There were three places food took center stage in my life.
- In Bodil’s Kitchen
- Joyce’s House
- At an Ashram in Upstate New York
These people and places taught me how to bring food preparation from mundane to magical. Bodil and Joyce were my mother’s best friends, one Danish, one Jewish, both outstanding chefs.
Dinner at Bodil’s included candles, underfoot dachshunds and Christmas trees alight with flame, fireplaces roasting chestnuts or popping corn, fondue simmering and potatoes spiraling around in a pan of brown sugar until the crusts carmelized. She owned a restaurant called The Plush Fox and I remember the sign couldn’t be red because it would distract drivers on the freeway. They served mini ice cream cones for dessert from trays that looked like painter’s pallets with holes. Seeing her joy in the kitchen and her love of food and flavor and presentation inspired me.
Joyce’s house swirled with salt and spatulas, licked fingers and meals consumed so quickly I had yet to place my napkin on my lap and the dessert course fell upon us. Thanksgivings were joint adventures with Joyce: we, her minions, chopped and washed and stirred and tasted and prepared a feast for 20 plus people. She had three file cabinets of recipes cut from magazines and a cabinet of cookbooks. Before she died, she and her daughter, Jill (my best friend since preschool), collaborated on The American Cookbook for a Swedish audience titled, Den amerikanska kokboken (Jill and her photographer husband lived in Malmo for a year).
One dish, the Pineapple Upside Down Cake, rested on my great grandmother’s Mimi’s Blue Danube platter for the photo. I looked through Patrik’s lense to see what looked like a graph paper grid superimposed over an upside down, Pineapple Upside Down Cake. As he nudged the composition to the left and to the right, I learned to appreciate the talents and tricks of food photography. Another photo would be a brownie, a la mode. Joyce came dashing out with another beautifully warmed hot fudge sauce to top the ice cream, but it melted away too quickly. The remedy was a squeeze of Magic Shell, appearing like marvelous fudge in the photo, while the recipe stayed true. When Joyce died, the greatest irony was that she was unable to eat. After a lifetime love affair with food, she left hungry. We still hunger for her.
Food satisfies both physical and emotional needs. Joyce is still alive in the pot roast her son, Gregory loved and his fiance learned how to make. The book and movie, Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel clearly links a master chef’s thoughts, and intention infusing food with more than taste. At the Ashram in upstate New York (think Indian monastery in the snow), I learned to be present with an ephemeral art form that nourishes body and soul. It was the first time I tasted vegetarian food and loved it. It was the first time I had cookie dusted with gold as prasad. It was the first time I learned my capacity for calm in a frenetic kitchen. It was the first time I learned about spice magic.