One of my favorite possessions is a three-quart cast-iron casserole with a lid.
It’s a sexy ocean blue and gets used several times every week. My little one is listening to my latest creation, a piece of cheap pork slowly braising in a mixture of white wine, lemon, and broth with thyme and rosemary.
As it comes to temperature, the lid clacks lightly from the building pressure as my little sous chef sits on the bed and says, “It tick tocks like a clock.” I respond with something close to an affirmative grunt because, frankly, I’m mesmerized by the rhythmic clacking.
Age can do that to people. Or maybe it’s just me. However, I doubt it.
We all have different ways of relating to food, and all of us place different values on the things we put in our stomachs at any given time. I know people who live their entire lives in pursuit of junk food and others that seek only the most exceptional provisions, but in my years, dealing with the subtle art of eating simple has been good.
I learned this from a guy we called Johnny Petro. He was a rather accomplished chef in New York City and had taken some time to come to Alaska.
In trying to copy his outstanding work and abilities, I had made a Bolognese of sorts. I use the term ‘of sorts’ because the meat in the sauce was dead, and so was the soul of any who tried to consume it.
Swallowing my pride, which was easier than eating the meat sauce, I went to Johnny to find the point of my divergence.
“What did you put in it?” he asked.
“Tomatoes, basil, garlic, meat…” I named off a kitchen cupboard of jarred spices. I would have put the kitchen sink in it if it’d fit.
He gasped, and with kind eyes said, “Oh, no, no. Here are a few rules that will help you be successful, no matter what you make. Never use more spices and herbs than you can count on one hand. Basil and rosemary never go together. Always go with fresh herbs when you can get them, because the dried are a has been of what was. And never cook with a wine you don’t like and won’t drink.”
I tried the sauce again, simpler, guided by the recipe I had mutilated before from Cucina Rustica. I followed his instructions as closely as possible. I served it to my then-girlfriend.
When we finished, everything involved was clean.
No, you don’t understand.
We licked our plates clean like dogs, used all of the available bread to squeegee every single drop of that glorious sauce from the pan, drained the wine, a Bolla Valpolicella, and actually liked each other for a change.
On days like that, you might invite the devil for a meal if you’re feeling kind and make him watch you eat if you’re feeling delightfully appetized and overly spunky.
Simple can be relative. My grandfather liked simple to an extreme. He was all about fresh sausage. After my grandmother died, for the most part, he ate only one thing. Sausage sandwiches. Every meal, every day. Three times a day until he finally died a decade later.
He taught me how to do it ‘the right way,’ which in reality was just his way, but whatever. Learn what you can from your elders while they are there to teach you.
Grandpa Jones liked his sandwich a certain way. Two pieces of white bread, he was incredibly partial to Colonial bread, always first slathered with a layer of Blue Plate mayonnaise. The amount being slathered was always a point of contention. Grandpa wanted it pretty wet; my dad felt that was utterly disgusting.
He got his sausage from a local shop that made it themselves, little blocks sold in specific small stores with a paper label. His were always red because he liked it hot. He would hand roll the patty out like a hamburger and fry it in a cast-iron skillet that was slightly larger than the sausage. Once Grandpa completed this critical task, he turned the meat out on a plate to cool. The reasoning for the action was, “The bread turns into a wad of mush in yer hand, and nobody likes that.”
Yellow mustard is the next component of the sandwich. He was partial to the French’s little bottles, but I don’t think he would have cared about the brand as long as it was there.
Next was the onion. When you live in Georgia, it is only natural to go after a Vidalia sweet onion. Those are grown in Vidalia, Georgia. Much like bourbon has to be from Kentucky, or Dijon has to be from Dijon, France.
It’s pronounced vie-dale-yuh.
I watched Bobby Flay go there once and enflame most of the known South because he kept calling it vie-dall-yah. Like dally and hallelujah. I threw something at the TV and said some choice words.
“Calm down,” one person said.
“He’s a professional chef,” said another.
“Fucking idiot,” another chimed, defending my outburst.
“You already knew he was a Yankee. Why would he get that right?”
Still not sure why we are so antsy and reactionary over it.
A slice of the sweet onion finishes off the sandwich, and you’re better off if you have a Coke in a glass bottle. Back then, they weren’t doing plastic bottles yet. You saved up all of your glass bottles, and at the end of the week or the month, you’d haul them to your local grocer or gas station where they’d give you a nickel or dime, or whatever was on the bottle.
Some guy in Atlanta would drive down pretty regular and pick them all up, but you would be at home drinking more Coke by then.
Except for me. I’m very partial to Royal Crown, myself.
It was simple.
And the reaction was part of the sandwich itself, the first bite, the pause as the flavors registered in the brain. I must have watched him make and eat over a hundred of those in my childhood, and he always closed his eyes, cracked a smile, and as he chewed, purred, “Mmm.”
Then, a delicate drift of sensation as the next bite began.
My relatives said the sausage sandwich was the only thing he’d cook and eat because it was the only thing he knew how to make. It’s harder to kill yourself with a sandwich. He’d already tried to kill himself with a cake.
Yes, you read that right. My grandfather tried to commit suicide with a chocolate cake.
It was luscious. I got a slice. It was rich and perfect, and I behaved like my little eight-year-old self was on amphetamines. He ate the rest. Everyone else was busy with the celebration of his birthday. Mama Jones had been laid to rest a few years prior. He was unsupervised, which was as much of a bad idea as leaving me unsupervised.
I was inside the little house when my aunt burst down the hallway with, “Daddy’s trying to kill himself with the cake!” And I am not proud to say that my reaction was to fall to the floor, paralyzed in raucous laughter until my belly hurt and I was out of air.
Seriously, how does one commit suicide with a chocolate cake?
As detailed by another aunt, and all of my current restrictive bastard doctors, it happens when one is diabetic. That explained my crumpled-up grandfather I discovered on the front porch next to the swing. All of these silly dietary restrictions I have now because that fantastic affliction is hereditary.
So simple keeps you alive.
What I know is that you take a few simple ingredients, put them together, and forget about that part of life for an hour or two as long as the scents will let you. Food is such a part of our lives that it can define us, harm us, or elevate us. I try to get a sense of beauty out of it, something that I can remember or take away into the night as a special little prize.
When stupid things are happening at work or at work (I basically have two jobs), the food is a thing I can relish, and I can say, “Yes, all of this sucks, but damn was dinner good!”
This blue pot brings me the world. I can create a chicken kabsaa, any variant of taco, a Spanish stew in at least three directions, and we haven’t even discussed the French and Italian pathways.
Low and slow, and make what’s in the pot heavenly.
My little sous chef watches all of this, and I know if I get near a stove, I will hear a small step stool scraping across the floor because if I’m going on a culinary journey, dammit, she’s coming too. And I’d better let her ‘help.’
I want her to learn to value food as the currency of the day. Give her ways to eat well and cheaply. I’m not ashamed to say that I have learned in poverty times in the last five years of struggle to eat well from Mexicans. Did I mention I live in Texas? One man I worked with tossing wood chips on a golf course was characteristically sharing his lunch with me. I was eating pork carnitas from his wife, and they were a moment that could have won an award anywhere.
He looked up with a satisfied grin as I complimented his wife and said, “Enjoy what you eat today, my friend! We might not be around tomorrow to eat any more of it.”
One day I won’t be.
When that day comes, I hope my little sous chef, who preferably will not remotely be little anymore, will have fully learned to feed herself in a way befitting a queen, a master, an epicure.
If I know her, she’ll have her own pink cast-iron casserole, and she’ll be the one to make the things that fill her soul and make her friends weep and call their mommas.
Because that’s what happens when you keep it simple, use your heart to feel your way through it, and have an inkling of what the hell you’re doing.