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Zen and the Art of Food October 14, 2009

Posted by Janet & Hich in : SANDWHICH musings , comments closed

Janet’s Cheat Sheet (this is a VERY long post)

1. Comparing my refrigerator to my neighbor’s, and me trying to not sound judgmental about it which I am not.

2. A secret about me and foil-covered rectangles and if I tell you more, I’ll give it away.

3. My friend, Michael’s extremely delicious Tumbador Chocolates www.tumbadorchocolate.com

Dear Friends,

I probably should just reread it, because I might be about to make a memory-related mistake. Still, if memory serves (and again, not to be repetitive, but really, it doesn’t: two years ago, I forgot my own birthday. My sister called me and I was like, “oh, there’s Cackie calling me, I wonder what for?”). But if memory should happen to serve on this particular occasion, Robert Pirsig’s main idea in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was that we should practice acts of quality. It is not unlike practicing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. All three of those acts – quality, kindness and beauty — are a way of paying homage to the universe, in some way.

Which brings me to today’s topic: my refrigerator in Brooklyn. One day, after returning from vacation, I spoke with my neighbors, a newly-married couple, who had been my cat sitters while I was away. They said, “hi, welcome back, how was your trip?” And I said, “the trip was great, thanks, and thanks for cat sitting!”

Then Matt, the husband, looked at me apologetically and said, cautiously, “uh, Janet — I hope you don’t mind, but, well, I was wondering — whenever we cat sit for you, well, we happen to notice that you don’t have any food in your kitchen or refrigerator, and so I was just wondering: what do you eat?”

Now the funny thing is this: I had the exact same curiosity about them. Every time I would cat sit for them, I would end up inadvertently exploring their kitchen, maybe looking for the extra bag of cat food, or looking in the fridge for the already-open can. I’m explaining all that to you, reader, so you don’t think I snoop when I cat sit. No — no snooping, just innocent kitchen exploration.

Inside their fridge would be some lunch meat, some pre-sliced havarti, a huge container of “Country Crock,” maybe 5 eggs, and some extra extra extra “cholesterol-free!” skim milk, some ketchup and some “honey mustard sauce,” and possibly a pink tomato or two, on its styrofoam tray still covered in plastic and placed in the “crisper” section (where, of course, was NOT where the open can of cat food would be, but still…).

In their cupboards might be some “beef stroganoff mix” complete with 500 ingredients, and maybe a few packages of ramen and a can or two of soup. And in another cupboard, I might find canned refried beans and “taco shells.”

My kitchen, on the other hand, was so over-packed with what I consider to be food, that I was constantly running out of storage space (remember, this is Brooklyn, New York, which counts as “New York City” in terms of apartment sizes). I had big glass jars on top of the fridge — one for green lentils, one for red lentils, one for jasmine rice, one for barley, one for dried cherries, one for dried apples, then quinoa, all-purpose flour and semolina flour. In the cupboards were cans of white beans and pinto beans, an ample supply of canned tomatoes — I would buy the 28-oz size by the case, a jar of raw honey, extra-virgin olive oil, blackstrap molasses, rosewater from my mother-in-law, vanilla extract, whole peppercorns, dried mushrooms, and kosher salt and turmeric and cumin and you get the picture. Tons of food, for crying out loud.

When I’d go on vacation, I’d try to make a point of eating the perishable food in the refrigerator, but in any case a person could always find in there nearly a dozen eggs, a hunk of parmigiano-reggiano, unsalted butter, ancient miso that never got used, plain yogurt, milk, carrots, a cut onion in plastic, a mason jar of homemade tomato sauce and expeller-pressed canola oil and mustard, hot sauce and the other regulars.

The point here is not that I was far, far superior to my neighbors in my food choices and if you are thinking that’s what I’m saying, please here me now: I don’t think I was superior IN ANY WAY. But I did have a heck of a lot more food than they did. What is interesting to me — really, very interesting — is that they were genuinely curious about what on earth I ate because when they came to my house, they didn’t SEE any food. Most of my food was cluttered about — the “bulk” containers on top of my fridge. They wouldn’t have had to snoop to see my food at all. It was right there in front of their eyes. But they didn’t see it.

So the question is, WHY were they unable to see all that food I had? At the risk of sounding foodie-cliche’, we live in a culture that thinks “lunchables” is food. We live in a culture where food is there, waiting for you — it doesn’t need to be boiled and seasoned, as with my lentils (but did you know that lentils don’t need ANY seasoning? Cook them absolutely plain and then taste the WATER they were cooked in and tell me it isn’t delicious!). Today’s food doesn’t need to be “turned into” anything, as with my canned whole tomatoes becoming tomato sauce with the addition of that half onion, the other half of which can be found in the fridge, and salt and extra virgin olive oil and absolutely nothing else.

So my friends and neighbors felt a little sorry for me, and I felt a little sorry for them — especially sorry for them because of how sorry they felt for me.

A work of quality, then, is something that you thoughtfully create for a specific function. It isn’t of very much quality if it doesn’t ultimately serve that function, although I think it is more about the process of thoughtful creation than it is about the end product. My lentil soup might not taste good to you, but putting the little seeds in water to cook is something so elemental and so very beautiful, that the act in itself is a work of quality: it is my mindset that causes the quality, not the result. If the mindset is about peeling off the plastic seal from a pre-fixed lunch packet in order to ingest calories, then there is little room for the process, and therefore not much space for quality.

As an aside, I’ll throw in here that I ***love*** airplane food. And I do think the opening of those tiny little packages to see all the surprises inside somehow might qualify as an act of quality. I’d like to wrestle with my words here to make it so. I do love airplane food. It isn’t very often delicious (but if you order the vegetarian meal, you might be surprised — sometimes it IS good), but there is something so wonderful about hearing those carts being pushed through the narrow aisles and knowing that you’re going to get a too-cold drink soon and a miniscule package of peanuts and a little square napkin and that then, 20 minutes later, with cart passage number two, a warm, foil-covered rectangle will arrive with some sort of rice pilaf inside and maybe a roll with real butter and a tiny square of cheddar. Maybe the quality in all that is that, these days, in order to be on a plane that serves food, you have to be going somewhere pretty nice. I don’t know.

Skipping ahead: today a box arrived for me in the mail. It was a thank you from a colleague in the chocolate industry who had asked me for a chocolate-related favor which I gladly did for him because he is a cool, smart and totally irreverent guy, and because his product is delicious. (Some of you may know I worked for many years in the chocolate industry and still do some chocolate consulting — can you believe that there is a job called “chocolate consulting?”). The thank you was a beautiful box filled with totally delicious chocolate treats. I rarely charge anymore for my consulting — my chocolate consulting — because it is a pleasure to do, and anyway I’m sure someday these folks might be in a position to help me if I needed a favor. I never expect chocolate presents, but today I got one — a chocolate present of pure, Zen-and-the-Art-of quality. May I plug the company? www.tumbadorchocolate.com. Outstanding, wow – I just ate some more. Yum.

Thank you, reader — this was a long one, but I feel better now that it’s out. I don’t write these — they write me.


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