Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sous Chef Supreme

My phenomenal ex-roommate, Athena, has done me the honor of writing about me and my cooking on her blog. I'd like to return the favor:

I adore food. I'm an unapologetic, make-it-from-scratch, rehash-every-culinary-exploit-in-painful-detail foodie. I wasn’t always sent into raptures by summer’s first eggplant or fresh chevre. I could say that it started with a boy, and there would be truth in it. But let’s not give him all the credit—there was a girl as well.

My warrior goddess former roommate looks an unlikely fighter, smiling coyly from her throne-like wheelchair. But she has fought more battles in her 24 years than a bevy of prizefighters: first to speak and walk through the bodily revolt of cerebral palsy, later to elicit respect in a society that equates physical disability with mental handicap. She wore business suits, she once told me, through four years of high school so as not to be mistaken for an escapee from special ed. Far from it: she’s brilliant—the oxygen deprivation that slowed her speech, unsteadied her gait, and gave her hands a mind of their own did nothing to affect her higher faculties. She’s a writer, an actress, a wit, and an award-winning speaker, but she needed me at meal times, when her slippery-eel hands sent forks careening every which-way but into her mouth. My assistance was my rent, and I quickly realized what a phenomenal deal I had.

I moved in with Athena on the eve of my second semester of graduate school. Having spent my first semester commuting 45 minutes by bike through London fog, my new address, just across Waterloo bridge from campus, was a thrillingly proximate change. Similarly exhilarating was the shift in my finances. I had been living (room, board, transportation, everything) on a little more than £100 a week, what I could scrounge from a job in a bunker-like café in the bowels of campus. Rice and beans featured prominently in my diet, along with leftover café sandwiches, which I froze to keep them from going bad. Well, worse, really; they weren’t particularly good to begin with. Becoming flatmates with Athena eliminated rent from my expenses, allowed me to cut back my hours in front of the Panini grill, and, most importantly, it gave me someone to cook for.

Cooking for one is a depressing endeavor. Without companionship (literally, “one who breaks bread with another“) dining had degenerated into a thrice-daily refueling, hurriedly practiced while checking email or standing over the sink. I ate oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly and an apple each day for lunch. Recipes rarely scale down to a one person serving; baked goods hang around for a dangerously long time. Pasta had become the path of least resistance.

Athena did not ask me to become her personal chef; my commitment was simply to provide three meals per day and to feed them to her. But when she told me that she would try anything I prepared (except salad), I found myself reading cookbooks and food magazines in bed and taking time over our weekly menus as though I would submit them as an addendum to my dissertation. Each evening, as the lights came up on the London Eye and twilight turned the Thames silvery grey, I would move to the kitchen to begin my ministrations. Our kitchen was small and square, but more than spacious enough for the two of us. Athena, back against the wall and legs drawn up to her chest, would sit by the door and keep me company while I puttered between the stove and the oven.

On Friday afternoons, we navigated the uneven sidewalks and narrow alleys of Southwark to Borough Market, my foodie heaven. I fed Athena morsels of baklava and truffle pate, quince paste and Jamaican-spiced cashews. We dipped bread in eight different balsamic vinegars and as many olive oils, then chased it all with burnt butter fudge. Produce I had never before seen entered our diets: spicy parsnips, nourishing kale, and wrinkled celeriac. I learned that coriander and cilantro are actually the same thing, that clotted cream elevates strawberries to celestial heights, and that sometimes, you really do need fish and chips. Our friend Adam worked weekends as a cheesemonger at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and through the seething hordes of hungry shoppers, he offered us suggestions (and slices) of pungent British cheeses. Each week we tasted everything we could, regardless of whether we’d sampled it last week, and Athena laughed that she had blown my cover as an inveterate sampler. Her chair is massive, electric, and able to balance on two wheels, so we didn’t exactly blend. Thus sated, we would make our frugal purchases and turn our footsteps homeward.

Athena is a slow eater, a tiny bite taker, and as the semester progressed I found myself altering my own pace to match hers. We lingered over meals, discussing my classes or her work. She listened as I agonized over the boy wreaking havoc with my heart and we sang a rousing duet about the lack of wheelchair accessible public transit. We talked about food. Or rather, I talked, and Athena patiently listened. I gushed about restaurants I wanted to try or newfound recipes I was certain she would love. I learned over time that her comment, “this is subtle” more accurately meant, “spice it up! I can’t taste anything!” I discovered salt and pepper and the miracle that is vinegar.

Had I retained my little room beyond Hammersmith where the Richmond line clattered just beyond my bedroom and where leftover sandwiches formed a pillar of my diet, perhaps I still would have found farming. I tasted kale for the first time while living there, when I invited two friends for dinner and actually cooked something besides stir fry or pasta. But I would argue that my months with Athena were singularly shaping, for they taught me the pleasure of cooking as a daily act. Food and companionship grounded me through the dark grey of London winter and excited me when nothing else did.

Athena still lives in London; I farm in Massachusetts. But when our paths cross again, I know exactly how it will end: her crouching in the kitchen and spinning tales of wonderful, weird London, me chopping vegetables, waxing poetic about the zen of weeding, and railing against the insanity of patented seed. I can’t wait.

1 comment:

krittergirl said...

MK - I have enjoyed your blog so much since meeting you a couple of years ago at Serenbe. I believe you could have a best seller on your hands. I admire you so much for following your dreams and especially enjoyed your blog about your friend Athena. Looking forward to many more entertaining and wonderful posts!