Monday, November 28, 2011

Shades of the Edible Past

1) When I was a child, my mother had an expansive herb garden just outside the basement door. Unruly with sage, thyme, mint and other delights, it was one of my chief culinary pursuits to create potions from the her herbal bounty. And by potions, I mean that I gathered handfuls of every plant that I'd been assured was edible and dumped them into a big pot. Then I added water, lots of sugar, and boiled until the leaves were black and the liquid decidedly murky. A strainer may have been involved, as well as Mason jars, gleefully filled with pee-colored liquid which I drank with relish. Some were decidedly tasty, some were not (wild onions do not a flavorful tea make), and at least one concoction left me giggling for a full afternoon. (Still not sure if it was the sugar or an accidental hallucinogenic plant addition...)

Now I'm all grown up and have my own herb garden. A dying, decrepit herb garden. My basil hated the soil and shriveled. The mint is now doing the same thing, falling prey to some kind of pirate-ish black spot infection that withers the leaves and sucks the plant dry. My track record is putting me well on the way to serial (plant) killer status. I salvaged the topmost and still healthy mint leaves this morning and made a nice batch of iced green tea. It reminds me of being a kid. Minus the giggles.

2) My cooking and hospitality philosophy was cemented during the college years, a time when funds are dismal and the height of dormitory culinary tools involved hot pots and irons. (For making grilled cheese, of course!) I ate a lot of ramen noodles, in part because I had been welcomed into a ragtag community of similar souls whose headquarters was an off-campus house known as The Souphouse. So named because the founding fathers of the tradition would ask all their visitors one simple question. "Have you eaten yet?" And being college students, the answer would inevitably be "no," in which case they'd pull out the 20 cent packets of ramen noodles and serve up a feast. Year after year, a group of men or women silly or brave enough to have an open-door and open-refrigerator policy would continue the tradition. I had the privilege of living there for two semesters. We had guests pop in unannounced, at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes I'd come home to find a study group meeting in the living room, comprised of no one who actually lived in the house. A crumpled $20 would appear in the shared expenses jar, or a brand new can of peanut butter in the hospitality cupboard. We never ran out of food, though we certainly didn't have a lot OF it.

My self-proclaimed job in the Souphouse kitchen was chief baker. I made bread. Lots of bread. Loaves of black pepper-rosemary or whole-wheat with cornmeal would cool on racks beside the sink. It disappeared as fast as I made it, and I'm still kicking myself to this day for leaving my phenomenal bread baking book behind when I moved.

I have a loaf of sandwich bread in the oven right now, and the wafting scent of toasting flour makes me think of the Souphouse. As did last night, when a friend stopped by unexpectedly and stayed for dinner, and I was able to conjure up some simple kitchen magic, producing a meal out of virtually bare cupboards. (Anchovies, capers and pickles do not count as foodstuffs on their own, nor the half head of slowly wilting cabbage in the refrigerator.) I'm glad to have the resources to buy fancy cheese or a bottle of wine from time to time, but it's nice to have those moments where you look at the contents of the kitchen, briefly despair, and then remember that you can do something tasty with so little. Thank you, quasi-impoverished-20-something me, for learning that skill!


anne said...

is an awesome skill to have and will serve you well your whole life! i did the "I can live on $5 a wk" when I was just out of college, and I did--$5 for food, anyway---and it has definitely come in handy in the subsequent decades!

as to the herbs, move them indoors, in large pots/let them have time on your covered "porch" area, IN POTS. Soil is the most crucial ingredient!

Jennifer said...

I also can survive without starving on the smell of an oily rag. There is always something to eat in my house even when there is nothing.

I hear you with the herbs. All I want is your mum's herb garden. But here they seem to suffer from too wet, too hot and ocassionally too neglected.

I must say though that this year they seem to be better and I have actually grown some impressive herbs. And one evil looking mean cactusy thing that started off looking like a tiny aloe vera. I swear that thing is going to kill us all when it gets a bit bigger.

love quotes said...

I like this article
so nice ♥

me said...

I love this too. I was a fortunate recipient of your Souphouse hospitality and this article brought back wonderful memories :)