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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Senses in the Kitchen, at Work and at Play

No doubt synesthesia was born long ago in the wild past of our early evolution, but it is just as surely reborn in the kitchen. When you see fat leeks in the grocery store produce section or smell the earthy freshness of dainty wild ones in the woods, don’t you already feel their smoothness in your mouth? What about the color? My eyes see green, but my mind reads purple, the smooth purple of an eggplant, and my ears hear the rich, dark music of a bassoon or a cello.

Leeks, along with daffodils, are associated by the Welsh with the Feast of St. David on March first. I missed the day again this year. The first of March is too early to look for leeks and daffodils in northern Michigan. So let’s come back indoors, back into the kitchen, and sift through memories and towels.

I am hopeless when it comes to sewing. My mother loved to sew – sewed new dresses for my sisters and me all the time when we were little -- and couldn’t understand how trying to follow a pattern could reduce me to tears. I was proud of my skill in threading the machine, both top and bottom threads, but had not joined 4-H in order to make aprons and skirts! In my mind, 4-H membership was the first step to getting a horse!
Horses = Heaven!
Sewing = Heaven’s Opposite!

Not realizing the difference between farm clubs and city clubs, I was in for a big disappointment. Anyway, it’s impossible to sew and read a book at the same time. I’m talking about real books, with pages to turn. So other than replacing the occasional button, I don’t sew.

And yet, I adore fabric. Beautiful fabric with a good “hand”  attracts and pleases me. I love those very thin, very lightweight cotton shirts that feel like silk against the skin, and I love soft cotton tea towels and much-washed tablecloths. Old-fashioned potholders and “dishrags” made by friends cleverer than I am with their hands increase my pleasure in the kitchen.

Kitchen work, I believe, is such joy because it engages all the senses, along with the hands and the mind. (Somehow I don’t resent putting down a book to work in the kitchen.) Fresh ingredients and finished dishes delight the eye, and anything sizzling in a skillet calls the ears into play, as does the plop-plop-plop of cranberries in a saucepan. Aromas, ah! There are even smells other than those of the food: my electric blender, for instance, gives off metallic whiffs I associate with our old family electric train of childhood.

As for taste, that hardly needs to be mentioned, does it? But touch, too frequently given short shrift in kitchen writing, is for me a principal element of cooking’s joy. Touch comes into play most obviously in the making of bread, as kneading bread dough brings together the work of eyes, nose, and hands. Piecrust requires a lighter touch, but the rolling out of the dough, folding and lifting and fitting to the pan, and finally the fluting of the crust’s boundaries with fingers and thumbs all call for direct unmediated contact of hands with material. 

Besides handling food, washing dishes in hot, soapy water and taking up a soft cotton towel to dry them bring feelings of deep luxury and an opportunity for peaceful meditation that would be ruled out by a dictatorial dishwashing machine. Fortunately, there’s no room in my little Paris kitchen for such a machine.

And let’s bring Paris into our musings before we part company for the day. Do you eat asparagus with knife and fork? Next time, try picking a spear up with your fingers for that first bite from the tender tip. You may dip in melted butter or lemon juice of Hollandaise – or nothing at all! My dear Parisian landlady and friend gave me permission to eat asparagus with my fingers at one of our first dinners together, and with that gesture we celebrated our common peasant heritage. I do it now both for the tactile pleasure and in memory of my old friend.

Once in my presence a little French boy was reprimanded for eating with his fingers, “like a wild tiger,” as his mother put it. The phrase captivated me. Moi, je mange comme un tigre sauvage!

There is still snow on the ground, but soon we will have wild leeks and fresh local asparagus again....

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