California Diarist: Fruit of the Earth and Work of Human Hands

(I wrote this in September, 2010)

It had been eleven years since I’d last seen Tom. At the end of a premature and ill-advised visit to Deep Springs not three months after I had graduated, I sat out where the college’s access road meets the state highway that splits the valley. It was early, perhaps 6:30, as I hoped to thumb a ride from one of the rare passing cars before the day was old and hot. And I saw Tom drive up toward me, a sight that bathed me suddenly with warmth and goodwill. Tom, the chef, the man who had turned me into a passable cook a year previous, was going to give me a lift over the White Mountains to Big Pine.

He pulled up and rolled down the window: “Hey Ben…where is that biscuit recipe you always used to use?” Buttermilk Soda Biscuits, made curiously–and fatally, I’d now argue–with melted butter. Sigh.

“It’s in that Time-Life Mid-Atlantic States cookbook,” I offered.

“Okay, thanks. Now, leave Deep Springs!” Tom replied. He, of course, had to cook breakfast. An hour’s round-trip drive to Big Pine could hardly be accomplished when the 7:15 breakfast warning bell was only forty-five minutes off and there was presumably still bacon to fry, eggs to scramble, and melons to slice up.

I spent three seven-week terms as a student cook at Deep Springs, two during my first year under the supervision of Jack and one my second year with Tom. The college even then had a pretty solid kitchen, though it was not as clean nor as orderly as one would like. There was fresh milk every day and rich, earthy cream. The ranch’s grass-fed beef was delicious and overabundant. We added some goats and pigs later. The hens were too stringy to eat but they produced fine eggs. There was a bee colony and a garden profuse with zucchini, onions, garlic, potatoes, and cucumbers. A little greenhouse gave us lettuce. Expeditions into the mountains could yield trash bags full of pine nuts.

The this was added all the usual staples and the glorious produce of central California–orchard fruits, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and anything else that might be needed for a robust menu. At the beginning of my first cooking stint, the senior student cook had gotten a $2,000 appropriation for fish and seafood from the markets in Seattle. That whole spring and summer we gorged on albacore and salmon, staying ahead of freezer burn and using the butcher’s band saw as well as we could. We tried things we couldn’t really do, like a candle-lit boardinghouse dinner of shrimp marinara and a disfigured risotto, and a few things we just managed to pull off, including an outdoor feast of stuffed squid and homemade pasta. There were ribeye steaks fried in beef tallow for breakfast once, meatloaf made with sausage grind orphaned by a shortage of casing, lasagna with fourteen homemade layers, beef stew braised overnight in rich sauce. And there were of course lots and lots of meals that just got the job done, more or less well, more or less on time.

It was an education within an education for me. When Tom was there, he and the students shared all the different meals. He introduced me to porcini mushrooms, champagne vinegar (steeped with citrons and blood oranges), and much else besides. Menu planning, cost, managing work flow all became part of the daily work for student cooks.

While I was in the Valley, Tom started a collection that he called The Deep Springs Cookbook. I still have my individually-inscribed, hand-bound first edition, which I used in my subsequent job at Chicago’s Disciples Divinity House, at home, and for parties. Over the following years Tom added to it, and I was thrilled a few months ago to see that it was being published by Chronicle as The Commonsense Kitchen: 500 Recipes plus Lessons for a Hand-Crafted Life. Reading through it is like a culinary ‘This is Your Life.’ There are recipes for favorably disposing the members of a new church to one’s preaching (Butter pie crust, p. 443); for finding a wife (Mayonnaise chocolate cake, p. 487; it sounds awful and the batter doesn’t look so good but it’s fantastic); for earning the regard of your future wife’s protective best friend (Reatha’s mac and cheese, p. 153); for giving your parents a hard-earned night off from cooking (Roast beef, p. 313); for teaching your toddler to love baking (Pear-lemon-ginger crisp, p. 469). Since Tom now lives in Marin County, and since I was traveling to Oakland for an August wedding, an author-inscribed copy seemed like both a perfect wedding present and a perfect excuse for an overdue reunion, one uncomplicated by breakfast bells or hitchhiking. We met on a Thursday over a couple pints at Berkeley’s Triple Rock. Stories were told and re-told and signatures affixed (small groups like Deep Springs alumni being plagued by the uncanny, it happened that a guy on the stool next to mine pointed out a line he was reading in a book that mentioned William T. Vollman and Deep Springs at the very moment we started talking about the college by name).

Cooking is, however we tart it up, among the most elemental acts of human labor and the most primal expression of human ingenuity. For reasons and by means I do not understand, our species came to confront a recalcitrant world that we needed to shape. The application of heat to animal flesh is a splendid way to start shaping it. I don’t hope to have to earn a living by cooking again, but I am grateful that I feel at home in a kitchen. Cooking well for yourself is not just a way to eat a little better and more cheaply. It’s a way to create a little society around your own work, whether it’s a leisurely dinner after the kids are in bed, making a pie with backyard rhubarb and your son’s help, executing an ambitious dish for first-time guests in your home, or easing the domestic burden on an aging grandmother.

As we soldiered through a wonderful but exhaustingly elaborate wedding day–a glorious, auburn-hilly Bay-Area Saturday–it occurred to me that a wedding, too, is a kind of labor. The priest actually helped me with this, announcing the sacrament as “the work we are about to begin.” There is all the obvious stuff, the preparation and activity, but beyond that, the joining of two families and the creation of a new family is a deliberate and laborious process. Love is easy, love is natural. Pouring, kneading, and stretching that love into the form of a committed daily life is hard. You might even call it ingenious. I wonder a little at the depressing anti-humanism of today’s evolutionary enthusiasts for polyamory, arguing as they do that nature can’t be improved with artifice.

The members of the groom’s party–including me–arrived early at the home of the bride’s family to bring gifts, ask for the bride’s hand, introduce the families to one another, and invoke the memory of departed ancestors, all in a way formalized and customary in Vietnamese culture. I had never seen anything like it. Then we ate roasted pig and shrimp rolls with peanut sauce.

After the tea ceremony, as the betrothal is called, it was time for the sacrament and the Mass. Promises were made, songs were sung, last-minute lectionary substitutions were smilingly endured, blessings were invoked. The Catholic bride gave the groom’s ring in the name of the Trinity, and the Jewish groom made the heavily Vietnamese church ring out with mozel tov! when he obliterated the wine glass. The priest had married the bride’s parents and baptized the family’s daughters. Perhaps in a sign of the esteem in which the family was held, four additional priests vested and participated in the Eucharistic celebration.

Photographs and scene changes followed almost until the reception began in Oakland. The crowd, eventually totaling some 480, trickled in, stopping first for photos with the beleaguered but still buoyant couple. The band warmed up with “Blue Bossa.” “Hava Nagila” was downloaded to the groom’s iPhone just in case.

Then the food came. First a plate of antipasti-style squid, jellyfish, and crisp-roasted pieces of pork, then fish maw and crab soup, and more pork. There was lobster, honey-walnut prawns, fried rice, and finally creamy, savory, whole-steamed fish of some kind. I am no expert on Vietnamese cuisine, but should you ever find yourself hungry in Oakland, I can recommend the Restaurant Peony without reservation.

Better yet, you should arrange to get yourself invited to a Vietnamese wedding. I saw, as I never had before, that in a truly traditional wedding the bride and groom are highly honored but ultimately minor players in the community’s re-creation of itself. People who have no real experience of community might find this an unappealing prospect, but it’s really very moving. It is tempting to spend a wedding day indulging in the pretense that a bride and groom are the center of the universe, but where we all are a day and a year and ten years later, and what we are willing and able to do for them then, matters a good deal more.

At last the time for “Hava Nagila” arrived. This was strictly a groomsmen’s project, and we were not abundantly confident of success. Excessive preparations were taken. But at last the moment came and the massively goyische crowd joined hands into dancing circles with marvelous felicity. We all gathered into the center and then back out, dancing first one way and then another. The bride and groom were seated and lifted aloft on a stout surge of well-wishers. Up and down they went as the music sped up (“find me a chair with arms,” the bride pleaded with us. We failed). Then the father and stepmother of the groom took a turn, and the parents of the bride, and the groom’s stepfather. People loved “Hava Nagila” with hand-clapping, foot-kicking abandon. If we’d kept the song going, every man, woman and child in the place would have taken a spin in those chairs.

Eventually every party has to end, however, and the hands that hold a pair of newlyweds aloft, if present at all, become less visible. Food is love, my mother has long told me. Love is also food. We lift, fold, press, rotate, and repeat to work love’s leavening power subtly but fully into the whole of life. It’s the warm smell that wakes a tired household, the early bell that calls weary hands around pitchers of milk and laconic togetherness, the motion of blessing that may be received when speech is of no avail. It is that most astonishing and simple of human tasks, to turn the earth’s raw increase, the thrilling impulse in our blood, into the bread by which we live.

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