivity to foods are centers of perverse power. These moments of truth and exposition that say I do not eat this or that will have an effect. The meatless meatball and the dairy free this or that often change eating habits and often are really little more than trends and power plays. The giant organic sign is often on the bumper of the traffic at the fast food drive through.
The green tea brigade is often manned and staffed by the midnight half gallon frozen dessert foot soldiers.
You can have a public or a private preference but it is only a preference. The hot dog and cheesy macaroni may be the remembered comfort food but it is also a sign that food is not food in some people's regimen.
A good regimen is good to the corps is not a military slogan.
You can fake out your neighbor with talk of purity and care but your garbage person knows that when there is garbage out there had been garbage in.
An aside for now. Where are all these military slogans as metaphors coming from?
Food can be a well known prayer that brings blessing and favor in the midst of shadows and doubt.
She was a militant vegan who struggled with the enemy of good nutrition armed with half baked theory and coffee-klatch wisdom.
I have in the back of my head the knowledge that early experience with some vegetables allowed me to enter a world of cuisine.
The crunch sound and the feeling of substance in chewing has been a big part in the enjoyment of vegetables and their presence in dishes. I love knowing that each of the ingredients are able to add some little something to the flavor and nourishment of a meal.
The small magic of a pinch of this and a squeeze of that which goes into a pot or bowl is like the magic wand of a rose bud opening and shouting both color and scent.