Why is it, the same day I sign up for Weight Watchers Online, again, everyone wants to talk about food? Patti Digh, author of Life is a Verb talks about slowing down and actually enjoying a meal. Life flies by to the speed of three meals a day while we multitask our way to senior citizenship. Looking back, we don’t remember the yogurt cups devoured while checking email or the cups of coffee slugged back while rushing to carpool or the dinners served buffet style so everyone can eat according to his or her own schedule. The meals that matter are the ones where we actually share a table with others. A meal, served with company and laughter and no time limit, seems like such a luxury these days.
When my husband’s grandmother turned 91, she asked her only two grandchildren and their spouses to take her to Las Vegas. A world traveler, she had been there in the 1970’s and wanted to see how it had changed. While we were there, Gram treated us all to a once in a lifetime meal. My sister-in-law made reservations for a restaurant at Ceasar’s Palace named after it’s chef Bradley Ogden. Based out of the San Francisco Bay area, Bradley Ogden was a ground breaker in “farm fresh, American” cuisine.
The five of us were seated at a private table in a room of our own and introduced to our personal maitre d’. I don’t remember his name but his service was fabulous as he poetically guided us through a menu like none I’d ever seen. Organic, farm fresh everything shipped in daily from all over America to make a meal for the four of us and little old Gram: bison steaks from Oregon, mini blue corn cakes from New Mexico, micro-green salads from California and hand selected wine to pair with each course.
After we made our selections, our maitre d’ invited us to visit the kitchen and meet the chef…the Bradley Ogden. So, off we traipsed into an unbelievable kitchen space. Now, I’ve been in many commercial kitchens in my time. My husband worked for Marriott hotels for many years as a building engineer so I’ve had my fair share of back-of-the-house tours. The Bradley Ogden kitchen was like a surgical suite. I’ve never seen a kitchen so well-lit, sparkling clean and organized. Covered in stainless steel, every surface seemed to glow with divine light. It was like a dream world. Then we entered the walk-in cold pantry and were assaulted by color; stainless racks filled with rows and rows of brilliant produce, fresh from farms across the country. Clear acrylic bins were stacked full of vegetables organized by color. Sweet red peppers, next to orange carrots, followed by yellow squash and green asparagus, it looked like the set for a magazine cover shoot.
Back at our table, we were served our first course, poached Foie Gras (goose liver) with sea salt. Our maitre d’ described this delicacy in such a romantic way that I just had to try it. The buttery texture in contrast with the crunchy bitterness of the sea salt was an experience I will never forget. When I got home, I looked up Foie Gras and found that I am politically opposed to it, but I’m sort of glad I didn’t know that at the time.
The meal that ensued was a kaleidoscope of color and flavor set to a chorus of, “Mmmmm,” and “Aughhh” around the table. We tasted from one another’s plates and laughed and listened to Gram tell stories of food adventures in Egypt. In contrast, she shared memories of meals in a dirt floor farmhouse during the Depression in what is now urban Hammond, Indiana.
This was truly an experience of a lifetime. For one night, we ate like royalty holding court with Gram, our queen. The memory is like a dream, Gram’s last big adventure, a meal I’m glad we slowed down long enough to share.
To find out more about Bradley Ogden click here: http://www.larkcreek.com/bolv.htm
So, I ask the waitress for the Déjà’ Blue Martini, dirty. It’s on the menu as a featured drink and dirty just means I want the bartender to splash a little olive juice in the glass. The marketing is very clever. It’s made with Sky vodka which comes in a blue bottle and is garnished with hand-stuffed blue cheese olives. I have never been much of a martini drinker because first of all, they are very strong – straight alcohol. And, for the most part, I think vodka tastes terrible. However, I LOVE olives, so I keep trying. Besides, the glass the martini is served in looks cool.
I’ve had a blue cheese martini before. My favorite bartender Paul makes the best with Grey Goose vodka. He knows the trick about getting the vodka really cold and he knows the exact right amount of dirty to make mine. Sadly, the bar he works for just transferred him to Zionsville and that’s a little far to drive for a cocktail so I decide to give the Déjà Blue a try.
My girlfriends and I are chatting away when the waitress returns with our drinks, so without a glance, I give mine a sip. Yuck, it tastes like slightly chilled vodka with a lot of vermouth and my olives are the garden variety pimento stuffed kind. Now, I know I’m going to sound like a martini snob here but, I ordered the Déjà Blue. Again, I tell you it’s on the menu as a featured drink.
So, I stop the waitress and say, “Um, I ordered the Déjà Blue Martini and it’s supposed to have blue cheese stuffed olives.” Remember, it’s all about the olives, people.
The waitress replies, “Uh, yeah, the bartender hasn’t stuffed any today.”
My girlfriends and I stare at her in anticipation of an extended explanation and she just stares back in silence. Finally, the waitress asks, “Do you want me to go stuff some for you?”
To which I reply, I’ll admit with a slight tone of sarcasm, “Yes, please.” I’m pretty sure when she turned to walk away, she was rolling her eyes.
Now, I’ve been a waitress and a bartender, in my day, and I wonder…when did it become acceptable to substitute another item than what the customer ordered because, “I don’t feel like making it right now.”? Is it also ok to deliver an empty glass to a customer who ordered orange juice because, “Sorry, we haven’t squeezed any oranges today.”? Or, to serve a Mushroom Quiche without the mushrooms because, “we haven’t sliced any mushrooms yet.”?
So the waitress stuffed my olives and my martini was just O.K. The olives (I hope she didn’t spit in them) tasted great. But, I still miss Paul.
This weekend as Al and I cleared brush from around the broken fence near the old outhouse, I spotted a slender spear of asparagus in the grass. I knew asparagus grew wild along that fence row, a leftover from someone’s garden of the past, but every spring I seem to miss the day the sprout reaches peak edibility.
Every year in late March I start walking the fence row searching for a sign that fresh asparagus is on its way. Every year I am diligent in my search for a week or so. Then, I get distracted for a few days and when I remember to search again, I’m too late. The once tender sprout seems to shoot up 12 inches in a day and the stalk becomes fibrous and the top turns to seed.
This year, I got lucky. We just happened to be out working in an area where the wild asparagus grows on the day it was ready to eat. I spotted that one lone spear and I snapped it off at the ground. Perfect. I could tell by the crisp pop it made when I bent the stem to snapping that it was still tender and good. I dropped my rake and left Al to the brush as I took off down the fence row on my search. I scanned the fence line until I found the telltale sign. A wispy brown bundle four feet high revealed where the seeds had fallen last autumn. There on the ground I hit the jackpot. Ten perfect tender spears of asparagus. It was just enough for…me. I didn’t share either. Yesterday, while the kids were in school and Al was downtown at work, I started a pot of water to boil and dropped my bountiful treasure in. I cooked them till they turned a brilliant green. Not too much, I like them slightly crisp. And with a quick rinse in the strainer, and a dressing of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, my masterpiece was complete. Mmmm, sweet memory, unless I get lucky next year.
Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating. The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating. I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House. Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table. He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock. He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields. In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later. That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.
Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah. The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn. King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries. In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live. In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex. He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.
Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters. Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans. Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself. Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.
Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal. It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes. I’ve got to go make a snack.