June 23, 2010

The Essence of Ed

The book, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, opens with such a poetic passage:

What is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends?”

A few weeks ago I took the kids to visit their grandmother and Ed on the Alsea River.

For as long as I’ve known my children’s grandmother, their father’s mother, she has opened her home and heart to family and friends, enticing them to stay with delicious food. She was an angel, descending from Costco, filling our house with soups and roasted turkey, homemade elephant ears and nourishment when I came home from a long hospital stay after Emma was born. When she is worried or wanting to show her concern for family, she cooks. Making food from scratch and sharing it is her absolute favorite thing to do, and over the years she’s played the motherly-hostess at countless picnics, barbeques, birthday parties and celebrations. Her love for family goes into everything she makes.
Grandpa Ed is the exact same way. When you first meet him, based on his demeanor, you might mistake him to be a slightly grizzled curmudgeon. Retired from the Forestry Service, Ed at first is a bit quiet, aloof, and if you didn’t know better, shy. He grows blueberries on the property, teaches his grandchildren to fish, and wears western style shirts and suspenders like nobody’s business.

But Ed is much more than that. He, like Marilyn, dotes on family and adores his grandchildren and his ancient dog Ty, (both of whom hover around his legs in the kitchen for treats while he cooks) And he shows that love through his cooking.

Over Memorial Day weekend, we relaxed in their cabin on the river. The kids fished from the little dock, we went for long walks down winding gravel roads and played cards and dominos at the kitchen table when it rained. Always, in the background, was the comforting smell of delicious homemade food. We woke up every morning to the scent of Ed’s famous sourdough blueberry pancakes and bacon. Marilyn baked bread and made cinnamon rolls to serve with dinner, and around 4:00, the deep, smoky scent of savory marinated steaks roasting on the barbeque on the deck tempted us to stay forever.

Bikram, one of the chef’s at Oregon Culinary Institute, once told me about a woman in his class was cutting a potato. She was so intent, gripping the knife tightly, her mouth in a hard line, and she sawed at it violently. He’d stopped her, laid his hand gently over hers and asked her what was wrong. Her shoulders let go their tense elevated position and she immediately burst into tears. He said she’d told him she was angry, she’d had a bad day, nothing was going right. “Be calm.” Bikram advised. “Take a breath. Relax. Do not let your anger come into your food. It will make it bitter.”

Chef is from Nepal, descended from a long line of Ayurvedic Physicians, and although his passion is not medicine but food, he understands the link between food and health. He understands and teaches his students about the deep, almost medicinal connection between cooking and the soul. He’s the one who’s taught me about how much better food tastes and how much more nourishing, even spiritually, food can be when it’s made with “a content heart”. He reminds students that some of who they are, how they are feeling, the essence of the chef, is like spice. It seeps in, like flavor, to what you cook. I believe it. However few ingredients or rustic the dish, if it’s made by people who care or who love you, it tastes better than the most expensive or exotic meal.

Ed’s blueberry pancakes, his secret barbeque sauce,  and Marilyn’s chicken soup, dinner rolls and chocolate whipped cream Worm Cake, (she makes for my children every year for their birthdays) tastes like family and home.

After all, the very essence of good food is love.

Grandma Marilyn’s Worm Cake

2 packages Famous chocolate cookie wafers
1 pint whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
½- 1 tbs superfine sugar (depending on your preferred level of sweetness)

This is the simplest and most delicious cake. Marilyn makes it for each of my children ever year for their birthday and it’s so easy, kids can make it themselves as a fun summer project.

Whip the cream, adding a bit of sugar and vanilla as becomes thick and fluffy. Frost each individual chocolate wafer and stack together, end to end. When the “worm” is complete, frost with remaining whipped cream and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Decorate with tinted coconut flakes and candies if desired.

*And PS my darlings-- an absolutely fabulous book and movie that links human emotion to cooking is Like Water for Chocolate. Another, not as highbrow but every bit as delicious, is Simply Irresistible. My daughters and I have watched this movie together many times… it’s a lovely kitchen love story.

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