My Favorite Pot

30 Jul 2008

No, not that kind of pot. I’m talking about a Le Creuset  3.5-quart French oven in the red-orange color they call flame. That’s the pot that made me give up tenure.

OK, let me back up a bit.

Apparently, even as a baby, I loved food. My mother told me once that, when I was a toddler, I would eat whole raw onions as if they were apples. She said that I would then cry a lot, and she wasn’t sure if I was crying for more of it or crying from it.

My mother taught me how to cook. (And around the same time, how to treat kitchen burns.) From pretty early on, I helped with the cooking for my family. We were typically a household of eight or more, not counting the dog and the cat. We frequently were housing some relative from Poland who had jumped ship to escape communism, or, later, come over to work to earn some American dollars to take back. Sometimes we housed a priest-activist or the sort of person my mother would call “a stray,” i.e., someone she had found that needed a leg up. So my mother needed the help at the stove.

My mother made basic, good food, out of real ingredients. Her lasagna was fabulous, and her chicken soup with kluski to die for. She made us platskis for weekend breakfasts and sometimes dinner, with four burners going simultaneously to keep up with demand. Every fall, my mother, my sister, and I, plus various assorted Polish cousins and aunts, would make apple pie after apple pie. My mother would ceremoniously letter the first one of the season “A,” by forking the letter into the top crust. The next would be “B.” By the end of the season, we had sometimes gotten as high as “GG.” More than once, we had pie, ice cream, and milk for dinner. My mother figured it was actually a fairly balanced meal, but more importantly, we had a lot of pie to eat. (Every time I skin an apple, I can still hear her telling me to try to get closer to the skin, to waste less apple. It makes me smile.)

Sometimes we made something out of The Art of French Cooking, and sometimes my mother did something especially fancy like flaming pears. (A serious crowd-pleaser with the kids.) But most of the time, it was just good, solid food. Some of it got even better when my mother went on a health kick she never left, as she switched to whole grains and really fresh vegetables and fruits. I remember that, in my teenage years, she had a special fondness for this incredibly dense eight-grain bread. One of my Polish great aunts derisively called it “Occupation Bread,” because it reminded her of when, during the war, they couldn’t get refined flour to make “good” bread.

I was a bit confused, when I came of age, to meet people my age who didn’t cook. I mean, even my picky brothers had learned something about cooking before they left home. I was even more confused when I realized that most people my age never really cooked. I can’t relate. I love cooking, and I feel utterly out of sorts if I am away from cooking for too long. It feels like going without a shower. When I get home from a work trip, one of the first things I do is to saute an onion as the start of some comfort food. It might turn into an omelette, or red beans and rice, or marinara sauce, or a lamb stew. It doesn’t really matter, just so long as I’m back in my kitchen, grounded by onions.

Inevitably, as an intellectual, I’ve found that food and cooking have gotten all tangled up with my professional life. For example, lately I find myself wanting to do an intellectual history of cookbooks in order to try to understand why on earth cookbook writers (a) don’t list the ingredients in the order in which you’re going to use them, so that you can easily double check, as you go along, that you haven’t missed a step or ingredient, and (b) divide the steps in a recipe into groupings that appear random. Why do so many of Mark Bittman’s recipes list 4 enumerated steps, when really they have about 18 steps, and why doesn’t he at least break the steps in logical places, like where you switch from one bowl to another, or from one appliance to another? I mean, Mr. Bittman seems so rational otherwise.

I guess the first time I noticed how tangled up my mind is with cooking was in graduate school, when I had just started living with my mate. I was working on my dissertation and, when I would have a bout of writer’s block, I would give up working and cook something requiring a lot of labor. I guess it was partly out of comfort, but also out of the sense that, when Aron got home, I could at least say I had gotten a nice casserole done. (Aron came to wish for writer’s block.)

When you’re in academia, it’s easy to get the intimidated feeling that everyone else is reading research material all the time. So I typically don’t mention to people that the great majority of books on my bedside table at any given moment are cookbooks. I don’t tell them that what I wrote this week was not a research article, but a long piece of fan mail to Calvin Trillin. And I almost never try to explain to people that what finally made me give up tenure was that pot.

By the time the pot showed up, we were well settled into our house, with young child. And we were eating out of styrofoam containers more nights a week than I could care to count. I had no time and no energy to cook. I was totally exhausted. And the inability to cook just made me ever more depressed about our situation. It felt especially bad having a child in a house where I was not cooking.

Then Aron got me that glorious little pot. What a pot. It makes everything you put in it sing. You can’t really burn anything in it, either. If you even try to burn something in it, it turns into some glorious crusty beast that makes you want to try to burn everything. It’s a sweet size, too. By the time Aron got me that pot, I had finally learned to cook for three instead of eight (seriously, it took me years to stop cooking for eight, no matter how hard I tried), so the pot was a perfect little celebration of our little family.

I used that pot today. I cooked up some onion, chorizo sausage (from a butcher with whom I am probably too familiar for midwestern standards), tomatoes, green beans, and fresh basil. And I ate it with a slab of peasant bread and some right-off-the-bush black raspberries. It was so amazingly good I had to run over to my neighbor Ann’s house to make her have some.

Of all the things I wasn’t getting done while I was trying to work full time, co-run a non-profit full time, raise a child, and manage a household, cooking was the thing I missed most. I mean, I missed sleeping late (you know, till 8 a.m.). I missed exercise. I missed having enough clarity to write easily. I missed having a libido. I missed being emotionally and physically available to my friends and neighbors who were having babies, cancer, and roof problems. But at the base of all the failures was the failure to cook. Because failing to cook means failing to be at the hearth, where all care for self and others begins.

I mean, I hate to sound what? Traditionalist? Provincial? Dogmatic? Trite? Cliche? But cooking matters.

I had only one undergraduate student who understood food the way I understand food. Chris Anderson was in my senior seminar a few years before I quit. I forget why, but he confessed, early in the semester, to being crazy about food--not snobby food, just good food--and I introduced him to the world of food writing, including Calvin Trillin and M.F.K. Fisher. Chris wrote his senior seminar on food and identity; I learned about the Slow Food movement from him.

After he graduated, Chris ran an organic farm in an empty lot in the middle of Chicago. He told me he’d get really funny looks from people on the El when he’d get on at the end of the day in his filthy farm overalls, while they were all in suits. Chris is now getting a masters degree in Agroecology, and he married another one of my favorite students. I got to speak at their wedding, which was nice, but much nicer is getting to feed them when I see them. I am looking forward to someday cooking for their children.

When I quit my tenured job, Chris was the one person to whom I told the truth: I was sent over the edge by a pot. He understood. Even my mate didn’t quite understand, though the mate did understand everything that came out of that pot. The disappearance of the styrofoam. The return of the happy, thoughtful cook he married.

The picture up at the top of this page is of a breakfast I made for us a few weeks ago. There are eggs, scrambled with carmelized onions and yellow bell pepper, topped with chopped scallions and cilantro from our garden; three little crustinis smeared with a spread I whipped up, in a little food processor, from marinated artichoke hearts, garlic, kosher salt, and sour cream (soy for me); and a slice of sponge-cake, topped with fresh strawberries mixed with amaretto. Oh, with fresh tart cherries in the middle of the plate, from the farmer’s market, where I now go and linger.

That seems worth tenure.