Thinking about food
Since my interest in writing about food lies mainly in the emotional work that cooking for, and dining with, others perform, I always begin a piece on food by asking what did this cooking or dining experience mean to me? Why did I think it important? Everything follows from that answer.
Two years ago, for example, my husband and I had a simple meal in Santa Fe that struck me as enchanted. It was our last day in town, late in the afternoon, and we had decided, quite spontaneously, to try for an early dinner. A restaurant with a courtyard like an impressionist painting — full of greenery, light and shade, soft white, yellow, and tan umbrellas — had been jammed the day before for lunch and we had refused the forty minute wait.
But, now, magically the place was empty, all our own. We sat at a table to the side of the courtyard that was partially shielded by a bush as tall as a tree, and out of the blue at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, a guitarist began to play. The dishes we ordered and then ate with delight –chicken enchiladas with green chile and wild mushroom tamales — struck us as the best food we’d had all week. That moment, in its many unexpected pleasures, was so perfect that my throat began to ache. What was I feeling? That was the question with which I began. Was I feeling the delights of this meal with a special intensity because I was about to leave Santa Fe?
A second question that I pose when I am writing about a moment of cooking or dining is what larger story is this a part of? Is there some movement from one place to another in which this moment participates? In this case, the answer was yes. This final meal recalled the many other pleasures that Santa Fe had offered us for a full week — a picnic before the opera at a wooden table overlooking a canyon, against a rose flushed sky; the comforting heft of chili mixed with lettuce, cheese, and Fritos in a Frito Pie, eaten in the plaza to the sound and feel of New Mexican rhythm and blues; the cool air of a bar after a hot walking tour of Santa Fe restaurants, the combination of spice, sweet, and chill in a cocktail called the Agave Way.
Our final meal bore the imprint of those pleasures too, pleasures I had to leave because I don’t live in Santa Fe. And then it struck me that this is what it feels like when the beauty of the world rises up before you in some sudden way and at the same time you understand that you will be leaving it and all its beauties. This time you will not return. And that was the larger story–my coming to understand how this moment was about mortality.
A third question I pose has to do with connection. What personal relations has this experience of cooking or dining involved? For cooking and dining almost always have impact on my relation to another. My husband, and I were alone when we discovered the empty restaurant, after a week spent, quite happily, in the company of old friends. The surprise of the restaurant’s being open, of its being empty, of its existing for a moment just for the two of us, the guitarist making songs like Sixteen Tons sound like ballads, the spicy flavors of our meals, made for a moment in which two people shared the experience of feeling blessed. Sharing unexpected pleasures, or even expected ones, can create or deepen many bonds, can produce a moment of unusual intimacy. That is what dining together often does for a couple, a family, a community, a group of strangers.
Another question is how I can bring the reader to the table, engage her in a sensuous apprehension of the food and its surroundings, because always , for me, the surroundings enter into our experience of the food itself. What senses can I evoke, how I go beyond the visual and beyond a description of taste. How can I use smell and feel and even sound? The wild mushrooms tasted of earth, the polenta was soft to the tongue and scented with poblano chili. The yearning music of the guitar mixed with, and was somehow answered by, these other bodily sensations. (I always take pictures of the meals I mean to write about so I can re experience them later. The same goes with pictures of the setting and of the city or country itself.)
A final question is how do I join a sensuous apprehension of food with its emotional meanings and my reflections upon both? Most often I rely on weaving. The food, the setting, the feelings they inspire are threaded together within a narrative that moves from one point to another. Sometimes I reach for something outside my immediate frame of reference to emphasize the underlying theme. While writing the Santa Fe essay, for example, I remembered a favorite picture of Frida Kahlo, the one at Xochomilco, the watery pleasure garden outside of Mexico City. Frida looks over the boat and as water trails lightly through her fingers she seems to be feeling but also thinking about pleasure. “Perhaps,” I wrote, “she is thinking about the fleeting nature of delight. Perhaps she is thinking about mortality. I want to think about mortality too–so I remember to live. “ For me this picture helped capture what was at the heart of our Santa Fe meal—an enchanting moment against the sharp edge of leaving it.