Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo.


You’re Not Afraid? You *will be*!

digital collage

The Jitters

Remember the years when we were young

And captive among our babysitters?

Sheer terror would reign with its horrid thrill,

The unspeakable chill we would call the Jitters.

Under the bed or under the house,

A mouse isn’t safe when the Jitters gleam

Reptilian fangs and rhinoceros horns;

O! The scorns we would risk to release a scream!

Anything dark and anywhere doored

Could harbor a horde of Jittery creeps;

They hide under blankets and lurk behind stones:

The wrack in the bones that never sleeps.

Do I hear the wind? Did you hear an owl?

Or was it the howl of the restless dead?

The moan of a sailor just as he drowned?

All around are the sounds of the things we dread.

That flickering light! The curtains a-moving,

And both of them proving that something is near:

We’d writhe in our agonies, plagued by deceptions

And all the perceptions of what we fear.

This, you remember, was life with the Unknown,

And all of the fun known as children was moot

Whenever night fell or a stranger came calling;

Appalling how it never stopped its pursuit.

Now deep in adulthood, responsible, sane,

We scoff at the pain of those gibbers and twitters,

Yet get us alone, in a vulnerable state,

And sooner or late, we succumb to the collage + text

Endless Falling

A whisper in the gloaming just pre-dawn
A shiver or a prickling on the neck
A flutter of the eyelid, quick, then gone
And hope of any sleep is now a wreck

Above me in the dark are broken dreams
Above my brow an icicle of fear
Above the awful emptiness, the screams
In silent agony are all I hear

And under all this brittle disarray
And under skin and in the bone and soul
And under some enchantment, night and day
I know this wickedness will eat me whole

Against the dangers present in this fright
Against the door of Death I’ll knock tonight

Here in My Safe Little Place

graphite drawingComfort and security, that’s what I want. And I think I’m hardly unusual in that urge. Aside from the rare adrenaline junkies whose craving for danger and life on the edge knows no bounds, most of us like to have at least one place in life, on earth or in mind where we can crawl in, curl up and feel like nothing and no one can assail us there.

While I adore travel and I treasure those people and experiences and grand-and-glorious places that it has brought to my acquaintance, there’s at least a small part of me that may always be leaning toward Home. I don’t think of myself as an adventurer by any means at all, but I’ve grown a bit more attracted to the happy mysteries of the unfamiliar or even the exotic as I’ve gotten older, and I can appreciate much better how much wealth and delight the new and unexpected can often bring into my purview. Now, what I must keep in mind instead of a constant combat against my natural urge to shun all movement outward from my safe, soft center is that my concept of that person-place-or-thing identifiable as Home has changed, and can change, and certainly will change, because that’s exactly the sort of surprising flexibility that an even minimally worldly human can experience, once the crying need for total security is breached satisfactorily.

So here goes: once more I shall leap outward in hope and expectant happiness, and all at the same time remain busily, constantly honing the cozy little hideaway that will shelter my spirit and, if need be, my self when the adventures get a little overwhelming. With a cheery wave, when I’m not too tightly coiled up with my security blanket there, I shall ever bid you all a fond goodbye, farewell, and goodnight–and see you in the morning.

Giving Candy to Strangers

photoMost of us are taught from when we’re very small to avoid all contact with strangers. Don’t look them in the eye; don’t make friendly overtures, don’t speak to them, and don’t go running up and hugging random unknown characters. Above all, don’t accept the offer of candy or other lures from those who might turn out to be very lurid indeed.

All of that is mighty wise advice for little persons. They have no experience of the world, no basis for comparison or judgement, and no inner criteria to help them have a good chance of accurately assessing the situation. But when are we Big enough to learn that unfamiliar people are not only not all bad and dangerous but possibly in great need of any gracious and friendly contact they can possibly be given? When are we smart and experienced enough to realize that others around us are not always up to something nefarious or trying to sell us something we neither want nor need if they approach us out of the blue? When are we large-hearted enough to make a more hospitable evaluation of the risks or rewards in approaching the unknown with openness and warmth?

I have been told several stories recently that remind me of the opportunities that constantly surround us for making moves, both large and small, that have the potential to do anything from brightening someone else’s day to saving a life. Most of us fortunates have at some time and place in our lives ‘entertained angels unawares’–had a few of those moments of unexpected, extraordinary, beautiful contact with persons we didn’t know and understand that there are such agents in the world, even if we can’t immediately recognize them. Why not look for places where we can be those agents for no reason other than that we know from experience how powerful and life-changing, healing or hope-renewing, or just plain day-brightening such moments can be.

It is possible to be misinterpreted or rebuffed, true. But the vast majority of times that I’ve seen this sort of subversive joy-sharing happen without any ulterior motives, even if the recipient–sometimes me–is not altogether receptive at the outset, the end result is an astonished recognition that life is rather wonderful, that people, on the whole, are good and genuine and caring and fine, and that we have in our own small hands and hearts the astounding power of remaking ourselves and the world into better things by the simplest and least extravagant of means. A hug, a moment of patience where there has been tension. A donated dime or a pint of blood. A proffered packet of food or bottle of water that had been meant for something or someone else. Handing off the little trinket that was mine but that I can see another one admires or opening the box of treats I was saving for the family and sharing it instead with someone I don’t even know. Opening doors and assisting with chairs and lifting the parcel that’s too heavy for someone else.

They may seem tiny and insignificant enough. For those of us who choose to give them, they amount to easily made gestures. But insignificant? Hardly. For those of us who dared not, who may not have even known we could, ask–this one little mark someone offered to make on our day may mean, after it all, the whole