I recently asked a group of friends to help me pin down a secular, psychological, or philosophical equivalent to the term `grace’ as it is sometimes used in a religious context, describing the experience in which a person feels that God is smiling upon them or their actions, or that their actions are in alignment with God’s good will.
At this point in my life, I’m more atheist than religious, and when I asked my friends for their thoughts, it was not because I was experiencing grace at that moment (though I have enjoyed, keenly, a phenomena akin to grace numerous times over the last forty years) but just the opposite. For several months I’d been feeling as if anything that could go wrong would go wrong, and I frequently felt cranky, depressed and sluggish as I worked hour after hour in the kitchen, and it seemed that I could no longer count on the sense of quiet contentment in my labor that I was generally accustomed to. Those of you who follow my adventures know that it has been a rough year, but I wanted a bit of the bliss back, thank-you-very-much.
My friends helped me come up with some good examples of a secular grace: fortuitousness (or fortuity), serendipity, golden coincidence, and Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. I think this last idea of flow came closest to what I was searching for: a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in a given activity, with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and and a sense of success in the process of the activity.
Over the last several months I was experiencing an acute lack of flow in my life, particularly when I was engaging in what were generally my most rewarding and sustaining activities of cooking, brining, curing, grinding, smoking, and roasting.
It was during the final Charcutepalooza challege that I was given the opportunity to figure out what has been missing, and what I might do about it.
We were asked to create a menu or a platter or a dish, and we were further challenged to transform it into a celebration. On the day I learned of this challenge, I was a hot red mess; I somehow missed the initial announcement and only stumbled over it by chance. Nine days after it was posted. Nine! Whole! Days!
Not only that, but there was a twist in the final challenge that made my forehead go clammy: the deadline was December 6th instead of the 15th. I instantly pulled an ostrich and slammed my mind’s door shut, made tea & popcorn, and settled in for an all-day alternating marathon of The News Quiz and Lost Girl. That’s what I do when I freak out, I pull my feather puff up so I’m real cozy, and I avoid & deny, deny & avoid. I find this tactic is actually quite helpful, and lets me calm down enough to think a bit more clearly and coolly.
Once I did settle down, it didn’t take long for me to decide how and who I wished to celebrate. Paul is my oldest friend; when I studied philosophy at Bennington, he was the music librarian, and I got lucky enough to work for and with him, and we became friends pretty much instantly. We’re both nuts about language, obscure humor, bawdy jokes and smart puns; we both love travel, we both love to eat really good and often foreign food; and we are both extremely fond of playing scrabble.
One vivid and cherished memory is a bright and lazy day spent in Frank Baker’s pink house, playing game after game of good scrabble with our friend Christopher. Between moves, Paul taught me how to roast a chicken properly, and the sweet happy memory of that perfect day resurfaces, even if only for a moment, always prompting a smile, each and every time I’ve roasted a chicken in the intervening twenty-five years. A moveable feast, if ever I’ve known one.
Paul and I spoke on the phone, compared calendars, and settled on a date: Monday the 5th of December, one day before the deadline. Of course I was a bit nervous to once again be flirting with a deadline, but if this year of Charcutepalooza has taught me anything, it has taught me that I perform well in tight temporal spaces.
Still, I experienced several times during the next busy days where I completely lost the plot, my confidence just crumbled, and I’d have a microburst of hot tears. But each time, I’d go back to this idea of keeping on keeping on, working steadily even though the work wasn’t giving back that sense of flow. Because during this stormy year, I’ve done that, I’ve kept on, and it has worked. Out of what felt like a barren and fruitless process came beautiful sausages, splendid pies, and the real prize: tasty meals shared with friends and family. And as I look back at the many meals over this last year, honestly, I only have a vague recollection of the grim bits. What I really remember are the meals: the tastes, the amazement and appreciation of my friends, and always a lot of laughter.
I was up at five o’clock Monday morning; I had made a batch of long-fermenting bread dough which needed to be shaped and baked. While the bread came up to room temperature, I showered, dressed, and began packing Paul’s feast into a large crate.
In the crate was the following:
1 saucisse sèche
1 saucisse sèche aux noisettes
1 noix de jambon
sliced smoked magret duck breast
6 pork & liver gayettes avec truffe
3 Savory Duck Savory Ducks
1 paté de campagne avec pistache
1 pork rillettes
1 duck rillettes
hot pickled maple jellies
prunes in armagnac
13 baby red carrots
1 beautiful round pain d’epi
1 box of good crackers
1 large bowl dandelion & other bright salad greens
humbolt fog & a fancy Vermont creamy cheese
1 small bowl roasted garlic paste
1 bottle calvados
a large pot containing my own Vermont cassoulet
Over the last months, weeks, and days, I had grown and/or made everything in the crate except for the crackers, the greens, the cheese, and the Calvados.
The saucisses and noix de jambons I’ve posted about. The coppa and smoked duck are both amazing and deserve to show up in their own posts, soon, along with Gertrude, the amazing 1964 commercial Globe meat slicer that I acquired this summer and which is thrilling to use.
The dried beans for the cassoulet were all grown on my genius bean-trellis this summer, and I pulled the little red and yellow carrots for our salad out of my raised bed garden as I made my way out of town.
The venison sausages were made and smoked last week (thank you Larry!) and will also appear in a future post, where you can see my riotous cobbled-together smoker. I also confit’d good Vermont chicken legs in a generous amount of duck fat (thanks Deanne!) for the cassoulet.
The prunes I made months ago, so by now they’re beautifully boozy bombs which will heal whatever ails you and make you glow and possibly make your hair grow curlier.
I left home not long after nine o’clock, and the drive over the mountains was pleasant and uneventful, except the part where I got pulled over for speeding. What can I say, I was keen to get there already!
When I arrived, it was a comfortable jumble of hugs and unpacking and bumping up steps and setting up to plate all the treats for our lunch. All of us –Paul, his incomparably lovely and loving wife Jennifer, her visiting-from-afar sister Sidni, and Jennifer’s two wildly handsome and clever sons, Maxx and Cameron– sat around the living room sipping little snifters of Calvados while I unpacked, sliced, described and plated all the pretty meat. They were a curious and wonderfully appreciative crowd, and as I fed them each little samples, and answered their questions about what this bit was spiced with or how long this bit had hung, oh, I was buzzing with pride and joy.
Jennifer found all her prettiest plates and platters and bowls, and even brought out the fancy silver. As I worked on making the platters in the living room, she made the table in the dining room, and as each plate was finished, she would bring it into the dining room. There was one particularly thrilling moment when she announced that she had to put the leaf into the table because running out of table space. I’d brought so much charcuterie that we needed the table enlarged to fit it all!
When we sat down to lunch, I was amazed and filled with such warm happiness that I could share all this beautiful food with my friends, and especially with Paul. He is the brightest, the most daring, the most elegant, and the most generous cook I’ve ever known. Through the years our friendship has been sustained by visits which almost always had some good meal as its centerpiece; by phone calls where we have intense, passionate discussions about ingredients, where I could interrogate him about the sausage & clams he had made, and where he would gleefully recount exactly how he had roasted the turkey which had sadly met its demise against Paul’s station wagon’s fender. Yep, it is because of Paul that I can rustle up a bowlful of delicious from a bit of fresh roadkill.
The savory ducks were especially delicious with the spicy pickled maple jellies that I made. Sweet, tart, and a perfect wobbly foil to the rich duck. These were inspired by some gorgeous maple jellies made by Alex Rushmer.
Hot Pickled Maple Jellies
1/3 cup of the darkest maple syrup you can find (grade b, dark amber)
1 star anise
1 inch cinnamon stick
1 very hot dried chili
3 allspice berries
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon gelatin powder
scant 1/4 cup cold water
In a small heavy pot, add the maple syrup, star anise, cinnamon, dried chili, allspice berries, and apple cider vinegar. Bring to a lively simmer and take off the heat, allowing the spices to infuse for 20 minutes or so.
In the meantime, sprinkle the gelatine onto the water and let it bloom thoroughly. Fish the spices out of the warm syrup and add the softened gelatin, mixing well. Pour into a small smooth rectangular dish and let jelly stiffen in the ‘fridge. Slice into pretty shapes and serve atop slices of savory duck, or duck rillettes, or roast duck, etc.
Paul really liked the duck rilletes.
Maxx and Cameron were entertaining tablemates, making me giggle a lot.
The gayettes de campagne are essentially a crepinette or faggot made from some of the pâté de campagne forcemeat minus the pistachios.
Everyone thought they went especially well with the Armagnac-soaked prunes.
Cam painstakingly chose a little of everything to taste, and we imagined what a good lunch box his plate of food would make.
One of our favorite bites was a bit of baguette with a shmear of Humbolt Fog cheese and somewhat smaller shmear of roasted garlic paste. I learned this from my friend Chris, who in turn learned it from Tracey (both of Bulky Love fame).
At last we pulled back from table, loosened our belts, and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, talking, and sipping root beer. Paul and I played an excellent game of scrabble, and I beat his PANTS off.
Maxx diverted us with his amazing t-shirt collection. The one he is wearing here says “Stop Clubbing Baby Seals.” I think there should be a comma after “clubbing,” but I’m known to be pedantic.
Cameron brought Scrummy the snake out to play, and we all petted and admired her. Him? Oh right, him. Two penises. I remember now.
And finally, we ate a comfortably late dinner of cassoulet, which had been bubbling away most of the afternoon (the house smelled super cozy), with a salad of bright and bitter greens, and sopped up the sauce with bread torn from the round pain d’epi. It was all very good.
The grace, the flow, the bliss that I had been missing during these last months, I think they were away temporarily because I was super stressed and especially because I was fairly isolated. As my friends and I sat around the table enjoying our meal, laughing, sometimes thoughtful, I had the insight that what we were doing at the table, over the scrabble board, and as we ate dinner was the work of friendship. There is the difficult work of being there when a friend is having rough times, of supporting them through loss and sadness, and there is the happy work of spending time, eating, arguing, playing. I think I lost sight of that for a long while, and I intend to make more time for my beloved friends in the future. And sausages will undoubtedly be involved.
Thanks to Cathy & Kim and the amazing sponsors for Charcutepalooza. Thanks to all my fellow ‘paloozies for being so brilliant and generous, and especially to Janis & Rich for being so funny, loving, and down to earth. Thanks to Kate, Annie, Neal & his family, and the amazing Monsieur Chapolard for the extraordinarily inspiring Cochon workshop. Thanks to mom & Carl for saving my ass any number of times, and for tasting all the odd bits with gusto. Thanks also to my dear friends who never failed to taste & heap praise on whatever I brought them, especially Jenn, Mandy, Dotty, and Walter. Thank you Mary, Cecelia, elegant warm Emily, Laoshi, and Laoshi Deb for your caring & friendship throughout this year. Thank you, Bulky Love crew, for everything. Thank you Chet, Nicholas, and Cole for being such generous butchery & meat cutting teachers. Thanks to those of you who have helped me move, and move again, and yet again. One more time and I swear I’m done moving until I get my dream house. Lastly, thank you Paul for sharing this feast, and all the feasts. I love you so much. Thank you Jennifer for your loving heart and for setting that beautiful table. And Maxx & Cam for sparking my frisky bits and making me grin & grin.