Tuesday, September 29, 2009

From fast to feast

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It's a complicated Holy Day, wherein the Book of Life is written, closed and sealed - everything you did for the previous year has been recorded and your fate for the coming year is written. It's also a fast day, a full 25 hours without food and water. I admit, I drink water; exceptions can be made in case of medical need and with a history of kidney stones I'm not going to get that dehydrated. I wrote about some of my experiences this year here.

At the end of this day of fasting and contemplation you break fast, entering the new year with joyful celebration. I did so last night with friends and family, a lovely meal that I spent several hours preparing. For any observant Jews reading this, yes, I know violates the admonition against work, but cooking is contemplative for me. It brought me tremendous peace knowing I was preparing a meal for those I love, an offering of life and forgiveness. This meal was prepared with the accompanying music of my growling stomach and the constant reminder to not nibble, trust my sense of seasoning, all will be well.

I wanted it to be special but not extravagant. Roasted chicken stuffed with lemon and tarragon, lamb studded with garlic and rosemary, roasted potatoes and garlic cloves, asparagus, roasted figs, kugel, honeycake (these last two brought by guests). Maybe I went a little overboard, but, oh, it was worth it.

With each slice of the knife I considered the beauty of the ingredients. The gaping mouths of the figs as I drizzled them with honey. The naked chicken, whom I thanked for its life and offering. The garlic cloves, each and every one sheathed in papery skin, their pungent stickiness on my fingers. The lamb, such an ancient offering, such a lovely living thing, now an offering for those whom I love. Potatoes and asparagus, from under the earth and over, each laughing with their own secret lives of green tips and round bodies. And the herbs fresh from my garden, the product of sunlight and soil and time.

The meal was a prayer to prepare and a communion to eat. A fine closure to a day of contemplation and community.

May this new season find you well, with luscious tastes and welcoming smiles to greet you.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From poor food to pride

I'm not dead. I've been blogging up a storm at my other site, truestorieshonestlies, and haven't had the chutzpah to come here too. I miss writing and thinking about food, but haven't been sure of what to say.

I'm traveling now, in North Carolina far from my usual New England. My breakfast this morning was of the great American delicacies, biscuits and gravy. For those of you unfamiliar with this fine regional dish, it's sturdy white-flour biscuits covered in white gravy made out of a roux based in sausage fat. The better gravies have bits of sausage suspended in the mess and are a little spicy. It's bound to kill you if eaten too often and utterly delicious.

As I was savoring every morsel this morning I got to thinking about other sturdy, regional foods I love. None are healthy, they all are rich, fatty and delicious. Cheesesteak sandwiches like those I grew up with in Philadelphia; fish tacos; biscuits and gravy; you know the kind of foods I'm talking about. These are all foods made from what's available, the leftover odds and ends in the kitchen from those homes where you need to use everything, nothing can go to waste. These are foods that are more concerned about daily caloric intake - making sure there is enough - than with a balanced diet, low-fat, high-fiber kind of life.

What I find interesting is that these foods have moved from poor food, stuff you eat because you have to, to regional pride. Ask anyone from Philadelphia about the local cuisine and I can promise they will mention steak sandwiches, not knowing that originally they were made with the leftover scraps of meat. Southern Californians love their fish tacos, cheap and hot from stands, but they were originally a food of necessity, made out of what was readily available. And biscuits and gravy are the mainstay of any Southern establishment that wants to tout its Southerness. These are no longer the foods of poverty, but of pride and tradition.

Maybe part of the collective memory here is saying, "We have overcome our lean years. We eat this now because we can, not because we have to." Or maybe it's just because it tastes so very good.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer