When it’s grey outside and chilly and I imagine being spattered with wet cold drops, I don’t really want to walk Ayla. But then I do, and I see how bright everything looks in the rain. How saturated and vivid the colors are against the slate of the sky. Why our emerald city is called that: There are thousands upon thousands of shades of green, in grasses and firs and deciduous trees, ferns and vines and shrubs and flower stalks and jewel-like mosses.
Sun’s delight needs no explanation. It’s showy and brash, greeting everyone with a high five and a belly laugh. Its gold illuminates an unchallenging, obvious beauty. But the grey, the misty drizzle that so often engulfs this corner of the world, is full of secrets. There’s a hushed excitement on damp grey days, a feeling of incipient magic. The grey invites you to look closer, to sit with stillness and let nascent dreams bloom into fullness.
Soon the kiss of the mist isn’t unwelcome, and the rain feels nourishing. Living things sparkle under its tender touch, streets are sloughed of grime. Birds chirp and dogs leap, knowing what’s good for them.
When does passionate love veer into obsession? At what point does a drive become a compulsion? Why are our seemingly mighty intellectual faculties so often powerless in the face of our base urges?
As embodied, appetitive beings, most of us struggle with these questions at some point. History is densely populated with dead people who got that way because they couldn’t reign in the extremity of their desires.
Each night at work, I’m astonished at the restraint shown by kids who push their plates away after just a few bites. But, of course, it’s not really restraint, not in the sense of a conscious decision to refrain from overeating. They’re just… not hungry. There was a time when I, too, possessed that seemingly magical ability to leave food on my plate, uneaten. A time when the idea that eating is the greatest pleasure there is, a panacea for all sorrow and dullness, hadn’t begun to override my body’s satiety signals at nearly every meal.
I’m sitting at Rancho Bravo, eating tortilla chips, sort of regretting not just getting a burrito. I got a salad because it seemed like the virtuous option: I already had french fries smothered in rich cheesy sauce, bread with olive oil, and part of a buttermilk biscuit at work. But, of course, the salad, substantial as it was with beans and lots of vegetables and cheese and even a few tortilla strips, was not enough. I still wanted salty crunchy things.
My salivary glands do a weird thing when I’m really digging the idea of eating food in the absence of true hunger: They go into pulsing overdrive, flooding my mouth as a combination of anxiety and guilt and desire fills me with furtive anticipation.
Last spring, a confluence of awful circumstances dragged me into a crushing depression and I pretty much lost interest in food. Instead of cooking and eating beautiful meals with friends and family, I ate kale and peanut butter and yogurt and almonds and fruit, made sure that I got just enough nutrients and calories to stay healthy. It was strange and unsettling and I felt at times as though I’d forsaken my very soul. But I was eating incredibly healthily, and, much as I hate to admit it, reveling in being exactly as thin as our highly distorted media culture tells women they should be. I felt powerful and energetic and fierce.
Then life got better and my passion for food was reawakened. Putting weight back on was hard at first; I’d fallen into a delusional infatuation with my adherence to an arbitrary “sample size.” But with renewed happiness and balance in my personal life came active rebellion against the pernicious lies of those who would profit from my misery and self-loathing (see this), and I came to believe that my body is just fine the way it is. That it’s the only one I’ve got, that some day in the not-too-distant future it will be dust, so I damn well better enjoy it while I can.
While this new-found empowerment freed me from the tyranny of constant anxiety about my appearance, it also pretty much did away with my self-control around food, and I started to feel less vibrant, more sluggish.
I want to be healthy and feel good in my body and make rational, measured decisions to that end. I also want to let myself succumb to the pleasures of the table with hedonistic abandon.
Moral of the story: A good balance is hard to find!
So much good food gets thrown away. And while I obviously really, really love food, I don’t always love paying for it: My means are limited, and the city is filled with viable food languishing in dumpsters, destined for landfills, or (best-case scenario) composting facilities. So I dumpster dive.
Bread is always a safe bet: Generally, it’s considered garbage after a single day on the shelf. I’m fortunate to live close to an exceptionally bounteous bread dumpster that, on a good day, yields sourdough, rustic levain, pumpernickel, baguettes, scones… pretty much everything.
Last night I hit a produce dumpster and found a bell pepper, lemons, green onions, a few tiny potatoes, grapes, a whole honeydew melon. I pan-grilled the scallions and the pepper, made a lemon dressing, and roasted the grapes. I threw the scraps in the bag I keep in the freezer for stock.
I made a salad with the peppers, onions, and grapes. The sweetness of the grapes combined with the smoky depth of the charred vegetables into a serendipitously delicious whole: Foraging for food presents the delightful challenge of figuring out what to do with totally random combinations of ingredients.
A tragic irony of dumpster diving is that to do so safely requires a certain degree of privilege: The fact that I have a kitchen allows me to wash or cook food that would otherwise be questionable, health-wise. Packaged or non-perishable foods (like bread) are usually safe. But fresh produce is expensive, as well as nutritionally vital, and when you’re digging it out of a slimy dumpster, you really want to have the option of cleaning or cooking it (I thought about eating the grapes raw, but decided I felt better about roasting them).
Although it does little to alleviate the staggering waste and injustice inherent in our food system, taking food that would otherwise be trash and turning it into beautiful, nourishing meals gives me great satisfaction (and saves me money). I’m eating honeydew melon as I write this.
I love to feed people. Always have. From my first forays into baking with something I called “grit cake” (exactly as terrible as it sounds) to my work in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, I’ve been inexorably drawn to the heady blend of passion, hard work, and tenuously controlled chaos that is the restaurant world. As a little kid, I always wanted to visit the kitchen when I ate at a restaurant with my parents. And as soon as I turned sixteen, I got a job as a busser and hostess at a restaurant in my hometown. I quickly insinuated myself into the kitchen, where I learned how to make stock and creme brulee and acquired basic knife skills.
I worked in restaurants throughout high school and college (and have ever since), but never considered restaurant work a viable career path: It was simply something I was doing on the way to a set of fancy-ass letters beside my name. Sure, it suited my personality. Yeah, I liked it. But I’d always held the (in hindsight, half-baked and ridiculous) notion that my vocation had to be socially redemptive (in a weirdly narrow sense), as well as entailing a certain degree of prestige (or, at the very least, be perceived as noble. Pssssssssht!).
Cue a crisis that’s by now a well-worn cliche: The idea of finding work in my field (cultural anthropology) was patently laughable. The crushing debt-burden, opportunity cost, and bleak employment prospects inherent in grad school made me reconsider my plans to reenter the blissfully rarefied realm of academia.
Gnawing uncertainty about my future coincided with the arrival in my life of a new roommate who quickly became a new friend. Driven, talented, and brimming with crazy-eyed passion, Madelyn Kenney is a force to be reckoned with (one day, the bread-loving public will know her name. I’m sure of it). She has a dream and a good head on her shoulders, and aspires to greatness in a niche of the food world (artisan bread baking) where old-world apprenticeships still happen. So what does she do? She writes to bakers she admires. Asks for an apprenticeship. She is fearless in her determination to perfect her craft and follow her heart.
This may sound simple and obvious; to me, it was a revelation. I started to think that maybe – just maybe – I should listen to my own heart (even as its stirrings sound at times like the ravings of a gourmand in his cups). So I followed Maddie’s example: I wrote a letter.
I chose Vif, in Fremont. Why? Look at their website, and the first thing you’ll see is the definition of their name: It’s a French adjective, meaning “alive, bright, lively, vibrant, spirited, smart, warm, stirring, perky, yearning, lusty.” All things that good food and drink should be. All things that I aspire to be.
The food and the space reflect this philosophy. A bright interior, all windows and light and clean white walls, a polished concrete floor, rows of seductively gleaming bottles, and an orderly open kitchen. Bright and cheerful even on a gray day. Lovingly-sourced wines and coffee, food that is beautiful and enlivening, even as it’s simple and wholesome. An unhurried, neighborhoody feel, utterly free of gimmicks. Not precious, not sly and hip: just unselfconsciously earnest, unabashedly happy. Real.
Beans with escarole and a soft-poached egg. Chicory salad with shaved parmesan. Currant scones. “Probably-quince” rugelach. Coffee. Wine. The beans are Rockwell beans grown on Whidbey Island, but that’s not cause for fuss. Neither is the house-made almond milk, nor the moist grey sea salt in place of familiar bright-white Kosher crystals: It’s just what tastes best.
The biographies of Vif’s owners, Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead, struck a resonant chord. Both have long histories and varied backgrounds in food and wine. The loving zeal they bring to Vif is palpable. I wanted to learn from them. I wrote them a letter, stuffed it in an envelope with a resume and a handmade card, and dropped it off.
To my amazement and delight, Lauren and Shawn invited me to come in and spend time at the cafe: That’s how I came to be in Vif’s kitchen yesterday morning.
I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up for my stage, knife bag in hand. But Lauren gave me a tour of the kitchen, handed me a recipe, and set me to work making rhubarb streusel cakes. Then I made almond milk. I formed apple galettes and sauteed mushrooms destined for inclusion in a fritata. Throughout these tasks, Lauren issued gentle guidance and suggestions. Even though I was nervous to be a guest in someone else’s kitchen, she made me feel at ease and met my minor blunders with gracious patience.
At the end of my short, cushy work day, the women of Vif gave me lunch: Luxuriant gruyere melted over sweetly piquant peppers between slices of toothsome Columbia City bread, crunchy and golden with butter. Tomato soup with fennel, dill, fergola, and a judicious dollop of yogurt. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, done just right.
Thank you, Lauren and Shawn, for the opportunity to take part in the loveliness you’ve created!
Depending on who I’m talking to, I say that I’m on a cleanse, or observing a Lenten fast. Whatever works to explain my temporary abstinence from refined sugar, meat, and alcohol.
I tend toward extremes in certain areas of my life (food being one of them), and the ordinary vicissitudes of winter in the northern hemisphere combined with nigh-unlimited access to really good pastry (my roommate works at my favorite bakery. Woe is me) made for a perfect storm of unreflective indulgence. It’s a strange thing: At a certain point, the enjoyment of eating plateaus. Eventually it drops off into outright discomfort. But for some reason, faced with an entire bag of pastries, I will eat the whole damn thing, even as I know in my rational mind that my pleasure will be far greater if I eat only one or two.
I decided that the best way to shake off the sluggishness that had enveloped me by late February was to take a break from the more conspicuous contributors to my sense of malaise.
It’s been surprisingly easy to live without these things. Although I do dream (almost nightly now as the time approaches to break my fast) about eating sugar. Last night it was a flat, diamond-shaped whole-wheat pastry with a central dot of walnuts in sticky brown syrup. I started to eat it, realized that it wasn’t yet the 3rd of April (the day I’ll hop off the wagon), and decided to spit it out.
I was at an event, working. It was a 28th birthday party at which many of the guests were, inexplicably, young children. There were about a hundred people in attendance, being led by a DJ in group dance moves, and there was a sub-plot involving a group of preteen kids who sang lovely a cappella harmonies and were actually malevolent bullies, hiding behind the cloak of innocent smiles and sweet voices to work mischief upon the other guests.
So, I decide to spit out this pastry, but it’s stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I have to scrape away at it with my finger. All while leaning over a trash can in the kitchen, trying to remain hidden from sight, but of course a coworker walks in at one point, and it’s decidedly awkward. (Later in the dream: There’s been some sort of communal tooth-brushing ritual, and I’m holding twenty-odd toothbrushes that have each been used only once. I reflect that I can soak them in a mild bleach solution and have a years’ supply of toothbrushes. In my waking life, I’m a little obsessed with brushing my teeth – fortuitously, since I love sugar so much.)
Chocolate features prominently in my dreams, and is usually what I’m eating when I forgetfully lapse in my commitment. One night it was a caramel-rich, pecan-filled turtle-type confection.
So far, I haven’t forgotten myself in real life (I do make an allowance for Sriracha, without which I can’t exist, and pho – I’d be really surprised if they don’t put sugar in the broth). I’ve been thinking about what I will eat when I break my fast: it’s probably going to be ice cream. My hope is that I can return to sugar with renewed respect for its status as a “sometimes” food, having shed the compulsion to inhale an entire pint of gelato in a single sorrow-engendering session and to stuff my face with whatever pastry comes my way. Whether or not my hope will be realized remains to be seen – but I may post a copy of my graph in the kitchen, as a friendly reminder.
I’d really like to have a teapot and a French rolling pin (the kind with tapered ends). Then again, I’d like not to succumb to drifting melancholy. (Not the fun kind, but the kind that leaves you in flaccid lassitude with no sense of perspective or proportion and prompts you to be harder on yourself than you maybe really ought to be.)
Understand: This isn’t an exhortation or a confession or anything particularly meaningful. More an experiment. A contention with the desires of our different selves, as the components of those selves meet and go at it for supremacy (or accord. Or – perhaps direct conflict in search of dominance is the root of most genuine accords. That remains to be seen, may never be seen. Except by our eventual AI overlords).
I’d also like to have my very own kitchen, impervious to the carelessness of others. A big fancy range with six gas burners, a grill. A pasta arm over that stove. But, you must understand, all that in a very modest house. And it would be built for function, not looks. Maybe some whimsical tiles on a backsplash somewhere, strategic placement of fine beautiful wood (if practical and not too pricey). But mostly just practical, stainless steel everything, a drain in the floor.
Call me crazy but it seems a folly and a madness to fantasize about my theoretical kitchen. A house? Remodeling, contractors, the sheer outlay involved and the planning and the implicit stability of owning a thing that expensive? I just can’t see it. I dream rather of a coming chaos, when all these prim notions will be seen for the absurd diversions they are. Or maybe that’s just a way of absolving myself of the responsibility of planning for the future.
Either way: My most immediate want is simply to be well and have my (perfectly adequate, completely dreamy if you give perspective half a chance) kitchen to be clean.