Late afternoon. Upcountry Maui. I’m peeling potatoes in the kitchen, standing barefoot on a fringed area rug that fails to sufficiently hide the ugly, old brown linoleum. As my thoughts hover behind me at the oven, noisily debating dinner, the smell of earth wafts up to arrest my attention. A hand stops mid-motion. I raise the smallish, rust colored tuber to my nose and inhale as deeply as if it were a flower or fruit. Despite the clean, washed condition it smells distinctly of soil… a much-loved scent that makes me smile. The earthy fragrance of the potato’s red skin awakens my olfactory senses and brings me crashing into the present experience. All my attention focuses upon what I am doing, riveted to the moment.
I inhale a deep breath and feel my shoulders soften, while the aroma opens my eyes and I suddenly ‘see’ this thing differently: a gift of Earth and a storehouse of life, cleverly disguised as a humble potato.
The French call potatoes pommes de terre (“apples of earth”), a description that I always found charming but also a bit odd. Certainly they are connected deeply to soil… but apples? Seems a stretch. I must be missing something.
I am working with my French peeler, a decidedly different instrument than its American cousin. It’s a good tool, nicely made, and I appreciate the sturdy feel of it in my hand as I pull the notched, stainless steel blade towards me (rather than pushing it as with most swiveling American-style ones), following the contours of the potato. The thin, smooth skin of this ‘apple of earth’ falls away in long strips, revealing the glistening, creamy interior (which gives off a sweetly chalky scent quite distinct from the earthy skin).
In all that I’ve gathered over the years, I have about ten favorite tools in my kitchen, each one special to me in a unique way and most of them carrying a story. The French peeler is one of them. One Saturday while living in Paris on the Left Bank, I journeyed to the famous culinary supply store, E. Dehillerin, near Les Halles, in search of a few good tools to supplement my growing batterie de cuisine. Along with a fish turner and a whisk with an artistically painted grip, one of my purchases that day was the French peeler with a nice wood handle (to replace the functional but aesthetically numb, blue plastic-handled one that students receive in their knife kit at Le Cordon Bleu). The rosewood colored finish of the handle is now rubbed from a dozen years of being gripped in my palm, which somehow makes me love this little gadget all the more. Handmade, a bit worn, wabi sabi: qualities that I value and which resonate with my old fashioned, elemental soul.
My thoughts had been roaming elsewhere until the beguiling, unexpected fragrance transported me back to the kitchen. Peeling its skin, the soil-like scent of pomme de terre anchors fully into the moment and my body. Open and expansive senses always invite us home to the bodysoul. Our senses are the threshold where we engage the world around us, where we are drawn into communion with ‘other’. In this tactile, sensual connection with the food in my hand, there is something not dissimilar to the soul’s solace in nature. Yes, one is domesticated and one is wild, but perhaps the word that most accurately captures this sentiment for both is nourishment.
How do we nourish body and soul? With equal care… or casual, negligent disregard?
My iPhone sits plugged into its sound system on the brown tile counter (everything in this funky, 1970’s cottage is some shade of brown), offering forth island-style acoustic guitar and weaving pleasant melodies through the otherwise quiet house. After a long and somewhat challenging day, I’m in my ‘quiet zone’: spent of words, inwardly reflective, feeling the notes of blue sadness in my core but happy to be at work preparing a nice meal. As heart of the house, the kitchen is the place where I always come home to myself. For a cook, l’espace cuisine offers a refuge of solace and delight: a sanctuary for the soul.
Wrapped in a sonic shawl of soft music, my puttering or working in the kitchen is a sort of meditation. Making a meal for myself and my partner (or our currently expanded unit of mother-in-law and cousin, as well), it is here that I manage to set things right, even when the day has unfolded in a manner other than how I wished. It’s akin to coming home and playing music on one’s instrument. Here among a vivid assortment of fresh, beautiful ingredients that awaken my senses, I will create a simple, elegant meal to celebrate our connection to place, season, to each other… and Earth.
A good meal brings pleasure on many levels. For one kind of cook, a significant part of that delight is the assembly of the meal itself; a sensory, creative process to be savored and enjoyed right down to the weighty heft of quality pans, the ease of sharp knives, and the feel of good tools in the hand. Each thing offers its own chant of beauty among the gathering. For the other kind of cook, assembling a meal is largely work. Drudgery, even. It’s something to be done, simply an obligation to feed the family (or self). On almost every day of the year, you will find me happily camped among the former, basking in the sensual rapture of fresh herbs and fine ingredients. Celebrating life.
Today, atop the wide kitchen counter, my choice of late afternoon nibbles offers a definite nod to Spain. Standing in as very simple tapas, a dozen triangular slices of sheep’s milk Manchego (aged six months but disappointingly average in taste) are fanned across a small, handmade pottery plate. Alas that all the delectable olives I bought last week have already been eaten. Next to the cheese sits a shapely wineglass of crimson, velvety Rioja, “totally quaffable,” as a woman in my wine tasting classes years ago used to say. Instructions to “add wine” in a recipe generally applies to the cook as well, I think.
A jumble of local, organic green beans I purchased yesterday at the market, still satisfyingly fresh and crisp, is piled on the countertop. Alongside the rusty skinned potatoes, the beans’ emerald color is so compelling against the dark tiles that I almost want to stop my work and attempt to paint the scene (never mind that I am not a painter and would fail miserably). Sitting in a somewhat battered roasting tin from England, a free-range chicken rests quietly, its plump legs demurely trussed together with a bit of kitchen string. I’ve massaged the innards with a mélange of coarse salt, chopped parsley and minced garlic, and rubbed the skin with Spanish olive oil, sprinkling it liberally with fine sea salt and herbes de Provence. To accompany this Mediterranean-style chicken, roasted herbed potatoes, and green beans, I have pounded and whisked a quivering bowl of pungent, garlicky aioli in a small mortar and pestle (the smaller of two I own, not ranked among my kitchen’s top ten tools, though the larger green marble one is).
To a soulful cook, every one of these ingredients offers a sensory delight in its own right. The tools and vessels, too. It’s difficult to adequately describe the feeling of contentment—a delight that can border upon joy—from the simple act of, say, mindfully peeling a potato’s earthy skin or chopping a fresh, rowdy bunch of herbaceous greens.
Creating a good meal is a simple, daily ritual in a hand-crafted life, just as surely as sitting down to enjoy it with gratitude, friendship, laughter and love. Ambassadors of good taste, Soul Artists take the time to nourish the bodysoul, feeding it with beauty and the blessed bounty of Earth.
Open your senses and celebrate.
Gentle reader, whether or not you’re a cook (of either sort), here’s hoping that you manage to create special ritual(s) that usher you deeply into conscious realms of bodysoul. A good meal invites us to expand through our senses, to emerge from the tired and confining stories of our life, and to celebrate something much, much larger.
Grace of the table, indeed.