Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

Undaunted in Private

tumblr_inline_mgmo959C8f1qjcl1qIn A is for Dining Alone (An Alphabet for Gourmets), Fisher writes that there are few with whom she would “care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, and (perhaps most of all, except sleep) share [her] bread and wine.” How true. And yet, the likelihood is that unless your “One” is there to sit and eat with you, silently or not, the prospect of dining alone is one of the few things that can unsettle a body preparing to sit down for a meal. Enforced solitude during mealtimes often leads to setting oneself in front of a television, and watching something mindless whilst mechanically putting unimaginative food into one’s mouth. Of course we are all guilty of this; is there nothing better than a total switching off of mind and body?

Yet choosing to sit at one’s table and quietly eat a thoughtfully prepared solitary meal can be far more valuable. I have heard people say that spending time eating alone can be either a calming respite or a dark pit of loneliness. In younger years, I admit it filled me with dread. But more and more I am beginning to understand why Fisher adapted Hemingway’s old adage “never be daunted in public” to “never be daunted in private” when it came to dining alone.

Since I became a properly self-employed and (penniless) writer, dining alone during the day is now more or less a regular activity for me. In the beginning, I would sit on the sofa watching some crap TV on my laptop whilst wolfing down a bowl of cereal for breakfast. In 10 minutes I’d be finished. Just filling a hole; thoughtlessly performing a perfunctory action. I did all this whilst, for once, having the precious time to make something real.

I began to make an effort. A couple strips of crisp streaky bacon, a wobbly egg fried in a little leftover bacon fat, with a sliced tomato, lightly sprinkled with salt, complete with a cup of tea. Or maybe a tranche of homemade banana bread, coffee and some sliced fruit. I sit in my dining room, next to the window where I can see the towers of Brixton Prison and our overgrown back garden, and I eat in contented silence, alone with my own thoughts quietly meandering through my brain. It is wonderful, this kind of solitude. It is not lonely; in truth, it is meditative.

Fisher preferred to dine with herself rather than with “hit-or-miss congeniality” and I darest say that I don’t blame her. As a writer in Hollywood, there must have been many dull and superficial dining companions available to her. London is not much different. I am sure there are many versions of shallow and sycophantic dinner conversations occurring nightly at the many restaurants dotted around town. It is true that eating with others, or just your “One”, can be nourishment for the mind, body and spirit, but faced with the possibility of a facile and weak counterpart for dinner surely suggests that one’s own company is probably the best bet.

In an article in The Guardian in April 2012, Diane Shipley asks what’s the problem with eating solo.  She says, “Surely it’s more tragic to spend time with someone just because you can’t face being alone than to chew a caesar salad on your lonesome?” I can’t think of a better way to put it. For those that dine alone regularly, do not be disheartened by it. Treat it as an opportunity to enjoy your own thoughts or a good book, but never the TV. Whether you stay in to eat or dine out alone, avoid feeling as if you are missing out on something better, because in reality, you probably aren’t.

Photo: “Table for One Scene from Anna Karenina”. Image courtesy of Jennie Ottinger 

Memory and Taste

I have been happily making my way through MFK Fisher’s tome The Art of Eating and came across a small and delightful essay in Serve It Forth called “The Pale Yellow Glove”, which are anecdotal musings about memories ensconced with food. In it, she mentions that people are often loth to divulge stories of pure unadulterated gastronomic pleasure and only two or three times has she been successful in harvesting these stories. This I do not understand. Maybe it was the era she was living in, but in this day and age, with the immediacy of Twitter, every time I look at my feed there is someone talking about something amazing they had at some amazing restaurant. Even so, she rightly believes that “[o]nce in the life of every human, whether he be brute or trembling daffodil, comes a moment of complete gastronomic satisfaction.” For me, the many occurrences of gastronomic satisfaction, circumstantial and unforgettable, but impossible to recreate without transporting myself back in time. I now see this as the beginnings of my own food obsession.

I always had a fascination with taste, even as a child, when our palates are rudimentary and untrusting. At the age of 8, I used to take dried pasta from our larder, pour hot water over it to soften it, then I would chew it. It had a faint nutty taste and I genuinely liked it; in fact writing about it now I can distinctly remember the flavour (though I have no desire to recreate it, you’ll be happy to hear). Or when I used to take bitter chocolate and dip it in sugar. If I grew tired of it, I’d leave it to dry out in a cup under my bed for my health-obsessed mother to discover several days later, much to her horror.

These are not things I remember with the same golden memory as, say, the time I first tried grilled portobello mushrooms at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in Napa. For the first time, surrounded by my family, the sunshine and the grape vines, I had the realisation that a fungus could take on the guise of sirloin and it totally blew my mind. But this memory is nothing without the clinking of glasses, my aunt’s laugh and the surrounding California countryside.

Memory and food are clearly emotional. Think of the silent meals with soon-to-be ex-lovers, the distressing green vegetables your mothers made you eat before you were allowed to get down from the table to go play, or even the late night kebabs which we remember with headachey shame. We feel the meal; we remember it because we are emotionally tied to it. Well, maybe not the kebab as we normally don’t remember it and are only reminded that it existed by the discovery of its remains the next morning.

MFK Fisher was a devoted follower of Brillat-Savarin and his writings are often intertwined with anecdotal musings about meals he had and the circumstances around them, so I am not surprised this little chapter made it in to Serve It Forth. However, in my experience, much of today’s food writing and blogging is more about making things and telling people how to do it. Or, taking photos of food on one’s dining experiences and talking about what it tasted like. To me, this is a waste. How do these writers feel about what they were making and why did they choose to blog about it? Why do these bloggers choose to take a photo of their meal instead of describing how it made them feel to eat what they did, where they did? Perhaps that is not what the masses like. 

These ‘souvenirs of eating’ should be relished and remembered, if only for our own pleasure. Just as Keats did a letter to his friend from 1819, quoted in Fisher’s essay. “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine – good God how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.”

Now there’s a memory in the making, surely.