The Value of Things
In occasional delusional moments I fancy I have a profound gift of appreciating the details of special experiences when the occur, like the beautiful Tiffany skylight, dramatic oak stairway and ceiling friezes of delicate, pastel flowers which comforted me through an entirely miserable winter in a posh private school for young ladies. At least of those details I thought, “This is special and this is what I will remember when I leave,” which couldn’t be soon enough.
After a year of unhappy Victorian splendor, I managed to whine myself into a public school, which although lacking a library of leather bound first editions was not without its charms.The greatest of these was a lackluster cafeteria, where sublime doughnuts – the real kind you really do remember, crisp and full of cinnamon or light and yeasty, glazed with real chocolate, as doughnuts should be, were sold for ten cents. Who needed a thirty foot expanse of Tiffany skylight?
Liking the doughnuts seemed wrong, as did the wonderful little chocolate cakes I scored in a funky tobacco and sandwich shop on the corner near my summer job in a law office where legal history was being made. The history did not impress me, and most is forgotten, but I will always remember the oddly cool frosting on the cellophane packaged squares. Their wrongness made them more memorable than all of the wonderful foods I have been blessed with since.
My mother never understood why I had a weight problem. I was rarely hungry enough to eat all of her painstaking prepared low calorie meals inspired by early copies of Gourmet Magazine and an exploding library of cookbooks. My relation to her cooking is where my conceit about having the sense to appreciate the good things when they happen to me dissolves like cheap tissue in the washing machine. I envied my friends, whose mothers made mac and cheese or set out TV dinners. Mine made veal piccata and sole Veronique. I wanted ice cream. She crafted soufflés.
“You don’t miss what you have ’till it’s gone, da da da……”
Maxine Lockley possessed a profound love of food and all of the people and processes connected to it. She enjoyed immediate rapport with anyone who worked with food. She was not so much a foodie as a groupie, enthralled by and attracting to not only chefs, before they were monumental, but anyone who planted, harvested, sold, fished or prepared meals.
Long before the “new food culture” lionized and patronized the new age organic farmer and culinary artisan, Maxine was drinking Strega, sharing shockingly filthy jokes and playing cards with fishing boat owners in the basements of North Beach restaurants. She cozied up to farmers she met smoking Camels through a dramatic three inch cigarette holder among the vendors at the Produce Mart restaurant before 7:00 am, where she also picked up the chefs who graced our table and invited her into their kitchens. Her skills as a pickup artist filled not only the seats at our table, but our pantry.
Pearls before piglet
Her liaisons brought us an abundance of magnificent food: flats of sweet miniature melons or a package of little squares of paper thin, hand cut pasta from North Beach cooks, whole salmon and crates of Dungeness crab from her card playing cronies, and veal cutlets and enormous chunks of San Francisco corned beef from one vendor or another. We usually had more food than a family of three could possibly eat.
She was acknowledged as the most accomplished cook in her various circles. The salmon -poached, steamed or baked in salt as she learned from some Portuguese boat owner -and the corn beef with baby potatoes must have been wonderful. Everyone praised her dishes, but I was the swine to her pearls. A good portion of the salmon, crab or corned beef ended up frozen in weeks’ worth of sandwiches for my school lunch bags. I despised them and traded for the peanut butter and jelly or other sandwiches from the American mediocre lunch canon. She would have been horrified.
Oblivious in Germany
I finally came to my senses in Germany, nine thousand miles from my mother’s kitchen and its mother daughter emotional undercurrents. The dense, dark German bread and pungent cheese, which I would have rejected at home, tasted wonderful. I discovered salmon. I ate what my new German and French friends ate with enjoyment but little mindfulness. We biked to the country for new wine and green onion cake with about the same awareness I would have accorded a visit to the Hippo, Home of a Thousand Hamburgers. I was deliriously happy and food was a nice bonus.
If I had money I slipped into a Konditorei for a piece of Pflaumenkuchen or Sachertorte and an enchanting little white baroque Bavarian porcelain pot of real hot chocolate or drank cool white wine on a balcony overlooking the Neckar with friends , which felt merely normal, nowhere nearly as exceptional and special as those experiences in fact were. Maybe that is because most things were shared with locals, for whom they were normal. We enjoyed them, and probably said so, but we never talked it into the ground. We took it all in our twenty something stride.
Americans return from abroad armed with bragging rights about what they ate and where, how delicious and special it was. I didn’t. They are Appreciative in a way I never managed to be. My mothers friends swooned over her food and remembered it to me long after her death. They talked about it to each other, making it larger and more real than I can remember.
A friend recalls an evening at the French Laundry where a neighbor punctuated every course with squeals of “isn’t this fabulous” and “don’t you just love it.” They will surely remember every bite vividly forever. Perhaps taste awareness sharpens in a sort of aural synesthesia, where emotive sound or flashing cameras deepen the perception of the experience. It is always disconcerting to me to hear visitors loudly reinforcing their gustatory sensations, but it may be a valid end to a means. I’ve never been able to talk my food into the table cloth beyond a “this is wonderful, have you seen the new movie”,
I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy what we had to eat later at my mother’s table or in the Swiss years, although often either the work needed to procure it there (butchering our own veal, the muddy work of growing the vegetables we couldn’t buy) or the things we didn’t have (decent vegetables in winter, baking soda, grocery stores open after 6:00 pm) overshadowed the bounty i tended to take for granted.
In praise of culinary innocence
I managed to spend a very long time in Europe, enjoying good food but never obsessing over it, before necessity brought me back to the States, where culinary nostalgia didn’t settle in completely in for several years – the various experiences bubbling their recriminations to the surface one by one. “You were thankless”, say the pungent cheese dinners and fresh, sweet veal kidneys. “You didn’t cherish us, when you had us.” “I liked you well enough at the time,” I respond, and that’s enough.
In that environment, the smells and sounds, the tastes and the feels were inseparable from the whole cloth there and then, among friends. The wonderful details were subsumed by the complete experience of simply being, and that is, when you think about it, just about perfect. One ought to be able to take life’s good offerings for granted.
The call of the “new food movement” is mindfulness of what you eat – its provenance, its health qualities, its artisan roots. Scrutinize each bite, photograph each plate. Appreciate. I have never achieved and hope never to reach that level of nutritional consciousness. Somehow it feels like homework.
Some people seem to live in perpetual awe of everything fate puts on their fork, and although I envy their apparently heightened pleasure, I much prefer that blessed state of culinary innocence which allows us to live in the abundance of good things and enjoy them without making each one a punctuation point in our lives. That, I think, is how we should be.