I have never seen a reality show but I’ve heard tell of them, in particular a series called “Iron Chef” that, according to wikepedia, consists of “a timed cooking battle built around a specific theme ingredient.” I have also never claimed to be in the vanguard of pop culture, but a battle? Timed? Around food? Just because you can accomplish a particular task in a frenzied rush doesn’t mean you should. How about Iron Surgeon, Iron Lend-a-Compassinate-Ear-to-Your-Friend-Who’s-Just-Found-Out-Her- Husband-is-Cheating-On-Her, Iron Sleep?

And don’t get me going on the insular, rarefied-to-the-point of absurdity, back-biting tone of so much of contemporary food writing. (Confession: I sleep with the 747-page tome The Art of Eating: Five Gastronomical Works by M.F.K. Fisher mere feet from my bed). I can cook from scratch and serve, say, grilled chicken with fennel and shallots, a blood orange and roasted beet salad, and a fig frangipane tart as well as the next person, but I draw the line at roast tuna foam or white garlic and almond sorbet.

There’s only one criterion for food and that’s whether, at the particular time, under the particular circumstances, you like it. Whether, even if you’re eating alone, you have some basic sense of sharing. Whether, at some point during or after eating you can say Man, was that good! (Yes, that’s one criterion, broken down into three parts).

That takes time. Not necessarily time to prepare the food, but time to figure out what food is about and for–which, call me old-fashioned, I’m pretty sure is to bring people together, not pit them against each other as adversaries. So here are three “recipes” I’ve worked up over the last few weeks that in one sense don’t take a lot of time, and in another sense take a lifetime.

1. Take a piece of Healthy Ham from Trader Joe’s and roll crosswise into a spiral. Dip directly into a large jar of mayonnaise and eat, bite by mayonnaise-dipped bite, while thoughtfully gazing at the bare stucco wall of the house next door and admiring the olive green trim around the windows.

2. Walk down Sunset Boulevard in a light drizzle of rain to the 99-cent store and buy two tubes of Pepsodent, a package of votive candles, and, on a whim, a 76-cent frozen chicken pot pie. Bring the chicken pot pie home, enjoying the smell of wet wild fennel and the sound of tires on wet pavement and the feel of the rain on your face, and put it in a 375-degree oven. While it’s cooking, think of similarly evocative childhood treats: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, lobster newburg (the old man kept lobster traps back in New Hampshire),  your mother’s home-made popovers. Eat with a teaspoon, in bed, scraping the last bits of crust from the tinfoil, while reading Camus’ The Plague.

3. Take your friend Glenn who just had a hip replacement to the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Basil’s. Yield to his offer to take you for udon in the tiny stall/café at the back of Assi Korean Grocery on Oxford and 8th. Afterward, troll the aisles and come upon an item called Buenas Fruit Mix and Beans Halo-Halo, a glass jar of red mung beans, coconut gel, palm fruit, jackfruit, macapuno (?), white beans, and sodium hydrogen sulphite, the main ingredient of which, however, is pure cane sugar.

Let that pure cane sugar recommend itself to you. Shell out a buck ninety-nine, wait with Glenn in the parking lot for the AAA guy because you had to take Glenn’s car (the seat in your Celica was too low for his injured hip) and it somehow broke down while you were in Assi, accompany him home, retrieve your own car, and drive you and your precious jar home.

While still in your coat, take a quart container of French Village plain yogurt, also from Trader Joe’s (the kind with about a third of an inch of heavy cream on the top) from the fridge. Remove the gold and blue glazed Provence cup you bought at Dona Flor on Newbury Street in Boston that time the editor from Paraclete took you out to lunch and asked if you wanted to write a book about a saint from the dish drainer. Put a ton of yogurt in the cup, then add a couple of giant spoonfuls of Halo-Halo and stir.

Bring it back to your bedroom (you’re sharing a house and still feel a little shy about hanging out in the kitchen). Take off your coat. Check your e-mail. See that, one more time, nothing’s come over the transom even remotely promising money, sex, or fame.

Close your eyes. Give thanks for your health, your friends, your car, that you had a buck ninety-nine. Man, is that good.


12 Replies to “REALITY FOOD”

  1. I like this very much. I wish you would say more about what it means to share, even while alone. Dinner should always be seasoned with gratitude.

  2. Thanks, Stephen, I'm sure I will expand on the HUGE theme of food as time goes on. My point, as you understood, is that eating, no matter how hurried, and whether we happen to be with people, or alone, is a sacrament. So to objectify it and manipulate it into the subject of a timed battle, notwithstanding that I'm sure the chefs are talented, creative etc., seems not a celebration of food but a corruption of it…

  3. I still hold out for the too-slow game of Golf being transformed by having a time component; so that after making their putts, golfers would dash to their carts and go carooming off down the fairway. NASCAR meets the PGA…

    As for eating:

    "Why so many philosophers, from Plato to Hegel, have chosen to exclude the senses of taste, touch and smell from the experience of beauty. Are not wine-buffs and gourmets devoted to their own kind of beauty? Are there not beautiful scents and flavors as well as beautiful sights and sounds? Does not the vast critical literature devoted to the assessment of food and wine suggest a close parallel between the arts of the stomach and the arts of the soul?

    Here, very briefly, is how I would respond to those thoughts. In appreciating a story we certainly are more interested in what is being said than in the sensory character of the sounds used to say it. Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favorite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.

    The order in which a story unfolds, the suspense, the balance between narrative and dialogue and between both and commentary — all these are sensory features, in that they depend upon anticipation and release, and the orderly unfolding of a narrative in our perception. To that extent a novel is directed to the senses — but not as an object of sensory delight, like a luxurious chocolate or a fine old wine. Rather as something presented through the senses, to the mind."
    Roger Scruton, Beauty

    But yet eating falls easily into a shared communion and a sacrament, as you note here, Heather.

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    Do you say grace even before eating even small meals like these, Heather? I'm trying to get into the habit of doing it, myself.

    Culinary foam . . . ecch.

  5. Anonymous says: Reply

    I had an Irish Catholic boyfriend(a few years back)who said grace before eating a cheese cube. I mocked him(slightly).
    <hanging head in shame.

  6. macapuno=coconut

  7. Pronounced mah-cah-poo-NO!

  8. Oh good, coconut–now I know! I love the idea of saying grace, which in some rudimentary way I try to, before even small solitary meals, and the ex-boyfriend giving thanks over his cube of cheese is brilliant. And I agree that story is very much about "sensory character," and maybe especially about our sense of taste. How can we love people if we're not also able to love a luxurious piece of chocolate or a fine wine or for that matter a piece of ham dipped in mayo, if a piece of ham is what's called for?…A.J. Liebling was another wonderful, along with M.F.K. Fisher (and hugely overweight), food writer…

    Thanks, all–food is a subject dear to my heart so I hope to continue the conversation. No accident that in the Eucharist, Christ left us something to eat and drink…

  9. Anonymous says: Reply

    Off-topic, Heather, but I love the new look of the blog – and I'm glad you kept the photo of the Sacred Heart.

  10. Anonymous says: Reply

    oh halo halo is a Filipino dessert. "halo" means to mix. its usually served with crushed ice and condensed milk. It's a perfect treat for a hot summer day in my country.

  11. oh yeah, I love that stuff! Crushed ice and condensed milk would be just right, though it's pretty darn good mixed with that Trader Joe's yogurt with the cream on top, too…

  12. Hi, Heather. Two things:

    1. I sometimes suspect you're living my own life as it will be in twenty some-odd years.

    2. A 76-cent frozen chicken pot pie! The romance of it! Who says the U.S. doesn't have a culture?

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