Jun 16, 2014

Simmer Down

It is odd to be thinking about soup stock as we celebrate the start of summer. The days glow with green and sun and even the rain is warm and offers the chance of rainbows. I think of this poem, The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop, because of the simple but complex moments of beauty that catch us sometimes in the summer, whether fishing or not. I feel at once like the fisherman and the fish—wanting to hold on, wanting to be let go. Stay still, think, be present, savor. Run, leap, dive deep, release.

I spent the first week of June this year out on an island on Lake Winnipesaukee cooking for a group of song-writers. While the sun was hot, the water was cool, and the nights cooler. Songs were built, practiced, tweaked and woven as vegetables were chopped and boiled, roasted and fried. 

I made a lot of soup. 

The book I had with me on the island was this book, An Everlasting Meal, that came out a few years ago, by Tamar Adler. Her writing embodies the legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher, but has fresh insights into cooking and food. The premise of the book is learning how to use ingredients more effectively and economically so that you can save money as well as deepen the flavor of your meals. 

Since I've been studying spices and flavor over the past few years, this book has been a wonderful resource for understanding the very elements of food. While she doesn't write on them specifically, spices are exactly the sort of easy, exotic additions that can help make a meal shine, especially those that are built on simple ingredients.

As Adler writes, 

"There is a prevailing theory that we need to know much more than we do in order to feed ourselves well. It isn't true. Most of us already have water, a pot to put it in, and a way to light a fire. This gives us boiling water, in which we can do more good cooking than we know."

The beauty of being on this island amidst this group of incredible artists was that it forced me to look a little differently at cooking. After dinner every night there'd be a "share," essentially a time when the musicians could share a song they'd been working on that day, as raw as it might be. The fire was lit and the whiskey poured and suddenly the room would fill with music. 

I usually sat in the corner listening. The music was sometimes contemplative and sad, sometimes rollicking, sometimes quirky and strange.

After I returned from the island, I realized I hadn't done much writing. I had cooked my ass off, and listened to some amazing music, and studied the texture of the lake and the sound of the loons and the rustling of insects in the dry leaves late at night as I walked to the composting toilet. I had simultaneously become way more aware of sound as I had of flavor, and the idea of soup stock kept, well, boiling away in my brain.

Making stock has become a kind of metaphor for listening. Perhaps just paying attention to that which you normally ignore (the sound of the leaves rustling in the breeze, the broccoli leaves normally chucked into the compost bucket) you can have both the holding on and the letting go—the feeling of having control but also of being free.

Listening, for me, has become a process of simplifying my life and stepping back from the chaos. And I guess in the most basic sense, so has making stock. I can toss all these random bits that make me feel insane and somewhat wasteful and out of control into a pot with water and spices and simmer it until it has become a deeply rich and simple stock; a song to return to, with a good melody to build on.

"—until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go."

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