I spend a minimum of three hours a day in train, since I accepted a job that came along with the commute from hell two years ago. The downside of this arrangement is, well, everything, but if there is a bright spot in my train story, it’s that I have lots and lots of time to read. While I always have a book in my bag, it had been a while since I’d read one that actually made me look forward to the trains being delayed because that meant I’d have more time to read. That was until I picked up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I. Loved. This. Book. Snappy prose, a clever and relatable heroine, all the thrills and disasters that come with living in a big city in your 20’s, the glamour (and myth) of New York in the Golden Age, societal commentary… all there. The NYT did a better write-up than I could, but take my word for it and read Rules of Civility. Like one of the main characters says frequently of Manhattan, it’ll “just turn you inside out.”
Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be.
It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.
No rhetoric, no tremolos,
no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
I’m not going to quote an entire chapter of this book I recently read and fell in love with, but bear with me while I cite a few paragraphs, and then please, please, read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar E. Adler. This book is a love letter to cooking and a reminder that making food is a simple thing, an exercise that carries over from one day to the next that is uncomplicated, inexpensive, and filled with opportunities to share moments around a table with people you enjoy. Those are my favorite moments.
The title of this book comes from the philosophical approach that Adler takes to cooking: that every meal should be a continuation of the one before it. Stop doing things like making something for dinner every night that requires you to entirely restock your fridge and pantry. I grocery shop every day, but I might only buy a handful of spinach, a bag of tomatoes, or a carton of eggs. When you cook in continuity, things just work.
On Monday, I bought roast chicken. The weekend prior I had made pasta (part of our high-carb half marathon prep, but mostly just because I love pasta) that had carrots, onion, and celery in the sauce. I saved all the bits and ends of the vegetables, and after Jay and I made chicken Caesar salads (recipe to come) for the six euro rotisserie chicken’s second night of usefulness, I boiled the carcass (gross word, sorry) with all the vegetable scraps to make stock. Nothing wasted. Then last night, it was a pantry meal. I simmered a can of white beans with bay leaves, garlic cloves, chicken stock, and the rind of a wedge of comté cheese that had recently been finished off. I added them to sautéed leek and carrot (also pasta purchase leftovers), a bit of white wine, a can of peeled tomatoes, and a handful of dark spinach that was the only thing I purchased just for this meal. I added a soft boiled egg because I had eggs. I added grated Parmesan because I had Parmesan. But the soup would have been hearty and satisfying without any one, or two, or three of those components. And I have enough leftovers to add the rest of the stock and invite my brother over to eat on Sunday, with just the addition of a fresh baguette. We need to stop making cooking complicated, stop making eating a chore. These little moments of economy, coaxing comfort and flavor out of the simplest ingredients, are things to savor.
Here’s what Adler has to say about approaching the stove on those days when
finding the closest happy hour sounds like a better idea.
(For the record, I firmly subscribe to the idea that happy hour is always a good idea)
There are times when I can’t bear to think about cooking. Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself. But sometimes, without my knowing why, it is drained of all that. Then cooking becomes just another one of hunger’s jagged edges. So I have ways to take hold of this thing and wrest it from the claws of resentment, and settle it back among things that are mine.
The first is remembering that ill-tempered as I am, I resent everything sometimes. I get infuriated by the weather and missed trains and missing buttons. I think that cooking must be allowed to swell to contemptible proportions when it seems contemptible, just like other disproportionately terrible annoyances, and then allowed to shrink when it is time.
Then the question is: How do you fall in love with it again, or if it has never made you truly happy, fall in love with it for the first time? My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love.
We have different loves. Mine are foods and words. Others’ are how buildings slant away from dark sidewalks, or how good it feels to solve an equation. I say: Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate and when you loved it.
It helps me to think of meals I’ve cooked or eaten before, if not for the food, for the light in the room or in the sky when I ate. What the light looked like, or what music was playing. It doesn’t take more than my opening a window, head lifted to the air, for the sound of glass against a marble table, or the rustle of the wind to remind me that I’ve sat at marble tables outside, drunk out of glasses, listened to their light clatter on the table, noticing a rustling wind.
I may not remember what I ate, or whether it was the lunch where I realized I do not like black pepper to have been ground before I use it, or the one where I spilled water in my lap, but I will remember how the day felt on my face, and my creative soft self will have been awakened. So I listen hard. I listen with the purpose of remembering. And this digging into sounds and into days I have heard and felt roots future meals in the unchangeable truths of past ones.
This book is lovely. It’s really lovely. And this description of recalling past food memories to anchor you to a present meal and its preparation is something that rings true for me. The food moment I go back to that is a memory so perfect I wish I could put it in a frame was four (five?) years ago in the backyard of a country home in Provence. We were four at a big wooden table under the shade of fig trees, the heady aroma of wild sage and thyme baking in the Provençal heat, shucking beans and chopping carrots and onions and milky, slippery chunks of mozzarella cheese, prepping a simple lunchtime pasta and hearty dinner soup to take to a birthday party. Staining my hands melted Popsicle purple with vivid beet juice. Listening to Xavier Rudd and soaking in every sensation, from the feel of the rough hewn wooden table we sat at to the sweet and acidic flavor of sun-warmed wine. Fortunately I took photos.