Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people
to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long for the endless
immensity of the sea.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There are times when I can’t bear to think about cooking. Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself. But sometimes, without knowing why, it is drained of all that. Then cooking becomes just another one of hunger’s jagged edges. So I have ways to take hold of this thing and wrest it from the claws of resentment, and settle it back among things that are mine.
The first is remembering that ill-tempered as I am, I resent everything sometimes. I get infuriated by the weather and missed trains and missing buttons. I think that cooking must be allowed to swell to contemptible proportions when it seems contemptible, just like other disproportionately terrible annoyances, and then allowed to shrink when it is time.
Then the question is: How do you fall in love with it again, or if it has never made you truly happy, fall in love with it for the first time?
My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love.
We have different loves. Mine are food and words. Others’ are how buildings slant away from dark sidewalks, or how good it feels to solve an equation. I say: Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate when you loved it.
It helps me to think of meals I’ve cooked or eaten before, if not for the food, for the light in the room or in the sky when I ate. What the light looked like, or what music was playing. It doesn’t take more than my opening a window, head lifted to the air, for the sound of glass against a marble table, or the rustle of the wind to remind me that I’ve sat at marble tables outside, drunk out of glasses, listened to their light clatter on the table, noticing a rustling wind.
I may not remember what I ate, or whether it was the lunch where I realized I do like black pepper to have been ground before I use it, or the one where I spilled water in my lap, but I will remember how the day felt on my face, and my creative soft self will have been awakened. So I listen hard. I listen with the purpose of remembering. And this digging into sounds and into days I have heard and felt roots future meals in the unchangeable truths of past ones.
Let smells in. Let the smell of hot tarmac in the summer remind you of a meal you ate the first time you landed in a hot place, when the ground smelled like it was melting. Let the smell of salt remind you of a paper basket of fried clams you ate once, squeezing them with lemon as you walked on a boardwalk. Let it reach your deeper interest. When you smell the sea, and remember the basket of hot fried clams, and the sound of skee-balls knocking against each other, let it help you love what food can do, which is to tie this moment to that one. Then something about the wind off the sea will have settled in your mind, and carried the fried clams and squeeze of a lemon with it.
The smells of a fireplace or wood fire are some of the best. Decide you will replicate the meals those smells remind you of, no matter if they’re hot dogs and Boston baked beans, or corn, or cinnamon toast eaten off paper plates. If it’s hot dogs or cinnamon toast that reminds your heart that it can be moved by food, make hot dogs or cinnamon toast.
Or instead of eating hot dogs or toast, think of sausages, and how fun it is to spread anything with mustard, or with the smell of cinnamon in your nose, open up a cookbook to look for a recipe for apple cake.
When I smell charcoal, I remember a meal at a folding table at the side of a river in Laos. A woman manned an oil drum cut in half, a hot blackened grill over its top, and coals spread in its belly. She grilled chicken legs, bones removed, until they were charred, their meat turned the colour of dark honey. They were sent to the table with sticky rice, packed into little wicker baskets by her tough hands, along with ceramic crocks of red chile paste.
I cannot smell charcoal or wet river rock without smelling, too, grilling chicken, and steaming rice, and remembering how for days my hands were stained with chile. It does not matter what river or what food. Tug your memories back into the kitchen with you and you’ll find yourself less separate from the idea of making food.
I like to read descriptions of food in books. If I’m feeling resentful of cooking, I never pick up anything useful. I will only read a cookbook if it is one in which the poetry of food comes alive on the page.
Edna Lewis, author of The Taste of Country Cooking
I have a dog-eared copy on a bookshelf near the kitchen of The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Ms. Lewis was a chef from Virginia who wrote about Southern cooking so beautifully that when you read what she writes, you can taste the seasons and the fields the vegetables were picked from, and the temperature outside when jam got made, and what the wind felt like when quails were hunted. Writing about the Virginia summers of her childhood:
Most farmers had their own icehouses, but we got ours from the icehouse at Lahore. We used it for making ice cream, lemonade, cooling the milk, and sometimes drinking water. It was a great treat to bring the ice home in a burlap bag, chipping off small pieces to eat on a hot day.
It is hot, then, and I want to make lemonade, and feel cold ice on my fingers.
Or I read passages from children’s books, which often contain the most limpid descriptions of food. The writer E. Nesbit’s stories seem to always end when, after quarrelling, getting lost, getting stung, children find themselves—warm and tired in hay barns—eating cold chicken, bacon, boiled eggs, ripe tomatoes sprinkled with salt, and siphons of seltzer. Her stories leave me wanting to run and scrape and quarrel and eat cold chicken and ripe tomatoes, and those are all pleasant things to want to do. So, I am again excited about the way a meal can bring a day to fizzy, perfect completion.
One spring I reread The Wind in the Willows, remembering having been bewitched as a child by what its animal citizens ate. I found this description of Water Rat’s picnic:
“There’s a cold chicken inside it,” said Rat briefly, “cold-tongue-cold-ham-cold- beef-pickled-gherkins-salad-french-bread-cress-sandwidges-spotted-meat- ginger-beer-lemonade-soda-water—”
“Oh stop, stop!” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”
“Do you really think so?” inquired the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little excursions…”
Rat rowed silently down the river, while Mole took in all the new sights, smells and sounds, and trailed his paw lazily in the water.
For a week, I had a solid sense that my days were a cool river. I made cold beef and pickled onion sandwiches for lunch, and ate watercress salad, and drank not lemonade, but beer.
I am probably most helped by reading books written by people who were moved by what they ate, and could not tell a story without telling what was eaten. Ernest Hemingway, who never made explicit what could be implied, could not help describing food. He wrote about foods that were wild and cold: oysters, brook trout, wine.
And when I read this one, which I do when I’m really embittered about cooking and eating and being hungry in the first place, I think “Oh, yes.” And something settles. In A Moveable Feast, he wrote:
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and begun to be happy and to make plans.
From An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Copyright 2011 by Tamar Adler. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. On sale wherever books are sold.
Tamar Adler is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and for Vogue. She is the author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace and is currently at work on a new book.