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food that makes you go "hmmm"
Episode 489th November 2022 • PowerPivot • Leela Sinha
00:00:00 00:09:14

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"Today, there was a rainbow that I forgot to mention to anyone, arcing across most of the sky, beautiful..." Fresh baked bread. Seasonings. The hot oven. A pinch of this... just enough of that... and the ways that changes in our habits and appetites can point to deeper hungers and needs.

For more on Madhur Jaffrey:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhur_Jaffrey


Notes and full transcript:

https://dev.intensivesinstitute.com/episode/food-that-makes-you-go-hmmm

Transcripts

As I'm recording there is steak sizzling in the oven. That means I have exactly nine or maybe twelve minutes from the time that I put the steak in the oven to the time that I have to get up and remove it. Keep it from overcooking, over-searing, over everything-ing-ing-ing. I'm cooking without a microwave for the first time in a couple of years. I don't mind cooking without a microwave. And right now my microwave is on loan to someone who needs it more than I do. They eat almost exclusively microwaved foods. I don't.

I tend to rely most heavily on the heavy cast iron pan that that person has given me on long-term loan because their hands can't take the weight of it anymore. Their joints can't take the pressure of standing anymore. They can't stand to cook, literally. And they can't lift the weight of the food. So now some of their cookware is mine. And I am searing a steak.

I learned to cook standing in front of the fridge opening it up saying "hmmmm," from my friend Beth, who used to stand in front of her refrigerator in Minneapolis, after bringing home a lush haul of vegetables from the market and say, "Hmm." And then she would start to pull things out- this and then that, one thing and another, cauliflowers and milk and cream and, on the counter, a giant Hubbard squash that had brought her so much glee and delight, I could not wait to find out what she would make of it.

Technically speaking, we didn't share all of our food. But she did share generously, not just food but how she cooked. Which was absolutely novel and absolutely not the way that my engineer father and mathematician mother had ever handled themselves in the kitchen. But it harkens back to something that I only had a taste of the way my Dadi cooked in her kitchen. A little of this a pinch of that. My mother, the new bride, newly wedded to this Indian man, trying to meet his needs for his foods, chasing my grandmother around the kitchen with her measuring spoons, trying to get level measures out of "just right" and "approximately this" and "until it's done." Yeah, that was an interesting situation.

But years later, Madhur Jaffrey came out with a recipe book that gave my mother a lot more support. And it all came out in the end. But I learned how to make things from things that were just sitting in front of me, from that. Foods that made me go "hmmm." I learned to pick up things I had never seen, shapes I did not recognize, colors I could not have imagined and bring them into my kitchen because there must be something food-like about it if it was in the food section of the store. And that meant that somewhere someone knew how to make it delectable, and I was going to figure out how. And when the internet opened up, my world opened up again.

I learned to make meat because I did not eat meat when I was learning to cook. I learned to make pies and pastries. I learned to make bread watching someone who made hundreds of loaves of bread a week make hundreds of loaves of bread a week until my hands figured out what they should do. I learned the texture of the dough and the pole and the push. How much pressure is too much pressure how much pressure will tear the dough and how much will hold it tight in the oven. How much will give it room to expand and how much will make it kind of explode all over itself- not that bread that has exploded all over itself tastes any different. It's still delicious, delectable, slathered in soft butter right out of the oven.

I have never been able to wait for food to cool so that I could eat it. My tongue does not know how to be unburnt for too long. If my tongue is unburnt for too long something else is desperately, desperately wrong. Because that means that I am no longer interested in the pleasures or the adventures of food, it means that my mouth is bored. It means that I am merely ingesting for sustenance and no longer seeking pleasure or beauty.

I am beauty's midwife; if I am not seeking beauty, something is wrong.

And so much of the last two years has been that: me not seeking beauty, something being wrong, just eating for sustenance, barely getting out of bed, no longer taking pleasure in the smell of a flower, or the rising of the sun. Today, there was a rainbow that I forgot to mention to anyone. Arcing across most of the sky, beautiful. When I walk outside now I tend to pick up shards of glass in my feet. I had one shard that lived with me for years that I think I picked up on the beach in Maine.

And one day, it finally finally came out. And within a couple of weeks, I had picked up three more shards walking outside to take the trash outside going barefoot because I was trying to feel something, trying to feel anything. I missed the grass underfoot, but even concrete was better than nothing.

And now... now there is a steak, searing, cooking, making my apartment smell like something. And as I was seasoning it I nearly swooned over the asafoetida which I had not been intending to add my steak, it adds umami. Usually it doesn't go on meat. But I wanted it so I put it there. Anytime I want something, I take that as an indication that I have a hunger and that hunger is valid and rooted in something important. And if I can't trace that hunger all the way back to its root, I don't need to justify its existence in my life. I just need to feed it. There are a few exceptions.

But in general, if I'm hungry, it means something. And that something is not that I'm lazy. That something is not that I'm wrong, that something is not an inherent brokenness in my soul. That something is information about where I am and about what I need. And I am committed to meeting my own needs. After so many years of not getting my needs met and I don't mean meeting them solo. We are a community of animals embedded in community. But I am committed to seeing that my needs get met. My needs get met. And sometimes, sometimes, that's a steak or a food that makes me go "hmmm."

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