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Filtering by Tag: food

A Specially Tender Piece of Eternity

Howard Schaap

cropped1 The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere . . . Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.

We remove the low table from its place in the entryway, fold out and lock its two sets of legs, and place it on the area rug in the center of the living room. The table is inlaid with a fancy-looking peacock, but the plastic white edging is now almost completely broken off, and even the glossy surface is cracked and beginning to reveal the particle-board realities underneath. We accumulate mismatched sets of silverware and plates and water, a jug of water, and a roll of paper towels for napkins.

It’s August, the doldrums. People are dying: an elderly neighbor, a man from bible study, to say nothing of world terrors. With the frenetic academic year looming, there’s no telling how our family, together for the moment, might fragment.

. . . an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought.

The meal is a drawing together, as all meals are, an orchestration. The jaew bdak, a spicy fish paste, comes from minnows Keo salted and allowed to ferment for weeks in a pail under her table, salting and turning it until it became something powerful and lasting.

The two kinds of sausage, spicy and not, were made by a friend, given within the transaction of friendship that’s really a window between hearts allowing for the free exchange of goodnesses, tomatoes for sausages, without accounting.

The pak bone, the English name for which I can’t find even on the Internet, is a Lao vegetable we coddled through a cool spring while Keo was away, distinguishing its frail leaves from among the spurious seeds which combust spontaneously from soil.

Two types of long bean, the usual green type and a beautiful purple long bean, that someone on Facebook identifies in Chinese and Bing translates to cicada beans. These, too, are called up from the garden, as if the smell of the sky and the weight of the air made this the perfect year to grow them.

Sticky rice from Thailand in a bamboo basket.

Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out . . . in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

The meal is a part of Keo, my mother-in-law. She’s drawn forth the frail pak bone by sheer force of will, stir-fried the dark green leaves and tougher stalks at full length so you have to wrestle with them, know their full being as you eat. She’s similarly ministered to the beans as they lengthen on their fence. Now, these are smashed in a mortar (koak) and pestle (sakk), again in a way so as to know their texture and fresh taste: the dry, earthy juice of beans among the sweetness of cherry tomatoes, the salt of fish sauce, garlic and Thai peppers on their way from green to red.

This August meal with Keo and the one orchestrated by Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse are aesthetically and materially different, there’s no doubt, but both share a beauty rooted in care that opens onto something greater. The placement of the purples and reds on the backdrop of greens in the bean dish; that dish flanked by the light colored sausage, the dark green pak bone, the pale warmth of rice, the light ochre jaew bdak—it works upon us this August, a meal, a piece of eternity. 

What are you having for dinner tonight?

Jennifer Vasquez

babettesfeast22 Last night I watched Babette's Feast, a bowl of luscious Rainer cherries in one hand, a nursing baby in the other. This film is about appetite.

The opening scene shows a small isolated 19th century village on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark — bleak and gray, yet enchanting. The ocean is close — fish hang drying, slit and bloody. The viewer soon learns that these fish are a staple for this simple community and the family that forms the center of the film — two beautiful sisters and their father, pastor of a small close-knit sect. The pastor is beloved by the community and, though not unkind, is severe, warding off potential suitors with the argument that his daughters are his right and left hands for serving God. The sisters themselves, in fear, deny love when it almost captures them. They instead spend their lives in service to their neighbors, feeding the poor and feeble with simple fare — soaking and boiling the hard, dried fish and making a thick, unappetizing brown soup by boiling dry bread in ale.

A cloaked figure arrives unexpectedly one night during a thunderstorm. She will change the appetite of the entire community. Babette is an exhausted traveler from France. Her husband and son had been shot in the civil war. She has nowhere to go and no ties left to France, except her annual lottery ticket.

Babette finds refuge as a housekeeper with the sisters and takes over their duties of cooking for the poor. She bargains with the local merchants, buying onions and fish, using herbs and making the food tastier. Babette serves the sisters for fourteen years. Then she receives post from France. She has won the lottery.

Around the same time the sisters plan to celebrate their late father's 100th birthday. Although they envision only a small gathering with coffee at the end, Babette clutches the gold cross hanging at her breast and proposes a real French dinner. The sisters hesitate but accept, and then are horrified when shipments arrive containing the preparations. Such riches, such ostentation! It could only be the work of the devil.

The night of the feast, the parishioners gather beforehand to pray. It is obvious that the tight community has become quarrelsome and somewhat bitter in their later years.Their prayer? That God would protect them from the food! They make a pact among themselves not to talk about the food, not to let it affect them.

But it can't be helped. Babette's virtuosity washes over them in waves of wine and delicacies. With each course, another vintage. With each taste, a new world. It is a feast of feasts. Slowly, the faces relax and forgiveness begins flowing.

The simple village folk can hardly appreciate what is placed before them; they have no idea what they are tasting. But one man can — a worldly man, a general, a former admirer of one of the sisters. The general relishes the meal, expressing wonder at each new glass and dish, until finally one course suggests the famous female chef of the most famous Parisian restaurant —Cafe Anglais.

When the meal is over, Babette reveals that she is indeed that chef and that she spent her entire lottery fortune preparing the meal. She gave all, yet she was not sorry for having provided such a costly meal for a group of people without the capacity to properly enjoy it.

This meal also affects you, the viewer of the film. You want to be there. You want to dine with them. You call your spouse and ask for wine on the way home. You want a taste of what they're having — a meal that makes no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite, a meal Babette turned into a love affair. What are you having for dinner tonight?

Coffee Convictions

Stephanie Smith

Last week my husband and I were suffering from cabin fever after a few rainy days, and we decided to get out of the house and grab some coffee and a good book somewhere. Wheeling into the parking lot of Barnes and Noble, we noticed a family of three walking toward their car.

They had just come out of the all-you-can-eat buffet in the strip mall, two parents and a son who looked about eight years old, and all of them a doctor would diagnose with obesity.

So sad, Zach and I said to each other. I wondered what kind of future that child would have, would he be teased? Would he feel like he wouldn’t amount to anything? And what about the parents? What is it they are trying to escape through food? Do they eat here all the time? Do they care that their kid is severely overweight and inheriting their own unhealthiness?

All sorts of disapproving and critical thoughts ran through my head. And then I walked into the bookstore café and bought a $4 espresso drink.

“Are you sure you don’t want a venti, it’s only 60 cents more?” The barista lobbied, as they are trained to do with every customer. I declined. “Do you want a pastry or a sandwich to go with that?” No thanks. They definitely know how to capitalize on the classic impulse buy.

It was only after I was catered to at the coffee bar that I realized I was choosing the same gluttony I had just condemned. I didn’t need an espresso drink topped with whipped cream, I was just indulging. I was paying $4 for something that I knew was overpriced and nonessential.

This year I have been discovering a new way of eating, exploring where my food comes from, the ethics of my culinary choices, such as fair labor treatment and environmental responsibility, and trying to make better food choices in general. And while I am privileged American to be able to choose between pricey organic meat or canned green beans, not everyone has that privilege. Hunger is a real issue in the world just as much as obesity is, and both claim lives.

I’m not against caramel macchiatos, but I hope I don’t consume them ignorantly, as this last experience taught me. I hope I will realize the weight of my food choices, and if I’m going to exercise my privileges, I hope I will also donate to world hunger relief organizations, contribute to my church’s food pantry, and pray for and remember those who don’t have the same privileges God has so graciously given.