6.22.2012

Bringing it to the table

Hi, friends. 

It’s been busy around here in the best possible ways, but I’ve been missing you guys, and I wanted to stop by. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I drove up to Portsmouth with friends.  We ate dinner at Evan Mallett’s restaurant, Black Trumpet, and I’ve been thinking about that meal all week.  I met Evan back in December at Pecha Kucha night, where we were both presenters.  The house was packed, and I was nervous, and the thing that I felt inching its way up into my esophagus was most definitely my stomach, but Evan was up before me, and when he started talking, I forgot about all that.  He spoke about his life in food:  the people and places and the winding path that led him to cook what he cooks in the way that he does.  For a few minutes, I wasn’t nervous, just hungry. 

There’s a lot that I could say about the meal that Evan cooked for us on Tuesday night, about the velvet yolk of the duck egg and the semolina dumplings I dragged through it, the pickled papaya, and the house-made mustard I licked from my knife.  But I read an essay by Wendell Berry this morning over breakfast, and I’d like to share a few lines from it, instead. 

We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else.  But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else.  The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition.  One reason to eat responsibly is to live free. 

Wendell Berry wrote these words in 1989, in an essay called The Pleasures of Eating.  He’s talking here about a politics of the plate, a decade, at least, before it was trendy or commonplace to do so.  The subject of the essay is eating responsibly, what it means, how to do it, and why.  It’s about cultivating an awareness of farming and agriculture, and guarding for ourselves the task of thinking about what we put into our bodies, instead of letting an industry decide for us.  Responsibility, though, is just one piece of it.  The Pleasures of Eating is the title of the essay and its true subject:  pleasures heightened by our own involvement in the acts of producing, of creating.  Wendell Berry is referring to food production writ large, farm to table, seed to supper, urging us to participate however we can, but – it seems to me – he means not only that.  When we set our tables and pull up chairs, when we drop dough onto parchment, words onto the page, whenever we make something according to our talents and tastes and launch it into the world, we get a bite of that pleasure, I think.  To be free is to generate and to build, to make something delicious, and gobble it up.  “Eating with the fullest pleasure … is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world,” Berry says.  From what I know of Evan’s work inside and outside of the kitchen – with food, with farmers, with people of all ages who eat and who cook – it matches up with all of this.   


After dinner, my friends and I went to hear Joan Didion talk about her newest book, Blue Nights.  Toward the end of the evening, she answered questions from the audience, and someone asked about how she spends her days.  I scribbled down her response on the back of my ticket stub:  “Today, I spent my day on the train.  That was useful, in that I got here.”  That was an important thing for me to hear.  I’m going to try to remember it.

Happy weekend, all.  Back soon, with rhubarb. 

p.s. -- I've titled this post after the book in which The Pleasures of Eating appears.

18 comments:

Steph said...

I ate that mustard with my fork. And I'd do it again.

This post has too many favorite things in one place: Wendell Berry, Evan, a memorable night in Portsmouth, mustard, you and the pleasures of eating & sharing, whether that's food or life.

Here's to the next chapter of gobbling it up, my friend. xo

Rebecca D. Martin said...

Wonderful. And now I'm inspired to read more Wendell Berry. He's so good, dead-on.

Katie Baxter said...

So nice to open up my reader, and see your words in it! Damn you can write, Jess. So good. And I can't wait for rhubarb!

Sara said...

So, so exciting that you saw Joan Didion, were in the same room as her! What a great thing.

Jess said...

Steph - Cheers to that!

Rebecca - I've been reading a lot of him lately. Such good stuff.

Katie - Thanks, friend! You're very kind. (And yes, I think you are going to like this rhubarb.)

Sara - It was very special. She began the evening by reading from the opening pages of Blue Nights, and I loved hearing her words in her own voice.

Hannah said...

Jess I love this post so much! I don't usually comment much, but Bringing It to the Table is a wonderful read - and this is one of my favorite essays in it. I especially love that so many of his essays come from 30+ years of work - a good reminder that while food politics can feel timely and sometimes even trendy, it has been the work of a lifetime for some people. Another great line that I often hear echoing in my head when I'm at the Farmer's Market: "Eating is an agriculture act." I love reading about sustainability from the farmer's side of the table, not just the foodies.

And Joan! I have heard her read and speak three times, and each time left thoughtful and energized all at once. Your take away on the train ticket is a great one.

And you've wrapped it all up so beautifully together with the amazing sounding dinner. Great post :)

Hannah said...

p.s. in case your readers want to read it - his essay is actually online at the center for ecoliteracy: http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/pleasures-eating

Jess said...

Hi, Hannah. I'm so glad you spoke up! What you say about reading Wendell Berry today -- exactly. You put it beautifully. Have you read Michael Pollan's introduction to the collection? He shares a similar sentiment, and quite humbly, I might add:

"But to read the essays in this sparkling anthology, many of them dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, is to realize just how little of what we are saying and hearing today Wendell Berry hasn't already said, bracingly, before.

And in that "we" I most definitely, and somewhat abashedly, include myself. I challenge you to find an idea or insight in my own recent writings on food and farming that isn't prefigured (to put it charitably) in Berry's essays on agriculture..."

Thank you for the link to the essay, and also for continuing the conversation so thoughtfully on your own blog this morning. (Psssss, friends, over here.)

kelsey said...

The wisdom of Wendell Berry and Joan Didion in the same post? My heart beats to this.

Anna said...

I wholeheartedly believe in the importance and pleasure of creating food and lots of other things by hand, making instead of buying and sharing what I make as a way to connect with others. Thanks for the inspiration from your thoughts on pleasure, freedom and food.

Jess said...

Hi, Kelsey. Been thinking of you two and your new adventures out there... xo.

Thanks for your note, Anna. "... and lots of other things by hand" -- that's so inspiring to me. I'm not much use beyond the kitchen!

shari said...

what a delicious meal that was! it was wonderful finally meeting you, jess. i hope we can share another meal soon. xo

Jess said...

Me too, Shari. I can hardly believe it was just last week. (E-mail forthcoming...)

alanachernila said...

Oh, I love this conversation. I can't help but feel that we're sitting at the table, talking, and right that's just a happy sigh from me you hear. xo

Jess said...

Alana - I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an actual table and an actual you sometime soon. xo.

Sara said...

I love that quote of Joan Didion's. I'll have to remember it.. to paraphrase: i love what ever- because it brought me here..isn't that the truth!

Sara said...

oh, and oh my gosh- house made mustard.. I want to make my own! I wish I knew how to give it a fine grind!

Jess said...

Hi, Sara. The mustard that night was actually quite grainy, and I loved it that way. I want to give mustard a try in my own kitchen, too. I think I'll start with the recipe in Alana Chernila's book, The Homemade Pantry.