– Food Columns in Tough Times
Different people have different opinions when asked about their favourite authors, but the truly great names rise to the surface again and again. Names like Agatha Christie and Stephen King pop up as easily as others— in no particular order and whether you've read them or not, you've probably heard of Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Most of us have read and love Dr. Seuss who is a Star Wars away from George Lucas.
Today, many people appreciate the works of J.K. Rowling and yet the Harry Potter series began in the field of children’s literature and grew from there to be enjoyed by young and old alike. My favourite reads are quite eclectic and run from J.K. Rowling to Charles Dickens with his Great Expectations. From Anne Rice to Erma Bombeck and Peg Bracken-- now there’s a stretch. Vampires to Homemaking. And then there’s Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Romancing The Ordinary-- Definitely my kind of book. Really a “stop and smell the roses” kind of book. The kind that makes you a better person having read it. I really liked Red China Blues by Janet Wong— a funny-serious look at the trip from Canada back to China in order to find her roots during a time of upheaval with the Cultural Revolution. Currently, I’m reading The Family Beach House by Holly Chamberlain. The story paints life in Ogunquit, Maine where several generations of a family have gathered together every year during vacation season. Things have changed though, and the complexity of family issues are juxtaposed against the idyllic backdrop of sea and gulls, chowder houses and fine dining establishments. When the order of the day is to be a good citizen and stay home, Holly reaches through time and takes us on a little trip. We envision the trinket and candy shops, golf and nature parks. And as we walk the trails, we get a glimpse into what being a family means. The word “struggle” comes to mind. Even outside of the immediate family, there’s that point about the difficulties of lobster fisherman and the law against stealing washed up traps. The tough life of fisherman. The facade of the small town life.
Still, I’ll take it. I’ll take that little jaunt because even with it’s difficulties, there’s something very magical when taking the time to take the time and here’s where I get to something really good. And that’s food and drink. Of all the books I like to read I think I like reading recipes. And more than that, I like to read about people reading and writing about recipes and here’s where I get to share with you a truly amazing author: Sam Sifton. He’s the Founding Editor of NYT Cooking and columnist for The New York Times Magazine and among other lofty pursuits, he’s also been in the role of food critic, although, for me, it’s hard to imagine the word “critic” associated with his current work because as I read and am inspired, I sense that even as he writes about the beauty and depth of life through the prism of food and drink, he would probably be happy, as I would, to have a crust of bread served with a good dollop of butter, maybe some cottage cheese with onion might be nice and some juicy beefsteak tomato, all accompanied by a homemade wine and a loving family. If only plenty of stories and jokes show up as lively guests in whatever costume that suits their muse-fancy, then surely, everything is good.
Sam Sifton, in his truly tasteful style, would probably be writing something deep and uplifting about food and life somehow-someway even if everything has went topsy-turvy and of course, it has. They say the measure of a man or woman is not what they do when things are easy, but when things are difficult.
During such difficult times as the Pandemic, Sam does not dodge the issue. He meets it square on, but writes anyway, with heart and the positivity of a warrior—a friendly warrior.
In one of his recent columns, dated June 5, 2020, he writes:
One of my favorite cookbooks is a community number out of southwest Florida, “The Gasparilla Cookbook,” published in 1961 by the Junior League of Tampa.
Note to Self - I’ll put that on my wish list for the future.
Sam goes into some lovely detail about the possibility of preparing some of the elegant meals of postwar middle-class America. The key word he uses is “fustiness”, which really tells the tale. Maybe the tale of how language shifts depending upon context. Maybe how “fusty” sounds a lot like “fussy” and I have a love-hate relationship with “fussiness” and who was it that said, “Oh bother.”? Oh I know. Winnie the Pooh. How much of a bother I will accept as reasonable depends upon a lot of details too long to disclose here unless I’m frugal with my words and say what they like to say in the movies, “It’s long and it’s complicated.” My life, that is— so cooking can’t always be that way, too. Capish?”
And that’s where I love and respect Sam Sifton’s recent words. He doesn’t pretend like everything is peachy-keen in the world.
I start imagining what he might be thinking.
After exploring the intensive surgery-like production of some kind of slow process open pit Bbq. (a moment of serious consideration to "take it on", perhaps?), the chiffon cakes, (not so much) and Luncheon asparagus, (too Wedding-Plannerish) and whatever glamour exists within the world of Gasparilla... (Can there be any? The mean looking guy on the cover has huge gold hoop earrings, a matching gold bracelet and is wearing a doo-rag. There must be though. That platter of food & wine he's holding up looks mighty fine!) But it's all well and good. As Sam lays out what could be goin' down for a meal this weekend, he ends by plainly saying it this way:
I’d love for you to try that, but I recognize it’s not possible for everyone: You have no outdoor space; you have no grill; you don’t eat flesh; you have no desire for these sorts of shenanigans when the world outside is full of scaries and you’re worried for your job. I get it. There are days these days when it seems heroic just to fry an egg and eat it on toast.
Check out Sam Sifton's work. You'll be inspired, I'm sure, and come away feeling a little better even if allz ya do is cook up that old familiar but tried and true boxed mac and cheese.