Monday, November 29, 2010

I don't believe in frettin' and grievin';
Why mess around with strife?
I never was cut out to step and strut out.
Give me the simple life.

I’ll dive right in by saying I am not a fan of the holiday all. Get the ‘Bah, humbug!’ out of the way and hear me out. I don’t like any Hallmark holiday, and an ultra-condensed six-week (we can only wish it were that short!) phantasmagoric overload of tinsel and twinkle and tinny rehashed music is just too much to bear.

I don’t need a date on the calendar to remind me to be thankful for my family and friends, for the life we share. That internal gratitude is all that keeps me going in the face of the often petty and spiteful society we find ourselves immersed in. Yet every November, we cram upwards of twenty of us into one medium-sized home (no McMansions in our family), juggle paper (or worse, Styrofoam) plates full of high-calorie food we avoid the rest of the year, stuff ourselves to uncomfortable condition, and then far too often scurry off to the other side of the family for round two. The too-short visit and the crush of bodies are not conducive to any real connection, no chance to catch up on events since the last get-together. We barely get past the when did you cut your’s school...are you still working at XX and it’s time to hit the road, especially for those of us who dared move out of town away from the family fold.

Hallmark, Hollywood and television would like us to believe holidays are a picture-perfect wonderland of love and tradition. Expectations are set impossibly high, stress levels rise to match, and exhausting efforts to recreate that Currier & Ives scene take over. If you buy into the hype, the whole thing can be nothing but a disappointment on at least some level.

Which is why I prefer less fuss, less hype, and smaller, simpler gatherings on more frequent occasions. We’ve started our own tradition of birthday dinners out, just hubby and me with our kids and their significant others, or with our parents when we can work out the logistics. On a good year, that gives up eight or more chances to share a nice meal that doesn’t destroy healthy eating habits in one fell swoop and to stay up-to-date on more mundane, but ultimately more important, topics of life. We stay connected. And we are thankful.

Don’t even get me started on Christmas...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Communicating with food

Following is an essay I wrote for Anthony Bourdain’s Raw Food Challenge to explain ‘Food Well Done.’ It didn’t win – didn’t even make the top ten! – but I thought it came out well and I don’t want pass up the opportunity to share it further. Writing is all about communication, yes?

Food – a gift from the gods that sustains life. Food well done transcends mere sustenance and elevates life to that of the divine. Fresh, simple, prepared with care and attention to the innate qualities of each morsel, there is no more universal way to nurture the mind, body and spirit.

Breaking bread together appears in humanities’ earliest traditions. It is a sign of hospitality, of communion, of an end to hostilities. Whether presented as a state banquet, a wedding feast, or a family dinner, sharing a meal brings people together. It offers a time to pause from the frantic pace of everyday life, a time to share not only food but thoughts and ideas. It’s been suggested that early man started eating in groups to make sure no one took more than a fair share, and while that may be true, it’s a good bet the joys of simple camaraderie overtook greed as supplies became more secure. Food well done satiates the senses. It breaks down barriers, dissolves our selfishness, and reveals our largess.

From the early Roman sculpted grapes of Bacchus to Cezanne’s Still Life with Fruit Basket to the sensuous morsels in Chocolat, food is often the focal point of art. Whether in painting, literature, or music, food is commemorated because it is central to our existence. We begin our lives suckling and, if we are fortunate, our passing is celebrated with a joyful wake of good wine and comfort food for family and friends.

On a more immediate level, food well done can effectively communicate, nourish, seduce and placate. It is a sublime method of personal expression. Each nation, each culture, each individual has a unique way of selecting, preparing and sharing the food indigenous to their locale. Similarities abound and serve to highlight our global connectedness, yet the subtle differences and regional adaptations emphasize the individual needs and tastes of each community. Whether as Indian naan, Middle East pita, Mexican tortilla, or any of another thousand variations, man has found ways to combine simple grains and local spices into a staple recognized around the world. When everything on the plate is strangely exotic, go for the bread.

Food well done defies convention and dogma. It crosses boundaries in ways few other things are able. It is beyond description, and beyond compare. We know it when we see it, and when we taste it. It just is.

And here’s the winning entry, if you care to compare…comments always welcome!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Not by bread alone...

As I’ve mentioned before in these ramblings, I bake all our bread. Twice a month or so, I break out the bowls and measuring cups, loaf pans and cooling racks, and have at it. It’s a form of therapy, almost a meditation.

Recently I’ve noticed how much the process of baking bread is a reflection of my writing life. I’ve studied the cookbooks (how-to writing books galore) from Betty Crocker to Great Breads and more. I know the recipe by heart (words, grammar, punctuation), which ingredients need to be treated with extra care (character development, dialogue) and how everything fits together in order to obtain the desired result (sentence structure, plot arc). I know I can be successful (published); I’ve done it many times.

So why do I always face that moment of self-doubt as I dump the soggy batter (first draft) onto the mat to begin kneading the dough into shape (editing, rewriting, still more editing)? I haven’t ruined a batch of bread in longer than I can remember – knock on wood! – but I worry, every time. Did I get the liquid too hot and kill the yeast? Too cool and not activate it? (too much dialogue/narrative descriptions, not enough action, or vice versa?)

After I’ve kneaded the dough for five minutes or so, it always comes together just fine, as do the words in a manuscript. But now what about that chilly draft in the kitchen (less-than-receptive writers group)? Will the dough rise properly (satisfying dénouement)? And then there’s the baking – too long, and the loaf is dry and tasteless; too short, and it’s gooey and unpalatable. How much time do I invest in rewriting a story? Too much, and I can edit the life right out of the best plot; too little, and the rough edges may frustrate a reader.

Sometimes there are occasions which require a different kind of loaf, something a bit more elegant than my usual oatmeal wheat bread (fiction). My specialties are banana bread from my grandmother’s recipe and a pumpkin bread (long-form essays and the occasional book review ) I stumbled across a few years ago. Each calls for a special set of ingredients (academic vocabulary and style), a different technique (introspection or objectivity). They are a welcome change of pace, and when I’m really daring and try my green chili baguette, a challenge (a full-length novel).

Whichever form I choose on any given day (or week, or month), the bread bakes, and the story is finished (eventually). The bread feeds and nourishes my family, a tasty addition to our meals. I can only hope my stories do the same for my readers.