27 June 2011

Anticipating Strawberries

Article by Leslie Gilman
After college, I decided to join the Peace Corps and was whisked away with twenty-some-odd other young idealists to a magical land called Georgia. (No, not the state.) This is the famed land of Jason and the Argonauts, a place known to locals as “God’s land” that is as abundant in fruits and vegetables as it is to towering mountains, sunflowered fields and roaring rivers. It’s part Hawaii and part Montana, and its lovely beyond words.Georgia on Her Mind
As I settled into my new home there and began to make friends, curious townspeople would invariably ask me questions about my hobbies and interests, and I always proudly announced that I liked to cook. So, of course they wanted me to cook them up something “American”. But I had a problem. First of all, what was “American” food? I couldn’t make Italian dishes because canned tomato sauce – or even tomato paste – wasn’t available. I couldn’t make Mexican dishes because they didn’t have that little yellow spice packet for which to make taco meat. They didn’t have cream of mushroom soup for my mom’s famous chicken dish, and they didn’t have the cans of pinto and black beans I needed for my favorite tortilla soup. They didn’t even have hamburger buns – or ketchup – for a good old fashioned barbeque. All they had was a market, in the center of town, open every day of the year, that sold seasonal, local, organic produce at ridiculously low prices. And I had no idea how to use it. 

Apparently, the American food that I knew how to “cook” required someone else (in a factory, far away) to do all the heavy lifting for me. They put the Alfredo sauce in the jar, and my job as the “cook” was to open that jar, heat it up, and dump it on some noodles – also premade. So, I wasn’t so much a cook as a jar opener. But now, being faced with the raw ingredients alone, I had to learn an ancient art that the people of most non-western societies had learned from childhood: how to cook good, healthful, simple food using time tested techniques. Hands were used for measuring, pinching, pulling, testing, knocking and kneading, and they held a vast amount of wisdom in them. There were no cookbooks – just a visceral knowledge of how to cook good – really, really good – food with what was available at the market on that particular day. The two years I spent there were a lesson not only in culture and fortitude, but also in fruits and vegetables, nuts and cheeses, flours and herbs. I had to learn how to use them by making daily use of the beloved market that was the heartbeat of our town, and I had to use what was available during each passing season.

Leslie with a Couple of Babuskas

And so slowly, my friends and colleagues began to teach me, as though I were a child, the very basics. “Bread dough feels like this – but dumpling dough feels like that.” I stuck my hand in and tried to come up with words to describe the difference, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t a cerebral exercise. When I got out my tattered notebook to write out the steps to their recipes, they would give me instructions like this: “Add enough water to the beans.” But how much was “enough?” I finally got out my ruler and determined that two inches above the beans was “enough,” which has been my rule of thumb since. To try to learn what they just felt and knew intrinsically – was a challenge that I’m still trying to overcome by figuring out how to cook with my eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands instead of tuning out and dutifully following package instructions. Try it sometime. Listen to how a mushroom sounds when it’s sautéed over high heat, compared to an onion. They are vastly different.

In America, we have become so accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it. Which, at first glance, sounds amazing. But there is a great loss in not having to wait for something – like strawberries, for instance. Strawberries, all over the world, are a huge reason to celebrate. They are the first fruit of the summer season (no, rhubarb, you don’t count), the harbingers of all of the bounty that is to come. When they first show their cheery faces on a spring day, amidst all of the potatoes and onions and cabbage, its enough to make a girl cry. Eating seasonal produce grown at a local market brings an unexpected joy – the joy of anticipating the turn of each season and the food that comes with it. Each season is ushered in with a specific fruit or vegetable at its side, appearing in every recipe in one great big flurry, and then vanishing again until the following year.  Strawberries are eaten in juicy handfuls for dinner after a long, meat-laden winter. Figs, sitting with a friend behind a fence, juice dripping from your chin in the heat of August. A shiny gold persimmon is for the first day of school. And mandarins, sitting around a fire and throwing the peels in as you read a book. To eat watermelon in February, just because you can, is missing the point.

Each daily or weekly visit to your local farmers market is showing up to witness this miracle.