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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Food in my Soul

You may recall that food inspires me; enough so that on more than one occasion I’ve been moved to write about it.  Not only do specific foods trigger my earliest memories—in addition, following and enhancing recipes that result in something delicious is a way to nurture those whom I love. Like writing, working with food is creative, hence my enjoyment with my new-ish part-time job—which features food as its, err, main ingredient.
I stumbled upon the position by accident, having parked in front of the establishment which is part retail store, part take-out restaurant.  I entered the shop that day and swallowed hard at the beautiful dried sausages laid out on a glass board, the shelves of ripe cheeses, the clear case filled with colorful ceramic dishes holding prepared foods made with the freshest ingredients.  Toss in a delightful chat with one of the owners, and the words “Are you hiring?” slipped out before I knew I was going to say them. In the end, I accepted a position because the idea of working at a place like this has lived in me for ages—even though I was clueless about how physically hard it would be to stand on my feet, lifting heavy dishes and cuts of meat over eight-hour stretches. After two months, I still come home more tired from one day-long shift then after a full 40-hour week at my old office job.

But with this gig, so unlike all others I’ve had, I perform my work with a connection to the product that makes selling it second nature. The chef was trained at the Culinary Institute of America. He worked for many years opening restaurants for a celebrity in the epicurean world whose name, if you know anything about the restaurant industry in the United States, you’d recognize. On occasion, I witness him, eyes staring off in space as he concentrates on developing a dish, seeking the perfect ingredient the same way sometimes I search the air for just the right word. Bottom line, as I discovered with Brussels sprouts recently, this man can cook the you-know-what out of anything.

However, that's not it by a long shot.  His wife is an eager partner who imparts her knowledge and passion about the cheeses she sells with a focus on quality and customer service that compels people to purchase. As a result, in the short time I’ve worked there, I’ve come to recognize regular customers who return, always smiling, always eager, thrilled at the experience and choices that are offered in the little shop.  This may sound simplistic, but while working there, serving up this luscious food amidst such an upbeat environment, I can actually feel myself helping to make people happy. 

All this is a long-winded way of saying that in spite of the ache in my hands and the bones that throb after every shift, I am positive about this new venture in my life and have learned to listen to the suggestions of the owners.

So, when the chef recommended that I read food writer, Ruth Reichl, I went right out and purchased Tender at the Bone, one of four auto-biographical books she's written. If you've never heard of Reichl, according to this bio that I lifted from her blog:
“...she was the restaurant critic of the The New York Times, (1993-1999), and both the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993). As co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California.” 
I had  no idea about all that. I recognized her name as the former editor of Gourmet Magazine.

Sadly, other than an occasional dentist office visit, I was never a reader of Gourmet, which met its demise in 2009.  Since my own cooking revolves around comfort, the name of that publication intimidated me. Now I have an idea of what I missed. All I can say is that if you want to read a well-written, humorous and sometimes gutsy memoir by one of the country’s most respected food writers, get this book. Reichl won numerous James Beard awards (something like an Oscar in the food world) for food writing. After reading Tender to the Bone I know why. She writes in a wry, self-deprecating manner while painting word pictures that capture the essence of her experiences. Take this:
“We went down a few steps and found antipasti winking and glistening on a table in the front, as beautiful as jewelry. There were eggplants the color of amethysts and plates of sliced salami and bresaola that looked like stacks of rose petals left to dry. Roasted tomatoes burst invitingly apart and red peppers were plump and slicked with oil. Great gnarled porcini sat next to tiny stewed artichokes and a whole prosciutto was on a stand, the black hoof and white fur still clinging to the leg.”
No word of a lie, I was hungry after I read that.

Then there was this, which she wrote about her first experiences in the restaurant:
“When I was in the restaurant I felt grounded, fully there. While my muscles ached from the hard physical labor, my mind strained to anticipate problems. When my shift was over I was often so tired I could not walk the six blocks home.”
Ding, ding, ding.  Sound familiar?  Skip back a paragraph or two.  But here’s what really got me. Toward the end of the book she writes:
“That fall I decided to become a caterer. Fate intervened. When I got back to Berkeley, I was offered a new job.

One of the Swallow’s steady customers had become an editor at a San Francisco magazine. He called me and asked, ‘Can you write as well as you can cook?’ I said, I wasn’t sure, but that I had always liked writing. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘how would you like to try out as a restaurant critic.'”
Imagine that. She's one of the best known food writers in the country, and if you take her at her word, she didn't plan on writing as a career. She fell into that job, almost the same way I've stumbled into mine.

Hmmm. Granted, she started a lot earlier,  but maybe there is hope for me yet.


Colette said...

Liza, this is a great example that just goes to show, life can take you to some very interesting places!

glnroz said...

good post. Often a story such as yours comes from a situation that seemed dauntinging because of a sudden change. Your change in direction toward your new enterprise(s) sounds like "food" for a book within itself.

Anonymous said...

As always, this is a beautifully written post. And I'm glad you shared this about Ruth Reichl's book. It sounds wonderful. Since memoir is my favorite genre, I'm going to look up this one!!

Have a wonderful day up there in that beautiful country. I love New England! I lived in the Connecticut woods from 1968-71. Next to Virginia, it's my favorite place.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

First of all--New Follower! *waves* I found you through Elana Johnson's blog, and I'm so glad I did because I really enjoyed this post. Such a great reminder that you never know where life will take you.

Looking forward to getting to know you better through your posts. Have a great rest of the day!

Elana Johnson said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There's always hope!
And if he can cook Brussels sprouts in a way that I'd actually eat them, then I'm impressed.

Robin said...

I don't know how many times I have indicated on my blog that I have backdoored my way into every good thing I have found on blogger. No lie. Each one of those things has opened my eyes to new ideas, directions, possibilities. I don't particurlarly believe in coincidence. I think that we land where we are supposed to and when the door opens we either grab hold of the opportunity and run with it, or we don't. I think that you will. You are awesome and so very talented. I think that the magical part of your life is just beginning to unfold. I can't wait to read about it! Listen to your song again for inspiration if you doubt me!!!!

Liza said...

Collete, you are right. I never expected this...although sometimes I daydreamed about it.

Glen...a book about it? Hmmm. Something to aspire to.

Ann, hope you get the book. She has three more I'm dying to read.

Shannon, thank you for visiting and following! I'll be heading your way too!

Elana,thank you for all your words of wisdom!

Alex, all I can say is that he's got me eating them willingly and that says A LOT!

Robin, thanks so much. I do think I landed in the shop for a reason. Now I'm watching as the "why" unfolds. Thank you for all your support.

Helen Ginger said...

It seems like this job was 'meant to be' for you. Hope? Yes, indeed.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Best wishes for your winds of change. Change is good. I didn't ever think I would be able to be a writer, but lo and behold I am. Life sometimes throws you a curve ball. I closed my eyes, swung wildly, and somehow connected!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I like the way you're rolling with life, making opportunity. Wonderful post.