Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Getting Fed

I spent the week straddling the fourth of July visiting my friend Sarah Heller in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the third time I've visited Lexington, and it likely won't be my last.

Heller is a great host in so many ways. Her home is a ship sailing above a garage, all dark, softly lustrous wood and art hanging in every available spot. When a wet, heavy storm passes through, rain slams the roof and the back walnut above drops nuts in time with the thunder. She's funny and kind and nowadays has a funny and kind boyfriend. When I'm there, the laughter and bourbon flows, long slow walks ensue, and there's plenty of exploration at whatever pace we feel up up to for the day. We get along really well.

Additionally, she's the type of person who I most admire and the type I seek out. My closest friends fit this category: insatiably motivated folk who keep trying through challenge and even failure. She's had some real challenges, my friend Sarah, and on this trip I got to hear her speak about some of them at the Kentucky Governer's School for the Arts, a summer program at Centre College for very talented, creative high schoolers. She spoke of her failures, of her transformations, of the ways she's found new ways. The kids were rapt. "Fail, fail, don't be afraid to fail," she told them, for in stretching for what seemed impossible, they'd find their successes.

A Lincoln monument on the Centre College campus.
I've cooked for Heller, she's cooked for me, and we've cooked together. This is important. We've fed each other. How many friends can you say that about? In how many instances is the feeding mutual? One night, she made me and Nick, her boyfriend, ratatouille, and a following night, Nick and I used leftover ratatouille as a sauce for a homemade pizza, jazzed up with diced prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and chile peppers. Another night, we all riffed together on a ridiculously awesome salade ni├žoise accompanied Heller's mothers' broccoli salad, rich with more of that prosciutto subbing in for bacon, a sweet and sour vinaigrette, and Miracle Whip (if you're in the South, you better make sure you call Miracle Whip dressing, not mayonnaise). I made a peach-marzipan tart.

No rolling pin. No problem.
I'm talking about food, but I mean more than food. I came home with a painting by Heller, one that could only come from her brain. And on the multiple flight legs back to California, I read a book: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise of this book makes it sound dark and dismal, but it turned out to be one of the most uplifiting books I've read in a long time. Most of the book takes place after a pandemic that kills most of the world's population, yet a small band of artists persists, the Traveling Symphony, who borrow Star Trek's statement as their motto: "Survival is insufficient."

We must feed and be fed.

My new acquisition from Sarah Heller hanging in my home office.

Linda Dove's Ratatouille
Another friend, the poet Linda Dove, makes the best ratatouille I've ever had. While very different from Sarah Heller, Linda is in her own way an assemblage artist. She constructs her ratatouille like a mosaic, a collection of disparate parts that merge into something so lushly rich it's hard to believe there isn't an animal fat anywhere to be seen. Her poems are like that too, words put together in surprising ways, twisting meaning mid-line, turning into something new. You think you know what you're reading, then all of a sudden, you're reading something new. I hope this ratatouille works the same way on your tongue. Here's how she's told me how to make it—it's a loose recipe, just a list of ingredients that work really, really well together. I've made it following her directions many times now, and I'm never disappointed.

You will need:
Zucchini, thick slices
Eggplant, thick slices
Onion, thick slices
Tomatoes, thick slices
Sweet red peppers, thick slices
Whole cloves of garlic
Fresh basil leaves
Strips of lemon peel (yellow part only) removed from the lemon with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler
Good olive oil
Juice of that lemon or two you massacred above
Salt and pepper

To make the ratatouille:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil a dutch oven and layer the ingredients in the order listed above. "Repeat, repeat, repeat," says Linda. Cook, uncovered, for an hour. Linda serves the ratatouille with hummus (she says, "I like the creamy with the melted veggies, and the overlap of lemon and garlic"), and I like it piled next to really good bread.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though I'm usually the fed rather than the feeder, I'm definitely going to give this a try.