Friday, May 18, 2012

The Simple Life

FOR JUDITH

Just some perfect olives, vivid green and
almost buttery.
Whenever my parents and I are in the same place, my mom will ask me to make a salad because mine always taste the best, she says. It's so gratifying to watch them enjoy something so thoroughly, and (always) marvel over the deliciousness of the dressing; I don't think my mom ever quite believes that it's usually just olive oil and vinegar/lemon juice/orange juice with salt and pepper (occasionally mustard) thrown in -- not really a dressing at all. My parents make their salad dressing the way they make curries (or, in fact, most things): they put in pinches and dashes and splashes and glugs of this and that and the other. The result always tastes very good, but is a study in intricacy, involution even. Of course, it is occasionally the case that the situation is reversed: I remember looking at my father with intense distrust when we went to the market in Paris so he could buy ingredients for soup, and all he picked up was one leek and one large potato. When it came time to prepare the meal, I would have hovered over him in the kitchen had the kitchen been large enough, but instead I sat in the living room shouting annoying queries as he calmly cooked: "Are you sure you don't want chicken broth? Should I get some carrots? There are vegetables in the fridge! Maybe some mussels?" And yet the soup -- practically just water -- ended up being one of the best I've ever eaten. (I still don't know how he managed that.)


While I am absolutely in the "less is more" camp when it comes to cooking -- in part because while I have reasonable skills as a home cook, I have not the ability nor the patience nor the desire to emulate the food I (only rarely) eat at fine restaurants -- I have recently become aware that I distrust simplicity in other parts of my life. A simple roast chicken, or a salad of greens alone with a hunk of bread and a chunk of cheese, or steamed asparagus with salt -- they're fine to eat, but their counterparts (if you can take that metaphorical leap) in the realm of love, work, friendship, and ideas do not satisfy my other appetites. I distrust easy. I have assumed that the main feature of reaching adulthood is a recognition that life is hard: marriage is hard work, parenting is the most difficult and rewarding thing that one can do, no pain no gain, hard work is it's own reward, etc. etc. etc. I have conditioned myself to feel the reward that comes at the end of a struggle, to savor that feeling of having overcome, and even to search out challenges to prove myself. These are the things that lead to satisfaction. These are the things that lead to a feeling of self-worth. The hard things. Life, like grapes turned into wine, tastes better when grown in rocky, meager soil.

Certainly this overvaluation of the difficult played a big role in chosing my career. I became an academic because of the ways it didn't fit my personality -- I'm not a perfectionist, I am broader in my interests than deep, I have trouble putting ideas into academic language, I am not good at adhering to the protocols (often unwritten) of this or any world, I am uncomfortable with authority. The perfectly imperfect fit for me. This would be a challenge! I would remake my professional world to fit me! I would carve out a space for doing it differently! And I did, a little. I made a place for myself, I pushed my square self into the round hole of my profession. But with great effort, and at great expense. Why did I do that, you may ask, other than a deep sense of the perverse? Because the alternative -- the other thing I wanted to do, which was write -- seemed too easy, and because of that seemed unimaginable as a career. Those other kind of words come out, and with pleasure. Whether or not I would have been good at either of these things never entered my mind at all; in fact, the job I have had most talent for in my life and that I should probably have pursued solely on the basis of ability is waitressing. And, for better or worse, that was never going to happen.

But I didn't trust my desire to write, because writing is simple. Not easy, but simple. Calm. Uncluttered. Stimulating but not fraught. Pleasurable. Something that seemed to suit me, and my broad interests and my willingness to experiment and make mistakes (even in public) and my desire to create my professional world from scratch.

Needless to say, I do this in other parts of my life, too, the mistrusting. Mostly in relation to romance, where I often brush off the person standing right in front of me for the impossibly out-of-reach fantasy. Nothing worse than a woman who is addicted to perplexing love, at the expense of the straightforward affection of someone who adores her. But enough about that.

However, she says, rereading the words on the screen that was blank only moments ago, wondering why it took her so long to figure it out: I think I've been doing it wrong. Life should be simple. This will be my new mantra. Love should be simple: love people who love me back and who give me what I need; don't love people who don't. Happiness should be simple: walk towards those things that make me calm and fulfilled and away from those things that don't. My child -- my relationship to her -- should be simple: I love her, she loves me, everything else flows from that. My politics should be simple: stand up for what I believe, don't protest what I don't want but create what I do want, make the world in my image of how it should be. I will spare you the list of events in my life that demonstrate how often I have broken these rules. It makes me feel slightly better knowing that I've transgressed because I (falsely) believed it would make me a more fulfilled, and better, person by doing it the hard way.

There is no moral high ground occupied by the difficult; on the contrary, sometimes I think we embrace the difficult in order to avoid living life as it should be, or perhaps to avoid living life at all. Which doesn't mean that I should take the easy road, shy away from difficulties, start to speak in one-syllable words, avoid the complexities that have the potential to lead to the simple, devolve into a frictionless existence. But it means that I need to stop distrusting those things that allow me to breathe unlabored. I need to step away from the complicated, the overwrought, the tangled. I want to be untangled, like the fall of long, dark hair down my back. Uncomplicated, like a few leaves and drops of olive oil on a plate. Uncluttered as a clean page in a notebook. Unfootnoted. Appendixless. Without caveat.

I want life to have a very few, perfect ingredients: my kid's goofy belly laugh, the touch of skin, silence, light. Salt, oil, lemon, sun, earth. Really you can satisfy all desires with those things.

Simple Roast Chicken

Take a chicken -- the best you can afford. Season the cavity with a big pinch of salt and pepper, and stuff it with 1/2 a lemon, 1/2 an onion, and the fresh herbs of your choice (thyme, rosemary, parsley, for example). Tie up the feet and tuck the wingtips behind its back so it looks like a plump man sunning himself on the beach. Brush the skin all over with melted butter, and season well with salt and pepper. Place on a rack set on a large baking tray. Roast at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350 degrees and cook until done, perhaps another 45 minutes. Voilà.

Simple Salad, with Whatever You Have Around

Wash some greens (mesclun, butter lettuce, green or red leaf lettuce, arugula, mizuna, or any combination). Add something crunchy (toasted walnuts, toasted any kind of nut, small croutons). Add something else (slivered red onion or shallot, shavings of parmesan, sections of orange, dried cranberries, shavings of carrot, impossibly thin slices of radish). Alternatively, don't add anything at all. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt and toss with olive oil until the leaves are well-coated. Add about 1/3 as much vinegar (red or white wine, or sherry) or lemon juice. Toss again.

Vichyssoise

Sauté 2 c sliced leeks (washed and drained; white and pale green parts only) in 1 TB butter till soft. Add 2 c potatoes (Yukon gold are best, peeled and diced). Add a good pinch of salt and 3 c chicken broth or water. Cook at a lively simmer till potates are very soft. Puree, using an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. Put back on heat and add 1/4-1/3 c heavy cream. After the soup comes to a simmer, remove from heat and taste for salt. Chill, and serve garnished with minced chives.


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