Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Cook I Am and the Cook I Want To Be

Monday was one of those days at the office when I stare at the same Word document for thirty minutes and write three lines. Through the blinds I could see it getting darker and damp, which is kind of nice after a string of 90 degree September days, but I started envisioning myself at a coffee shop with a latte and a book, not at my desk making an enormous task out of one article.

Eventually, the article is written and I look up chili recipes before heading to the gym for a half-hearted workout. As I click through them, they seem to be getting more and more elaborate. The title of one recipe:

Beef and Black Bean Chili with Toasted Cumin Crema and Avocado Relish

Whoa. But it calls for a lot of ingredients and a food processor, which I don’t have. Oh, and the pot at home doesn’t have a lid. So that’s another obstacle. I check my bank account – can I buy these things on my way home tonight? No. Better stick with what I have now. My job is challenging and wonderful, but it doesn’t afford me the leisure of buying kitchen appliances all willy nilly. Maybe someday.

I look at, oh, thirty recipes before I finally settle on a Cooking Light Chunky Vegetarian Chili. It’s not fussy, the ingredients are easy, and it doesn’t need to be pureed or lidded.

I’m pretty much a Cooking Light fan, but I felt sort of like I was taking the easy way out. I want to toast cumin! Make crema! Dice avocado! I recently heard a segment on the Splendid Table about a blog called Bon Appetempt, chronicling successes and failures in trying to recreate elaborate magazine recipes. I want to do that! Tonight’s not the night, though, tonight’s the night I pour four cans of rinsed and dried beans into a pot with some dried oregano and call it macaroni. But really I mean chili. You get it.

I start to put the thing together at home and find myself becoming frustrated. Why don’t I have a damn pot with a lid? I was using my roommate’s pot up until a month or so ago, that's why. I should buy one of my own. Why am I always moving and not having all the pots or spices I need? I crack open a new black pepper grinder and the little peppercorns go everywhere. I hear a dozen hit the floor and I only find two.

Then there’s all the can opening, and rinsing, and chopping, and the garlic gets my hands all sticky and my nose starts to run. Isn’t this supposed to be easier? This recipe was designed for mothers will full-time jobs at marketing firms with three kids who all have to go to violin lessons in twenty minutes. Why can’t I make it, without making a mess of my kitchen, in less than an hour?

The pot that had no lid

I dump a Jiffy mix of powdered corn muffins into a bowl, add some milk and an egg, and pour the batter into muffin papers. If I was a real cook, I think, I would make this from scratch. I would have local eggs, not the anonymous Kroger egg I threw into the batter. I would take the extra time to measure out the dry ingredients myself, not rely on Jiffy to do it for me.

My quick-and-easy recipe doesn’t account for the time I spend chasing the peppercorns that sprayed everywhere, or the time spent cleaning up the tomato juice I spilled all over the trash can lid. Why can’t I be the cook I’m always envisioning myself to be?

There’s a quiet voice that speaks up from somewhere in my unconscious, the part of me who would have thought to open the peppercorns over the sink, who says just one word:


That has to be what I’m missing. If I planned at the start of the week which meals I wanted to make, I wouldn’t have to go to the store after the gym. I wouldn’t find myself without a lid, or a pepper grinder, and I would always have the ingredients for cornbread on hand. I would have cans of beans lining my shelves, just waiting to be turned into chili on any given night. I would have my spices alphabetized so I wouldn’t have to call Alex and make him climb on to a stool and pull the cabinets apart looking for chili powder.

I acknowledge my planning problem, and I’m always telling myself that I’ll start planning better when my life isn’t so busy. (The work trips! The moving! The 100 movies!) But I think it’s time to wake up and admit that my life isn’t going to get less crazy anytime soon. More trips will come up. More projects. And there are at least twenty more movies to go.

And it might help if I give myself a little credit for the things I do accomplish. The chili came together. It was too sweet but definitely edible, and Alex was grateful that I cooked something, anything for dinner. And say what you want about Jiffy cornbread muffins, they’re like golden crack.

There’s the added benefit that the next time I want to make an easy vegetarian chili, I could probably do it without consulting a recipe. I will have a functioning pepper grinder on hand, and several bottles of chili powder (turns out we already had some). And what do you know, I picked up an extra box of Jiffy cornbread and stashed it in the pantry for an emergency. Maybe the cook I want to be won’t ever have to use it, but the cook I am will have one less ingredient to shop for the next time a lousy workday calls for cornbread muffins, pronto.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Good Work in Progress: Sunny Meadows Flower Farm

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

A friend posted that quote on twitter recently and it’s been stuck in my head.

Last month I was invited on a great food tour of Columbus hosted by Experience Columbus. I joined a small group of food writers and editors and we visited farms, restaurants, bakeries, cafes, even a vodka distillery. We saw a lot of people who had found their work and had given themselves to making delicious things. I hope to post more about it all soon, because there are some really neat things going on in Columbus.

I’m surprised to hear myself sometimes, in the company of people I’m just meeting, because I talk up Cincinnati like I’m being paid. I’m not sure when that started. I used to complain about the usual things – nothing to do, conservative mindset – and moan about how I wanted to move to Chicago or New York. Within the past year or so, I’ve become kind of a cheerleader for Cincinnati when I’m telling strangers about it.

Anyway, the great things I saw in Columbus got me even more excited to come home to Cincy and support the things happening in my own city, so I want to tell you about some of the best things I saw there.

Our first tour stop was Sunny Meadows Flower Farm. We were told it was owned by a young couple, Gretel and Steve Adams, growing flowers and vegetables on the land surrounding their house just southeast of Columbus’s downtown.

Here’s the really crazy part – I realized once our tour started that I knew Gretel. We had worked together at a dining hall at Miami University (she was a Student Manager and I was a lowly, plain old student employee). We used to dish out mashed potatoes to Freshmen with meal plans. Now, she spends her days working on their farm, selling their goods at farmers’ markets, and making soap by hand.

She’s living that self-sustainable lifestyle that seems exotic and so unattainable to me. I love the idea of growing my own food, but let’s face it, I’m not going to get away from shopping at Kroger any time soon. I guess it’s just not my work, at least right now, but it was wonderful to see someone I knew in college finding her own work.

It’s definitely work, too. Gretel and Steve talked about the difficulties, the frustrations, the fact that they don’t have enough time to spend doing much else. It was obvious spending time with them, though, that they were happy in what they were doing.

If you’re around the Columbus area, chances are you can buy some of Gretel and Steve’s flowers or produce somewhere near you. It’s worth tracking them down at a Farmer’s Market, they’re pretty cool people doing some really excellent work.