Have you ever stopped doing something you love and couldn’t figure out why? I’m reading food blogs again and it’s a good thing.
I realized I stopped doing this a while back and it was as if I’d just lost interest. I mean how many hours of the day do I have to devote to food, after all! I’m either cooking it, leading my staff in prepping it, prepping it myself, planning it, writing menus, tweeking recipes, discussing it, researching it or eating it. Most days my staff at Harvest watches me wander around, sometime around noon, with a compostable plate in my hand, and a pained look on my face. I’m trying to decide what to eat and though I’m hungry in a physiological way, I have little appetite. I’ve been tasting all morning and my hair smells like sautéed onions. Eventually I fill the plate with odds and ends: a mound of fresh greens and shredded carrots from the salad bar, a seared piece of fish from the grill, some roasted veggies from the daily entree station. I take my plate down to the lower kitchen where the production office is and I sit crouched at a corner of the desk, the fluorescents letting off a low buzz, and eat my lunch facing a wall. Sometimes the other chef I work with sits at the other corner of the desk, staring into the computer screen fixing numbers on the food ordering system so we don’t accidentally get 400 leeks when we only need 40. We may talk, while I eat, or we may not. If we do it’s about work. I don’t really take a full 30-minute break for lunch, like my union contract tells me I should, nor do I take a full 15-minute break at some other time in the day either. We make sure our staff does, (union rules again) and when they do they can be seen sitting in groups of two or more, in a corner of the public dining area, eating and talking and laughing. I wonder what they are saying in Spanish or Mandarin or Czechoslovakian, but I don’t join them. No one wants to spend their break with the boss, even if they like her.
Later, when I get home from work, after an hour and 15 minute commute, I make myself something to eat. Something easy. Another salad with stuff I may have made in a big batch over the weekend: baked herby chicken breasts, roasted sweet potatoes, marinated beets or artichokes. Or I’ll heat up a container of a soup or one-pot wonder I make in a large batch and put up a dozen containers of in the freezer. I sit on the couch with my old dog, Phoebe, whose been alone all day except for a visit from the dog walker. I turn on the TV. I eat. On my left I keep a bag of unsalted corn tortillas. I occasionally toss one to the dog so she will quit whining the whole time I’m trying to eat. This routine made me think that I’d gotten her trained to stop begging and whimpering while I eat, so I can focus on the latest dvr’d episode of my favorite shows, but the truth is she has trained me to feed her a constant stream of chips by whining me within an inch of my last nerve every night for the past year.
For some reason, a few nights ago, instead of parking myself in front of the TV with the chip monster, I sat at the kitchen table, put my food in front of me on a nice place mat, propped open my laptop and looked at my emails. Not the most inspiring way to spend a meal, I realize, but hey, I never said I was a model of mindfulness. Anyway, I noticed an update from a blog I subscribe to, one I’ve been deleting without reading for months. I opened the email and clicked through the the site. Elissa Altman writes beautifully at poormansfeast.com. I’ve enjoyed her writing for a few years, and so have the folks at the James Beard foundation because they awarded her “Best Individual Food Blog” in 2012. Her blog is not about recipes, per se, though she may include one in any given post, or in her book. She writes about food in the kind of personal way that I admire and aspire to do and somehow links her personal stories to larger issues that we as a society, culture or world face (or don’t want to face.) As I read this latest post of hers (not-so-coincidently on the subject of eating alone) I wondered why I hadn’t read her or any of my other favorites that get delivered to my inbox with regularity in the last year. I was deleting them unread to clear them out of my sightline as quickly as possible. Was I really that busy or sick and tired of the subject of food?
If I was going to be honest with myself, it was more like these bloggers with their awards and millions of visitors and book deals were pissing me off. Their success was bugging the shit out of me. I wasn’t writing and they were. They were expressing their voices and their visions and maybe I’d given up on mine, singing the sad song of the work-a-day grind that left me exhausted and the even sadder song of “who-cares-what-I-have-to-say blues.” Their consistency showed up in my inbox to mock and torment me. I didn’t want to read because I didn’t want to write. I had my excuses…the divorce, the full-time job, adjusting to the changes in my life over the passed two years…but each post from these dedicated writers made my excuses feel like a lot of blah, blah, blah. Yea, people tell me, you’ve been through a lot, Rachel. Give yourself a break. Well, I have given myself a break. I gave up on the blog. I gave up on my business and my vision and took a full-time job for less money than I’m worth for the steady paycheck and the “benefits.” Admitting this was about as comfortable as having a Heimlich-worthy piece of steak stuck in my throat with no one around to give me that life-saving hug.
Then as I read on, I scrolled down to see that Elissa’s new post contained a video of her TED talk and I just knew I was going to have to read the whole post and watch the video. And I realized I wasn’t pissed anymore. I just admired the hell out of her. Good for her! I thought. She’s got something to say and she’s saying it and she figured out a way to find her audience. She’s going about her life and work fearlessly, or judging by her nervousness as she spoke, despite her fears. Once I was free to be proud of her efforts and to celebrate her accomplishment (a TED talk!), I felt something stirring in me that I hadn’t felt in a while, instead of the life-sapping emotion of jealousy. I had to work at figuring out what it was, after I ruled out indigestion, anxiety, and temporary insanity. It was my own creative juices trying to break through the veil of inertia I’d surrounded myself with in the past year. It was my own voice clearing it’s throat and bringing up a doozie of a loogie so it could say, “HELLO! We are down here being totally neglected!” I heard my inner voices scream in that way that inner voices scream by creating a burning ball of pain in your chest or a rock of a knot in your neck, or a bag of butterflies with teeth in your stomach.
I know what I have to do. And I say this with a long, deep sigh attached to it. I sometimes want life to be like Balsamic Roasted Tomatoes, a simple recipe: 4-5 beautiful ingredients that come together quickly with a moderate amount of prep, a little heat and very little clean up.
BUT NO. It’s more like a TurDuckIn: a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma, wrapped inside a hernia. It has to be Recipe-For-Reinvention Hell once again for Chef Rachel! I know I’ll have to wake up from my little dream of security and benefits and punching a clock and doing what a lot of people would agree is the sane way to spend the next 10 years of my life so that my old age can be “secure”. (Did I mention I just had double pneumonia and bronchitis for nearly and month and thought I was about to cash in my unsalted chips right now, never mind 10 years from now? So how secure is secure anyway?) I just may have to wake up and live my life and listen to my voices, and live out loud and let my juices flow. What is that going to look like? What would it look like for you?
Stay tuned my friends, stay tuned.
Hint: I’m writing this on a layover at Zurich Airport on my way to the Amalfi Coast for 11 days where I’m leading a group culinary tour!