Sunday Supper: Undiscovered Country

Yesterday one of my best friends (best friend being a tier-thanks Mindy Kaling) got married to a terrific man. The wedding was beautiful, complete with butterfly release and thematic terrarium, the food delicious, and the drinks unlimited. Her family was warm, welcoming and generous, her other friends charming, hospitable, and hilarious. It was easily one of the best weddings I have had the pleasure of attending, and a great time was had by all.

But because I am who I am, today I’m feeling the predictable confused emotions that always arise when one of my friends gets married. I feel unbridled happiness for them, but there’s always a catch in my throat. This is an experience I cannot share, a language I do not speak. Each friend that travels deeper into the unknown territory of marriage, babies, family, leaves me feeling like the people of Belem, waving goodbye to Christopher Columbus.

I focus on the universal experience of joy, as this particular brand is unfamiliar to me. But the older I get and the more friends that get married or have kids, the deeper I feel the divide. I feel weird discussing the seeming minutiae of my single life, my career, against the enormity of their child rearing, their new domesticity. Sure, I’m up for a promotion, but you’re pregnant. No contest.

I recognize this is my own issue, my own self-censoring. My friends are exclusively wonderful, and would never agree with this hierarchy of needs. But it’s a function of the ugly fear masquerading as “truth” at the center of it, that I somehow feel unworthy of love, for if I were worthy I would have been loved already. That like the Velveteen Rabbit, love makes you real, and I am somehow still not quite enough. And although 98% of the time I am joyfully living the grand adventure of single city dweller, 2% of the time my desire to have a family of my own, a person to love with the strength of my whole being, and a great sprawling brood of little people I’ve created with them, sweeps over me with a vicious ferocity that cracks me in two, gasping for breath and fighting back tears in the middle of the street. I am, for a moment, possessed of a need so deep and desperate that I cease to be anything but that need.

And then it passes, and the traffic goes by, and I go on with my day, wondering if like Moses, i will never be allowed to see that promised land which has beautifully enraptured so many of my friends.

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Sunday Supper: Brine

This morning I wrote about permeability, about leaving the windows of the soul open. And as usually happens when I arrogantly feel that I understand something about the world, the universe asks me to prove it. So what do I come home to this evening, but tiny visitors through those aforementioned open windows: ants! But since there is no food where they’re sniffing around, I’m confident they will tire and return back from whence they came. Or not, but whatever. I’ll figure it out.

Tonight, for my Sunday Supper, I’m brining some pork ribs. I usually brine chicken or pork in a liquid mixture of 1 part salt to 2 parts sugar, with various spices like peppercorns, bay leave, celery seed, garlic, pepper flakes, lemon zest, onion, really whatever you have on hand. But the primary operative element is salt. Salt pulls moisture out of the meat, which is not in an of itself desirable. But brining, when done right, replaces that liquid with flavor, and that’s the magic. That flavor seeps into the meat to give it depth, and protect it from heat.

It makes sense, and it doesn’t. There’s an element of faith at play, that by exposing flesh to salt it won’t leave it dried out and inedible, but will instead, after a brief period of turmoil, leave it more impervious to damage. You have to release the unnecessary and the excess to make room for something better. While it’s ultimately worthwhile, the in between time, the limbo when the known is flowing out before the better is flowing in, is nerve-wracking. There’s a moment before it tips back that you could have completely ruined things, but you take a deep breath, and you wait. You wait for what comes next.

Open Windows

The weather in DC has been wonderfully weird this week. Sunny, no humidity, high 70s, it’s been glorious.  Because of this I’ve been able to turn my AC off and just leave the windows open.  Sleeping with the windows open must satisfy some sort of primal need in me. With the windows open I sleep like a baby, despite the increase in noise coming into my second floor street-facing apartment, noise from coeds screaming into their phones,  the smokers congregating in the courtyard, or the inevitable hew and cry of well-bred dogs behaving badly. 

I like having the windows open because it allows me to interact with the world around me in a way I simply can’t with closed windows. In the steamy, swampy heat of a DC summer, you close your drapes, seal your windows, and crank that AC up until you’re in a vacuum of dark, cool, white noise. You isolate yourself from the heat and the sweat and the dirt, from the seasons and the weather.  But as I write there is a soft rain shower going on outside, with the accompanying comfortable patter and smell of rain instantly evaporating as it hits the ground. According to the Kama Sutra, the most seductive, sensual smell in the world  is the smell of fresh rain hitting hot ground. Seduction isn’t just sexual, it’s about attraction, about pulling you with the power of memory, a good memory, something comfortable and pleasurable. I’d argue that smelling and hearing soft rain, while safely and warmly sheltered inside, is a singular pleasure.  Add a sleeping, purring cat laying right beside you, as I have now, and it’s pretty much an overwhelming amount of childlike comfort.

And keeping the windows closed doesn’t just operate to keep the weather at bay, it also keeps us from one another.  With the windows open, I can hear my neighbors puttering in their kitchen, I can smell things cooking, I can satisfy the nosey part of me by eavesdropping on the student drama in the building, a struggle played out over clove cigarettes and unformed opinions.  I know that some people hate these very things and choose not to live stacked on top of others for this very reason. I find living alone in a house a bit frightening in it’s solitude. But perhaps I’m a city girl at heart.  Sure, with the windows closed I can create a controlled environment, with no one and no thing in or out unless I say so.  I can manage my little world, with information only I select, and only experiences I invite. 

It feels like Americans are doing this more and more, and not just in the summer, and not just because it’s hot outside. More and more we are self-selecting our information, reading HuffPo and watching the Daily Show (or reading the Wall Street Journal online and watching Fox News), getting our “news” solely from sources we know will not challenge our world view. Through social media we can be friends with thousands of people, but we can read profiles to ensure that they believe just as we do. We do not need to be challenged by the world outside- we can remain vacuum sealed. 

What does this cost us, this fractionalization of our society? I’ll admit this has always gone on, the internet and technology just make us more efficient at creating our tribes. But it used to be that we had to rely on others in the community to do much of anything. We couldn’t just order delivery of everything from chicken soup to dishwashing liquid direct to our doors. If the only grocer in town had a different opinion, we couldn’t stop shopping, we had to endure, and perhaps, engage, with his world view. We had to extend a measure of understanding, and employ civil disagreement. No longer. We can scream at one another across the electronic world, with no real fear or repercussion. We don’t witness the reaction of  the person reading our vitriol, we don’t have to face him at church or her at the butcher.  Technology has expanded our networks, and shrunk our communities. It has stunted our ability to empathize with people different from ourselves. 

To me, it boils down to vulnerability, which is, in essence, a form of emotional and personal permeability. It is a scary thing to let others into your space, whether that’s your home or your heart. How do you hold strong to the truth of you, under the assault of something opposite? Perhaps by understanding that it isn’t necessarily an assault. It might just be a conversation. It is possible to keep your windows open, and allow life, and sound, and texture to permeate into your space,  while still maintaining your core boundaries. But it’s almost impossible to know where your boundaries lie if you yourself never walk to their edge, never challenging their density and depth.  Leaving your windows open may mean some dust, noise, and annoyance will make their way into your life. But so will sunlight, music and the smell of soft rain. 

Midnight Jam

I used to be able to sleep. Soundly, anywhere, uninterrupted.

No, that’s not entirely true. For a large part of my childhood, around 9 years old, I was plagued with insomnia. I would listen to Night Crossing on KMUW or write stories, or even count pictures on the wall, but nothing worked. I was consumed with thoughts of mortality, of all things. I wondered about death, and about Heaven, and realized the very idea of eternity terrified me.

I was a spooky kid.

But I grew out of it, as kids are wont to do, and began to sleep, long and deep, as teenagers are wont to do. My parents even bought me a print of the painting Flaming June, because of the sleeping woman within it. Until law school I was a champion sleeper, but once in law school I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, chest pounding, raving about the Rule Against Perpetuity. Again, eternity terrified me, but this time in regards to dead hand control of property.

Since then I’ve suffered periodic bouts of sleeplessness. Vague anxiety, a restlessness, will overtake me while lying in bed, trying to read, and I find it is best to just get up. I read recently that the 8 hour sleep is a modern invention, that in medieval times people would sleep about 4 hours, a first sleep, then awaken for a couple of hours, before a second sleep of 2 or so more hours. The wakeful interlude was for prayer, study, conversation, or fooling around. And I must admit, there is something to be said for those pre-dawn hours, something expectant. They are restless, quiet hours, they are stolen, weird time.

With my weird interlude this evening I made pepper jam. I had a whole mess of peppers from my CSA, and no good ideas for them. I’ve resisted canning, as it seems complex and not a small bit terrifying what with the threat of botulism, but after checking with bf AB who is an expert canner, I figured out I could make the jam and just refrigerate it immediately.

It remains to be seen what sort of syrupy hot mess will greet me in the morning. But that’s true every night, whether I’ve made jam or not. Better than counting sheep.

Sunday Supper

First, allow me to address the elephant in the room, being the elephantine gap between my last post and now. I’ve been, along with andthenblog.com blogger K, who happens to be a bffl, undergoing something of a blog soul-searching,-insofar as a blog has a soul. I had originally envisioned this as a space for me to share with you my thoughts on various slices-of-life (like surgeons general) and to a certain extent, I still will. But I think it’s more useful for me, and perhaps more interesting for you, if I were to, instead of using this as an opportunity to kvetch, use this as a space to develop and workshop my life’s work-something that remains to be determined, but will exist in the intersection of food, commun(ity) and (ication), and spirit.

And with that, I introduce a weekly post: Sunday Supper.  Sunday being the Janus head of days, ever looking forward and backward, I find it a reflective, melancholic time in each week.  So in an effort to take stock (pun intended), I’ll share, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, what’s been consuming and been consumed each week.

Right now as I type this I am standing in my kitchen, caramelizing onions. Slate has an excellent piece about the disparity between the time most recipes will tell you it takes to caramelize onions properly, and how long it really takes. The inimitable Julia Child says 35-40 minutes, and so say I. And they are tricky buggers, you have to watch them like a hawk, constant stirring vigilance, They’ll turn on you-in fact, right now, I can smell the butter ever so slightly browning, which is not ideal. So you turn down the heat, you give yourself some more time, and you keep calm, with the rewarding promise of buttery, umami-y unctuousness in your near-ish future.

Onions also cook down-a lot. This is necessary, essentializing and condensing the flavors, the miracle of heat and time, like coal becoming a diamond, taking two huge onions and reducing them to about 3/4 of a cup of deliciousness.  In short, it is a high-risk, high reward game, in which you must be patient, attentive, and forgiving.

None of these are my strong suits, and it is perhaps for this reason that I did not always enjoy cooking. I knew how to cook, since childhood, learning at the side of my Grandmother how to make stuffed grapeleaves, squash, and cabbage rolls, hummus, tabouli, kibbeh, and mjuddarah, all manner of Arabic food, from the every day to the extravagant. From my Father I learned how to make every meal a feast, and the principles of meat, the marination, the resting, the time, temperature, and sauce. To this day the quickest way to get my Dad’s undivided attention is the tell him I have a cooking question. And from my Mother I learned the art of the salad, and the quick prep of a weeknight meal, made after already working a full day and still managing something nourishing, joyful, and never out of a box.

So I always knew how to cook, at least by rote, but I had never cooked on my own. After moving out of my sorority house my senior year of college, I was suddenly on my own. I had the materials, I had the book knowledge, but I had no instinct, I had no real skill. I’d seen it done, but I had never done it, at least not without a guiding hand. There was something terrifyingly lonely about being in the kitchen by myself. It was a place I’d associated with family, and warmth, but I couldn’t create that by myself.

And I lacked patience. None of the recipes I knew were turning out right. I burnt garlic and I undercooked pasta, in an effort to hurry things along. I hated being in the kitchen alone, and I wanted to create good food, but I didn’t want to be there.  I oversalted things and undervalued sweetness and sour. I ended up just eating pasta with butter and salt and pepper more nights than I care to recall.

But somewhere along the way I decided to start cooking for other people. Invite people over, and you have a reason to slave over a stove. You have a goal more urgent then simply feeding yourself. You’re entertaining others, you’re nourishing them. Cooking for others was what taught me to be patient in the kitchen; I’d eat burnt crap, but I’d be damned if I’d serve it to others. In learning to cook for other people, I learned how to cook for myself.

Which is how I am here, on a Sunday morning, slowly, methodically, meditatively, almost, cooking onions until they are no longer really onions, but something altogether more. The strange alchemy of the kitchen has taken over, where time, pressure, and heat combine to take something ordinary, a yellow onion, and make it extraordinary.  It’s not all that dissimilar from what happened to me in the kitchen. With time I too have been able to take what is an ordinary experience for most of us, simply making dinner, and make it something extraordinary-an opportunity to nourish my spirit and those of others (I hope).

But right now my onions are burning, and I must tend to them.

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