Sunday, October 24, 2010

Keeping it simple

Have you ever looked at a 5-year-old beauty pageant contestant, seen their abundance of sparkles, curls, and a thick layer of makeup, and thought, "She looks like she's trying to be something she's not - it's too much!" Underneath the sequin dress and mess of hair sprayed locks is a little girl whose cheeks turn bright red when she runs outside in the cold and would rather jump in mud puddles than burst onto the fashion scene. Her natural beauty as a 5-year-old far outshines the excessive glamour of the pageant queen she's portraying.

Just like these young, over-glamorized toddlers, certain "gourmet" dishes exude a sense of elite sophistication as they display an arrangement of wild ingredients surrounded by a host of edible decorations. Hiding somewhere beneath the gastronomic creation is a simple, elementary food, which maintains a distinct beauty in its own right. So why, I ask, must we seek to complicate our meals with superfluous additions instead of highlighting the true flavor of a single or few ingredients?

On Thursday, I made a dish that contained five ingredients. I made a Margherita pizza - pillows of mozzarella cheese, slices of crimson Roma tomatoes and fresh basil leaves atop a homemade pizza crust drizzled with olive oil. There was nothing complicated to this dish - no need to crowd the dough with other vegetables, cheeses or meats, no need to sprinkle on an array of spices. As we sank our teeth into our first slice, the tomato and mozzarella gushed inside our mouths as we closed our eyes and imagined we were dining in Napoli. This simple dish took little time to prepare and was not intimidating in the slightest. We didn't need the royal cavalcade of the Italian Cioppino to excite our stomachs; between five fresh ingredients, we could think of nothing more satisfying.

Too often we come across a recipe that sends shivers down our spine - tipped off by the two hour preparation time, the endless list of rare and unusual ingredients, accompanied by six paragraphs of instructions, is enough to send one into a culinary heart attack. Instead of trying to create a flashy meal, why not emphasize the true, brilliant taste of a few simple ingredients? Ready for another challenge? Why not try turning less into more... now that's a real art.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A little less talk, a little more conversation

"Isn't this great/pleasant/unusual/horrible weather we've been having?" ... If someone centers the conversation around weather one more time, I just might sink my face into my plate of spaghetti. Now, maybe that's a little harsh, but I'd like to point out that constantly falling back on surface level conversation rarely leaves anyone feeling a greater sense of purpose or self discovery. Has remaking about the dreary cloud cover ever challenged your opinion about politics, caused you to question your core values or inspired you to learn more about another culture? ... I'm guessing not. So why don't we bring the art of conversation back into the equation?

Spotlight - the family table. Some of my favorite memories center around dinnertime when my Dad and I would talk about exciting things in the future, a project to help the community or what it means to be successful. Sometimes, the conversations were ones that probed my belief system, challenging what I viewed to be the best scenario when my Dad saw things differently. Between bites of baguette with olive tapanade and mouthfuls of almond crusted tilapia, we journeyed across a range of subjects which induced the occasional fit of laughter and even provoked tears. I'm not suggesting that every meal should revolve around a heart-wrenching conversation, but what a difference it would make it families and friends saw dinnertime as a hour when you were free to express your unanswered questions, debate current events and process your emotions when someone made you feel insignificant!

This past Friday, I shared a delicious homemade dinner with my friend Rebekah, along with my Uncle Chuck and his close friend Carleen. Earlier that afternoon, my cousin Lea and I discussed what we felt to be the definition of a man and a woman, and whether these characteristics are innate or imposed by society. Our conversation inspired so many points of direction that I decided to pose the same questions of discussion at dinner that evening. After we covered our plates with an array of fish and roasted vegetables, I presented the topic of conversation. Talk about a new meaning for "food for thought"!

The conversation danced throughout the night, covering topics of stereotypes, homosexuality, religion, ignorance, violence, the Crusades and 9/11. As I ate forkfulls of roasted zucchini, my mind was ablaze with thoughts of what femininity means to women around the world. Does an Afghani woman view herself as subjugated or mysterious when she wears a chador? Have these women always felt the need to disclose their physicality from men, or did that come with the rise of patriarchal institutions? As we sat around the table, the dinner became much more than a time to eat good food, but transformed into a time where I was fortunate enough to learn about the insights of my company and even forced to examine my own beliefs. We all enjoyed the food, but it was the conversation that made the evening memorable.

Dinnertime can be much more than a heaping plate of meat and potatoes; it can become the foundation of philosophical discussions, the birthplace of your new found respect for the Dalai Lama, or heck, the start of your endless journey of of asking too many questions. Even if you end up talking with your mouthful for a few minutes, I think it's well worth the risk.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A little time for a lot of good

There are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week and about 8,766 hours in a year. Most of us spend a significant amount of that time sleeping, attending classes or work, commuting and participating in various activities. How much of that time do you spend eating a meal with someone where you actually sit down at a table, without the distractions of television and other media, and carry on a conversation while eating a home-cooked meal? Chances are, if you're wracking your brain trying to think of the last time you spent an evening at the kitchen table, it's been too long.

In the age of Martha Stewart and a host of other chefs who whip out "picture perfect" culinary masterpieces, it's no wonder that some may be intimidated to crack open a cookbook or explore the spices they've had in their pantry for the last 10 years. With food, there is no end to the list of possible creations ... which is why I find food so intriguing and wonderful! Yet, because cooking lends itself to so many different directions, it can be an intimidating activity to jump into. When flipping through the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child's description of how to julienne a carrot or braise an onion might make one's head spin. "Is there a difference between an eggplant and an aubergine?" you might ask. "Oh screw it! This is too complicated!" ... and that's it. You close the book and set it back on the shelf to collect dust as if has since the day you bought it when you were feeling particularly in touch with your inner chef.

Most have either a romantic or chaotic image of cooking. What stigma you have attached to the art may dictate how you choose to spend your meals: eating at a restaurant, grabbing a Big Mac from McDonald's, sitting alone with a bowl of Cheerios or serving bowls of your new pasta primavera recipe to your next door neighbors. Which one are you?

If you desire to be part of that last image - to enjoy that sense of communion with your family, friends, and heck, even strangers, all it takes is a little time and commitment. The amount of time you need to prepare part of a meal and share it with others, when compared to how many hours we have each day, week and year, is relatively small. Think about the large chunks of time you set aside to work on a paper, practice for a triathlon or spend driving from your house to work each day. Shouldn't you give an equally important part of your day doing something that adds to your physical, psychological and emotional well being? To this I propose a challenge... can you spend at least one night a week where you commit to spend an hour creating a new dish and then share it with someone? If we can't manage to spare the time to do that, then I think we have some bigger issues to examine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It must be a sign

Sometimes there are moments in life where you know there must be a higher power guiding you along your path. Saturday night, I had an experience to remind me of just that.

After I made my dinner, a somewhat uninspired bean burrito and salad, I picked up the remote and turned on the TV for the third time since I began living here in August. I was searching for the Oregon vs. Stanford football game, but happened to stumble upon a program where a man was talking about Tuscany. The mention of anything Italian was enough for me to put down the remote and watch whatever he was talking about.

The screen began to fill with images of wine, crumbly almond cookies dusted in powdered sugar and slices of creamy white lardo - aged pork fat, which everyone seemed to agree was decisively delicious. As I swallowed the last bite of my faux Mexican dinner, the host joined in with a Tuscan family as they sat down to feast in celebration of the harvest (what a contrast to my current meal!). He went into a beautiful description of the Italian family table - that while there are individual place settings, glasses and chairs, there is only one table - the central object that links these people together. For Italians, he stressed, sitting down to eat a meal at the family table is not an uncommon sight - in fact, it is a key value in Italian society. Eating a meal together is a very communal experience, one which involves interaction among generations as they pass down the traditions from their family's past. Eating together is a time when children learn how to interact with adults, a time where they not only learn etiquette, but also the importance of building strong and healthy relationships.

I sat there on the edge of my seat as if I was going to jump into the television set and sit down to partake in this remarkable family gathering. How wonderful to know that there are communities that value something I consider to be one of the highlights of the human experience! As I prepare to travel to Florence for my study abroad experience, I can't help but think that there is a reason why I have such a strong pull to go to Italy. For me, this experience will be more than just an opportunity to live in a beautiful city filled with so much wonderful history - it will be my chance to live in a place where family, and sharing in communion at the family table, is a core principal in their daily lives. Seeing that image modeled on the TV screen on Saturday night was just another way of God telling me, "Taylor, I'm sending you to the right place - a place where you can heal, where you can see and experience a beautiful meaning of family."

January, when I arrive, I'll be ready with my bags packed, stomach hungry and heart waiting to be filled with the love of the Italian family.

Here is a link to Burt Wolf's segment on the Italian Family Table: