October 29, 2012

The Kitchen and the Good Life, Revisited

Sandy is picking up to a steady pace now. The maples outside my bedroom window (I'm in Boston for a few days) are being plucked clean of their foliage and the winds are setting the fallen leaves into great swirls and bursts of color. At the very least, it's something colorful against an otherwise grey and intensely rainy day. And at least the electricity is still on -- "hunkering down" during a storm with no power isn't my idea of a good time. In fact, "hunkering down" for anything has never been my cup of tea.

Let's hope that by the time I finish writing this post, the power is still on.

Exactly one year ago today, I sat in my room at Wesleyan as a wintery storm brewed outside my window, and wrote a post The Kitchen and the Good Life. A foot of snow was predicted then for Connecticut, and we ended up losing power for a week, which we spent restfully in Boston. I finished that post by saying: If you give cooking a little effort, it will give you a lot back. Today, a year later, contemplating food and cooking and writing and brewing storms from a different bedroom window, it's still as true today as it was then.

That's because cooking and eating together becomes more than the sum of its parts.

I'm thinking back to a lobster dinner I made with my family and some friends in Maine this summer. We heated large lobster pots atop a wood fire outside, mixing the water with plenty of salt until it tasted like the sea and came to a stormy boil. Squirming lobsters, which we'd bought down the road from a Tracy's Lobster Shack, were dunked in one by one until the lid was closed and the last of the lobsters' legs quit jerking. In just a few minutes, they were bright red, scratched through with streaks of orange and grey and speckled in spots with black -- as lobsters are. It's that shade of red that I associate most with Maine, not solid cherry red, but red infused with the coming colors of fall.

Next to the lobster, on the hot embers surrounding the fire, we place unshucked ears of fresh Maine corn wrapped in aluminum foil. We turn each ear slowly, the corn roasting between the foil and their husks. When they are ready, the are sweet and tender and smoky -- almost a meal in themselves though nothing has been added.

People come and go from the fire, sitting for a moment to watch the lobsters boil, adding their two cents on whether or not the lobsters can feel it, running inside to grab a beer, making sure the other fixings are in process.  The night begins to swarm.

Finally, we pile the lobsters and corn upon a simple stone table next to the fire pit, accompanied only by boiled potatoes and large bowls of melted butter, which is slathered on the lobster and the corn and the potatoes. We eat it all with our hands. The only roof over our heads is a fabulously starry sky, and besides the dozen or so of us around the table trading bits of conversation between bites -- "oh the lobster is so sweet this year!" and "there's nothing like summer corn" and "who wants to split a second lobster" -- there is little else to think about and few worries in the world, mosquitoes not included.

A few people and a few very simple ingredients become much more than the sum of their parts. The only sights in the world become hungry hands and a dinner table. The sounds reduce to a few familiar voices, the cooing of loons and the cracking of lobster claws (again, mosquitoes not included). Butter, by this time, covers your fingers and the smells in the air -- a mixture of lobster and butter and smoke and cool Maine air -- only feed your appetite. The tastes? Lobster and fresh corn and potatoes covered in butter. Need I say more?

When I wrote my post a year ago today, I said the following about home cooking:
Cooking at home is about a lot more than the time involved it takes to prepare a meal ... First, it's about eating healthy food that comes from real ingredients, ingredients that haven't been overly processed, preserved or loaded with artificial ingredients ... Second, cooking is about being with the people in your life. Home cooking allows people to come together, with your family and friends at home or college or wherever you live. It's about finding a way to connect with your community... If you give cooking a little effort, it will give you a lot back.
When I think back over the past summer and early fall, I think of how often a few ingredients and a few good people have made for such wonderful meals. Lobster, corn, potatoes and butter, cooked on a wood fire: that's real food from real ingredients. Sharing it around a stone table beneath a starry sky with friends and family:

I think about how much cooking can give, how true it is that cooking and eating together become more than the sum of their parts. Food cooked with love tasted better (and damn that lobster was good), and let's be honest, friends and family with food just seem better too.

For now as Sandy continues to brew, I have potatoes in the oven, and steaks ready to hit the stove. I figure I'll make some pumpkin dumplings with my cousins who just came over -- they lost their electricity earlier today. While we still have ours, who knows -- tonight's dinner may be candle lit. But the food and the people will be just the same.