I’ve been thinking about nourishment lately. And satisfaction. See, I just finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter (finally) and in it she talks about the experience of opening her thriving restaurant Prune, being wooed by a man that makes her homemade ravioli, her travels to Italy each summer to be with his family, having children, and her immense love for really good food. But it’s also about the facade of all of those things — about the deep loneliness she constantly faces. Feeling unhappy in her marriage, running ragged working around the clock at the restaurant, forgetting to eat or putting together odd, haphazard meals at odd, haphazard times of the day. Feeling dissatisfied. Feeling undernourished.
I have two friends who opened a restaurant here in Oakland and we chat sometimes about their dinners at the restaurant or whether or not they cook at home anymore. The answer is always the same: they no longer have time to cook at home, they’re sick of the food at the restaurant, and they’ve started to eat fast food in ways they would never have anticipated. And these are not fast-food women. But late at night when you’re feeling worn out after greeting hundreds of diners and hustling out plates of food while keeping your staff in check — there’s something about the perfect combination of salt and fat (along with speed and minimal effort) that just does the trick. It’s not food you ever imagined yourself enjoying, it’s not food you’d want to be seen eating, but it’s food all the same. Satisfying. For just a moment.
At the bakery, I experience something very similar. I never remember to bring a lunch and would never let myself take the time to sit down and enjoy it anyway. It’s always a lot of hustle and the more breaks I take, the longer it is until I finally get to head home. So I snack on roasted hazelnuts or spoonfuls of peanut butter. Or lemon curd on top of broken toast points that the catering company that cooks beside me has left behind. Satisfying. For just a moment. Why is it that we are all preparing food that we feel good about and spending time sourcing the best ingredients when we’re in the back of the kitchen inhaling chocolate chips just to keep our energy level up and racing home to drive-through french fries or ice cream for dinner? We’re not taking the same care of ourselves that we take preparing and serving food for our customers.
I had dinner with a lovely, jam-making friend last week. She’s younger than I am by a few years and smart as a whip. We sat talking about wholesale accounts, the food business in general, and our wacky schedules. She mentioned that she’s putting in 14-hour days from here on out until December 23rd. No days off. She just can’t: she has to produce all the jam for the year while the fruit is in season (and that, my friends, is right now). So she mentioned her staff and how the one thing that she does do to make it more manageable throughout the shift is to prepare a staff meal each day for them. Sometimes she does it, sometimes her boyfriend comes in to do it, but they always sit down and eat a meal together.
I got home and thought about our conversation. First, perspective: when I’m feeling run-down and a little sorry for myself about long hours and schlepping pies to the farmers market, I think about Dafna and her constant 14-hour days. Then I thought about how important it is that, while still working longer-than-long days, she’s making strides to take good care of herself and her staff in little ways. I know this seems small and I realize lots of restaurants have family meals together, but in the type of shared commercial kitchen environment that we both work in, this seems huge. When you pay by the hour and hustle to get out of the kitchen before another company comes in and spreads out their equipment, their vats of flour, their corn syrup across your station– that’s making a pretty big commitment to yourself and your staff. And it’s not so much about just the need to eat and feel momentarily satisfied. I think it’s really about nurturing: it’s the right thing to do, it feels good, it feels important, it’s at the root of what we all really believe in.
So there are little ways to hold onto satisfaction that last more than ten minutes. To strive towards feeling truly nurtured. I’m getting glimpses of this. Towards the beginning of Hamilton’s work, she talks about an outdoor party her parents threw: “Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter — just as my father had imagined–and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.” The perfect evening light, a crackling fire, people you love, food that makes you happy. That’s nourishment.
And so is deciding to commit Sundays as an actual day off for writing, seeing friends, sitting by the lake and reading, roasting tomatoes, maybe even cooking a real meal. Things that make me feel nurtured. I struggled with actually not doing any real work this past Sunday and forcing myself to take a full day to myself. We’ll see how long it lasts — but for now, I’m trying it out. It feels good. It feels important.
When you need to take a deep breath and a step back, these tomatoes are the place to turn. They take three to four hours in the oven so you literally can’t rush. They’ll make your kitchen smell like the height of summer and you’ll have trouble practicing moderation when they come out of the oven warm and dripping with good olive oil and softened sprigs of rosemary. Add them to pasta salads, omelets, frittatas or bowls of marinated farmers market vegetables. Or poach an egg at 10:37 on a Sunday morning with the paper on the kitchen table and your third cup of coffee. Lay the poached egg over the top of the roasted tomatoes, tear off a hunk of bread from the night before and sit on down for breakfast. Sit on down.
You can roast as many tomatoes as you like; this is just a guide for proportions of olive oil, garlic and rosemary to tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are fantastic roasted as are smaller cherry or grape tomatoes. Don’t cut your tomato slices too thin or they’ll cook too quickly and aren’t likely to hold their juice while roasting. I do a generous 1/2-inch slices.
Preheat the oven to 200 F and lay the tomatoes out on 2 baking sheets. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and garlic and rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil so each tomato has a thin layer.
Bake for 3-4 hours (depending on the size of your tomatoes — for very large heirloom slices, it’ll take longer). The tomatoes should look a little shriveled, even browned on the edges, but should still retain a little of their juiciness.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.