“Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you.”
– Letters to a Young Poet, Rainier Maria Rilke
The truth is, the beginning is blurry. When I squint back into the depths of my childhood, my thoughts were not long off of food. I would take cookbooks to bed at night, squinting into the flashlight-shadows, long after my sister had demanded I put our shared, bunk-bedded room into darkness. Looking back at the shy, quiet, anxious little person that I was then, I recall only that I felt most at home in the kitchen. I still do.
It began then, I think, with playdough. My mom mixed up homemade playdough. I remember seeing the recipe on a worn index card in her gray metal recipe box, a box that to this day holds her most cherished recipes. There were two recipes in that box that were beyond intriguing to my child-mind: elephant ears and playdough. The first was something that I had never considered could be made outside of a hot, steamy, trailer-kitchen at the county fair. The second was the only non-food recipe that I’ve ever known my mom to have on hand. I must have asked her, and she mixed up a batch for us. I don’t remember much after beyond the whirl of the mixer blades, and the fact that my mom brought me into the kitchen, handed me the measuring cups, and taught me fractions.
From that moment when I learned to turn on the mixer, to scoop flour into the measuring cups, to follow recipe instructions, up to now, nearly 20 years later, I’ve been most at home in any place surrounded by food. It fascinates me in its cultural symbolism, use as a socio-economic tool and weapon, as a draw to family gatherings and entire holiday celebrations, and, most importantly, in its most simple form as basic sustenance for the hunger in all of us.
In those simple childhood days, those most-remembered foods symbolize the dearly loved and oft-hated. My favorites from that gray box included our neighbor’s recipe for honey-cinnamon swirl rolls, my mom’s homemade bread, and leftover-oatmeal cookies with just the right amount of spice. There was my favorite breakfast, dad’s “stinkbug porridge”, which was a simple concoction of raisins and brown sugar. And then the fresh milk from our cow, Betsy, with flakes of cream floating amongst my morning cheerios. I had to plug my nose to get the milk down after staying an extra hour at the table gathering the resolve to drink it. Now looking back, I realize what a precious experience to have been raised in a place where our milk came right from the cow.
In this new year and new beginning of sorts, I am reminded of how I am drawn to food as a means of communication and connection. I am reminded of the beginning, how I learned in the kitchen with my mom and the whirl of the blender blades that are still in her cupboard today. I am reminded that food is special, and that when I go into myself, as Rilke suggests, the only answer I come back with is, yes, I must create.
Though I can no longer enjoy thick slices of my mom’s bread, or partake in flecks of cream floating in the cow’s milk, I hold in my heart and in my cooking a focus on good, simple, nourishing food, in whatever way it can be most enjoyed. I am looking forward to this year to come, and the creations it will bring.
Pomegranate, Kale & Pancetta Spaghetti, serves 3
Pomegranates have been often in our kitchen this winter, more than ever before. This creation happened spontaneously and naturally, out of ingredients we had on hand one evening. It will become a favorite, I’m thinking, in the many wintery days ahead. If you have not used pomegranate molasses, it can be found at a well-stocked grocery store, online, or you can make your own by reducing pomegranate juice in a sauce pan. Don’t leave it out in this dish; it will be missed.
6 oz. brown-rice spaghetti (or any type that you prefer)
4 oz. pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large bunch kale, chopped (I prefer Tuscan but any type will do)
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
1 Tbs. orange zest
seeds from one pomegranate
salt and black pepper, to taste
Cook the spaghetti according to package directions in a large pot.
While pasta is cooking, heat a large sauté pan to medium-high. Add pancetta and cook until almost done. Add the onion and continue to sauté until transculent, about 8 minutes.
When onion is very soft, add kale and cook down until wilted, about 5 minutes.
Drain spaghetti when cooked, and mix it into the kale and onion mixture.
Add salt, orange zest, and pomegranate molasses. Toss the pomegranate seeds on top and stir them in gently. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, and serve.