Friday, September 28, 2012

Much Ado About Dining


A few days ago that lovely cartoon started showing up all over Facebook. As a person who is just as tired as the next person of social media’s role in the massively inflated expression of people’s most inane moments and trivial thoughts, I couldn’t help but laugh. As a person who edits an online political magazine, I could relate to the sadness in the idea that there are probably mass majorities of our human population who would rather watch Food Network than stick their noses into a newspaper’s global political section for longer than a headline glimpsing second. As a food blogger, it made me feel a bit defensive and led me to explore the reasons I like to share my food experiences with those of you who like to read about them.

I turned into an official foodie while in Italy with my daughter in 2005. I was amazed to see the families (even with small children) who would dine at outdoor restaurants in the streets for hours until midnight, kids falling asleep on their chairs, and parents on their second bottle of wine, three amazing dishes of food later, with laughter ringing throughout the air. Nobody was rushing home to do homework, or get to sleep so they could get up at six to run to their cubicle in the rat race. No, they were enjoying life and each other’s company over great food. I came back changed and started to make food an elemental part of my overall life in many ways: the cooking of it using only fresh ingredients, the discovery and eating of it at restaurants all over the culinary map; and the enjoyment of food as a way to bring friends and loved ones together in otherwise busy lives.

Today, for me, dinner with the Cute Gardener has become a sort of tuning fork in my life, where I return over and over to find the place that grounds me most. Ritualistic in nature, these moments signify for me, a steady lamppost in an otherwise crazy life. Some people have church, their weekly book club, their date in front of the television set; but my life is held steady by the meals I share with my mate; my one true thing in life to rely on that calms my otherwise turbulent waters.

To further accentuate the metaphor, each dinner date provides an interesting port to dock my ship and escape the ordinary journey for a safe, haven of respite and fortification. The ritual begins by choosing a place. Our most recent outing takes us to Ado, a rustic Italian restaurant that resides upstairs and downstairs in a tiny yellow, seaside bungalow in Venice Beach. We keep a list of places we want to go and check them off when completed. This particular restaurant has been on my list for almost as long as we’ve been dating because it is nearby my house and every time I walk by on my afternoon stroll, I wave to the chefs hanging out the back bottom porch while the kitchen comes to life. They always have a smile for me while they ash a break-time cigarette or lug a barrel of cooking oil up and into the kitchen’s folds.

Sitting down across the table from each other, we always start with a clink of our glasses, eye to eye, in a silent toast. Then the strategizing begins: scouring the menu to find things that we want to eat the most, followed by a sharing of our choices, followed by a plan of how to order them knowing that half of all my items will end up mid-meal on his side of the table as he finishes what I can not. At Ado, it is no different as we choose for starters a Dungeness crab, salmon roe, Valencia orange and wild arugula salad alongside a wafer thin branzino carpaccio platter rolled with a hint of sea urchin and splayed like a translucent flower. Each picking at the dishes until complete, we usually have one kind of wine each and take turns sipping whichever is better for each dish, trading glasses of white back and forth between bites.

When the fast talking Italian waiter brings us our pastas we switch to bolder reds to accompany the starch and the dark meats. This time we eat most of our own plates; his a homemade red beet tagliolini with marsala quail ragu on top of taleggio cheese fondue (of which he will swirl my fork with a hearty sample somewhere in the midst) and mine a ravioli stuffed with beef tenderloin and black kale on tomato sauce and topped with sage brown butter. I take time to savor the rich and tiny squares as he finishes his plate and then promptly send it to his side while the waiter brings us another glass of red to share and tops it off at almost a two glass serving with the rest of the bottle in his hands. People seem to get generous when they see us sharing. Still hungry, I watch him eat a main of wild boar, taking a moment to spear a few bites of the flavorful meat myself. The dim candlelight, tables almost stacked right on top of each other, and the cool breeze coming in from the window that mingles with the hot inside air all combine with our casual chatter about our work week, the movies we wish to see, the tastes that are accompanying dinner in a brand new place, the scent of the wine, and the smiles that start to come over us as we relax into the last dessert glass of Moscato. 

For me, writing about food is more than showing the world what I ate for dinner. It’s one of the only things I do in life purely for me, not motivated by vocation, need, or a means to make an income, but simply bred from the joy I find within the act of doing. There are not a lot of things in life that stem from that spirit of pure, unbridled passion; things that we engage in merely for the sense of glee it brings. It’s not heavy, nor light, but somewhere in between in the land of fortifying hobbies and the bridges between our dreams that keep us afloat, lofty-hearted and engaged.

I know there are numerous things to be serious about in life and as an artist and writer by trade I do my fair share of living and breathing within those other poignant realms. What I love about sharing the art of cooking and eating is that it reminds me that I am also old enough to know that balancing both the fluffy fun and the sternly profound is the key to true fulfillment.

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