A Mouthwatering Work of Culinary Genius

So between my birthday (last month) and Tim’s (yesterday) and the book contract, we had the opportunity to do some serious celebrating.

Not far from us is one of the very finest restaurants on the East End. We’ve eaten there twice before (well, three times if you count the time we went only for dessert) but only during ‘Restaurant Week,’ during which they feature a different menu with smaller portions.

Each time was nonetheless thrilling–to put it in the form of an analogy:

GREAT HOME COOKING : NORTH FORK TABLE’S FOOD ::

is as:

is to:

The food at the North Fork Table is kind of in a different category from other food. There are a lot of reasons why that’s so, but all I can say for sure is that when I eat it, I’m thinking, “this is so good that it can hardly be for real.”

And this time–with the fuller menu–it was, if possible, even better. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how enjoyable this is because I think our culture doesn’t allow us to speak lyrically about food without branding us ‘foodies’ or ‘snobs.’ Improbable though it may seem, the atmosphere and presentation is unfussy. It’s just really good food.

And without further ado:

the atmosphere is beautiful...the champagne is beautiful...even the menu is beautiful!

tuna tartare for tim
house-cured charcuterie for a between-course treat
a second course of squab on butternut squash for tim
and a second course of locally caught striped bass atop brussells sprouts and parsnip puree for me
long island duck for tim
and humanely raised veal for me
I forgot to take a picture of the dessert before I decimated it...
and they sent us home with house-made mallomars.

One of the things I love about going there is how serious, yet joyful, everyone is about their work. They’re artists, and creating things of beauty–even if those things are edible and consumable and fleeting–consumes them. I love that. I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for the bounty of where we live.

I’m grateful to the Giver of All Things.

No Peace at the End of Anxiety

So I signed a book contract this week.

I don’t want to share the details widely (yet) but I do want to tell you that the book came before the blog.

[If/when] you read it, you won’t be all “but this is all stuff I’ve already read on the blog!”

At least, I hope not. But I’m trying not to worry about that.

I’m trying not to worry about all of this.

Because I think I’ve learned something important this week:

there is no peace at the end of anxiety and worry.

I’m basically a happy person. I want to ‘live with joy’ all the time.

But even though I’m happy, it’s easy for me to fall into worry-traps–and worry is a trap.

I get a contract with the perfect publisher for my book…and then I’m thinking:

“what if I can’t finish this book?”

“what if my sales numbers are bad and I can never publish another book?”

“what if I never have another idea for another book?”

But the ability to read, to think, to write? Are they really mine, anyway?

Are the things I do merely a product of my own efforts?

No: my life–right now–is a gift.

There’s no peace at the end of a worry-strewn journey; there will always be more to worry about.

(Ha! Because just a short time ago I was worried I’d never get a book contract!)

So I’m trying to be grateful in this moment, and the next, and the next.

Because how much more does the God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds delight to care for us?
{Um, readers? I didn’t suddenly turn into Rob Bell, although I realize that the style of this post might’ve confused you on that point.}

The Newest Fad Diet VS. The Vegetable Volunteers

Well, WOW. I would not have guessed that yesterday’s post about a wacky fad diet would’ve garnered so many page views. But it did, and I can’t help but wonder why. I rather hope it is because people are looking for a reason not to follow the latest “should & ought” from the newest guru. Nearly every day, it seems, someone tells me of some new approach to eating or not-eating or exercising or not-exercising and all I can say is this:

If I were still in the grip of disordered thinking and behavior surrounding food and body, the Internet would be a living hell. HCG diet! “The Plan”! “Paleo”! The Primal Urge Diet! HELP!

And yet? And yet–there is this:

My compost pile. An occasionally smelly, sometimes-ugly, always buggy home to the biggest, juiciest worms on the North Fork. The place where the scraps from our table become the food for next year’s food. Nothing goes to waste here. It takes care of two big problems:

What to do with trash?

and

How to fertilize the garden?

in one easy move. In this pile go the eggshells, coffee grounds, burned slices of toast, and forgotten leftovers. Here’s where I put the custard that didn’t come together quite right, the bread that went stale, and the yogurt that got moldy.

Here, everything, even the most putrid, vile stuff, is reborn into something new: dark, rich soil that feeds the garden and brings forth new life. And so it goes on.

And sometimes, there are unexpected graces:

This pretty little butternut squash grew from a forgotten seed discarded in the compost pile last autumn. There that little seed rested all winter until, come spring, it grew into a plant that bore another beautiful fruit.

In this ugly, forgotten corner of the garden (where the compost pile was located previously) a number of vegetables “volunteered”–they sprang forth from scattered seeds and persevered to bring something beautiful and edible and life-giving.

Oh, these little events–“random” butternut squashes, potatoes, and tomatoes growing from compost piles–don’t get much press, I know. But to me, they point beyond themselves to a story that’s much, much greater: it’s the story of beauty from ashes, a promise that somehow, the crazy, smelly, wasted and mixed-up bits and pieces of this world can be transformed, redeemed, into something that’s at once totally different from and organically connected to what’s come before.

Yes, indeed. There are glimpses of grace within and among and emerging from the confusing bits and pieces of this life, and they are worth holding onto.

Grace and a Steak Dinner

Mr. S’s favorite food has always been steak. He’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of man. As in, pizza is, for him, “ethnic” food. His roots go down deep in New England-style cooking, and the rich influence of US immigration on American cuisine has done little to alter his palate.

He’s always been a great eater, Mr. S. And Mrs. S was, in her day, a great cook. After their retirement, they ate in restaurants a lot, because Mr. S wanted to give her a break from the endless multiple-course cooking that she did day in, day out for many decades.

When I was little, Mister and Misses (as we called them for short) used to have my family over for dinner, and, more commonly, would take us out for dinner. These dinners were, invariably, meat-and-potato affairs: steak and baked potato, hamburger platters, and the like. Mister always ate very slowly (“I don’t eat. I dine,” he would insist) but he ate quite a bit.

These days, though, Mister’s appetite isn’t very good. And although, these days, slabs of meat rarely feature in my cooking, I decided that I would suspend my own preferences and make an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes dinner for Mister and Misses’ Saturday-night meal.

mushrooms dissolving in butter. um yum yum.

I consulted Fannie on the particulars, of course, and prepared, according to her wisdom, a broiled rib-eye with a mushroom cream sauce, roast potatoes, and green beans.

This here mushroom cream sauce? TOTALLY great on green beans.

And for dessert, a chocolate chiffon pie in a (gluten-free!) chocolate-coconut shell, all at Fannie’s direction.

what a mess! it actually turned into a good pie shell, though.
and the finished pie. yum! next time I want to make a mocha one.

(The first custard filling came out dreadfully. I washed it down the drain, and told Misses about it at dinner. “That happens sometimes, oh yes,” she said in her quiet, gracious way.)

curdled custard. gag me.

Mister still didn’t eat much, but he thanked me several times. “I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this is really special. The closest thing we get to steak here is a Salisbury steak that’s only 1/2″ thick.”

(Misses has never been much of a talker, but she cleaned her plates with relish.)

This meal got me thinking. On one hand, a meat-heavy diet is something I’ve got all kinds of concerns about. On the other, I see my friends, in their 90s, with very few comforts and pleasures in life. I might be happy with some vegetarian curry and brown rice–but a meal like that would do nothing for them. And so I can’t help but think that a steak dinner is the best I can do for them.

So I did it. And, oh, they may thank me, but honestly, for how glad I am to cook for them, and watch them enjoy some comfort food, I should be thanking them.

And maybe that joy is just a taste of the reward Jesus says we’ll get when we invite those who can’t repay to our banquet. (Or, you know, bring the banquet to them.) Maybe this meal is unsustainable on a global scale. Probably it is. (The veggies were from the garden, though.) Some people say old folks don’t even have sensitive taste buds any more. Maybe they don’t.

But maybe pouring expensive perfume on the feet of a man who’s about to die is an extravagant waste, too.

And then again, maybe not.

The Last Last Meal

Why abolishing the last meal is graceless.

Robert Dale Conklin's Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon

Last week, following the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D) contacted the head of the state prison agency to demand that the practice of allowing a prisoner to choose a last meal be ended immediately.

Ted Bundy's Steak and Eggs

Texas executes more people than any other state, and their death row process has been under scrutiny. For example, in 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder by arson of his three daughters, which he almost certainly did not commit. Yet Governor Rick Perry, among others, have done their best to write off this wrongful execution as “business as usual” even though the Texas Fire Commission had ruled that the original evidence collected against Willingham was deeply flawed.

John Wayne Gacy had KFC

So why abolish the last meal? Well, part of the reason is that Brewer kind of made a mockery of the age-old tradition of the last meal–ordering

two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.

and then not eating any of it, saying he wasn’t hungry. Plus, Brewer was totally unrepentant for his heinous crime, telling the local news: “as far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Perhaps his unrepentance was part of what irked Sen. Whitmire; perhaps, as Anne Emanuel says, it was a “diversionary” tactic to deflect attention from the sloppiness that seems to characterize Texas death row process.

Timothy McVeigh's Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

But why abolish the last meal altogether? Florida, for example, grants its condemned a last meal of their choice, but ingredients must be purchased locally and cost no more than $40. Abolishing the last meal, to me, seems graceless.

I should come out and say that I think the death penalty itself needs to be abolished. The execution of Troy Davis on the same night as Brewer was a case in which an enormous amount of evidence pointed to Davis’ innocence, not unlike the Willingham case. But the truth is, I don’t think that Brewer–though unrepentant and guilty–should’ve been put to death either. There are a lot of reasons why I deplore execution, which I won’t go into here, but the simplest are these: I don’t believe anyone has the right to take what only God can give, and I believe that putting people to death–even guilty people–destroys the souls of those who do it. (It must be noted that the family of Brewer’s victim held a vigil for Brewer and opposed his execution to the end.)

So, obviously, for me, the last meal is a small issue beside the huge one of a consistent life ethic. But I find myself really bothered by the fact that Texas has chosen to end this ancient tradition because it strikes me as needlessly graceless. The last meal is, traditionally, an act of grace–often given along with the Sacraments, in fact. It’s an act of grace because, obviously, the last meal is gratuitous–the condemned having no “need” of nutrition in his or her final hours. And it is an act of grace because accepting food is a sign of trust and peace. (In Louisiana, the prison warden traditionally eats the last meal with the condemned. I can’t seem to contemplate this without tears in my eyes.)

Philip Workman declined a last meal for himself, asking instead for a vegetarian pizza to be given on his behalf to a homeless person. Prison officials denied his request, but it was carried out by others across the country.

The last meals that prisoners choose seem to say so much about them. A number of artists have even made projects of artfully portraying last meals. It seems to me that after years on death row with no dignity or chance to choose anything, the offer of a final meal of one’s choice is a glimmer of grace.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that the Texas death row process could seem any more callous and graceless than it already does. But they’ve done it.

{For more about the death penalty, or to join the effort to end it, visit the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty website. For a moving account of a man sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit, I highly recommend The Thin Blue Linethe Errol Morris film that led to Randall Dale Adams’ exoneration. The book that convinced me that the death penalty needs to die is Dead Man Walking.}