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Thursday
Aug122010

Bourbon, Beer, and Sourdough: Sabbath Rest in the Kitchen

Photo: Anna BroadwayAs recently as five or ten years ago, I’m not sure the same expectations would have been in place, but in my job, it’s not uncommon to get a follow-up e-mail or phone call if I’ve not replied to someone’s message within five or ten minutes. It’s not true of every message, but neither is it unheard of.

And since I began incorporating a folding bike into my daily commute, a different kind of impatience has started thrusting itself from my heart to my lips, in the form of frustrated yelps when a car has the audacity to pull into the bike lane without signaling, or make a halting right turn that blocks my path, because the driver is yielding to some pedestrian’s stroll through the crosswalk.

Then there’s my knitting, which in theory is my hobby, my leisure, my rest, but which I’ve been known to clamp in hand for a quick row or two on the walk back from a lunch break trip to Trader Joe’s, even though the produce that did not fit inside my shoulder bag is tucked precariously under one elbow, and I’m trusting peripheral vision to guide me safely along the sidewalk back to the office.

Work. Rush. Hurry. Multitask. Don’t let a minute go to waste. If you’re waiting, do something productive, maybe two things. Or three.

Then there’s the art exhibit I found recently. I was transfixed by a diorama of toy tires, typewriter parts, artfully arranged twigs, sawdust, and other materials collected from a local dump by the artist. Or the equal sense of wonder in a lunchtime discovery last week, of a new art and jewelry gallery that had among its treasures a necklace and ring depicting two singing birds balanced on a slim inch or two of knobby silver — not things that would necessarily move another as much as they did me, but in their presence all timepieces might as well have been raptured. I looked and looked and looked, beauty muting all else. In such moments my bag of time is recklessly spilled open, the tie gone slack in my hand as wonder intrudes, like an unexpected visit from Robin Hood.

But I need more than just the impromptu ambush of art to learn rest. I need Sabbath rhythms that provide a planned departure from the world of cacophony and aggression. As of late, one of my best teachers of this practice has been cooking recipes in which time is the main ingredient. 

 In any given week, this could be the ever-hungry Amish sourdough starter I was feeding and constantly baking in the spring, or my always unpredictable batches of ginger beer, which once exploded from over-fermentation but more recently went straight to mold-growing due to some undetermined problem with the yeast. This last weekend, it was the Indian stew I spent four hours making on Friday night, then left in the fridge until friends came for lunch on Sunday.

This might sound paradoxical, but as much as I chafe at waiting, there’s also something I really love about starting a recipe and letting time do its work — while I’m up in my bedroom hoping that seven or six and a half hours’ sleep will work almost as well as seven and a half or eight; or when I’m biking to work, editing, grabbing beers with co-workers after hours, or laughing and singing with the folks in my community group. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, or how diligently or well I do it; time chugs along like a quiet, steady tug boat that may move slower than I bike, but by the time I look up, it has moved a barge of goodness from the Oakland docks to the Golden Gate. Or, in the case of my ginger beer, time transforms peppery lemonade into a delightful, fizzy beverage I hoard as if it were top-shelf wine.

The strangest part of all of this is how the waiting itself brings its own peculiar pleasure. Unlike the waiting to reach the post office counter on Christmas Eve, or to see if your long-term chastity will ever give way to marriage, or even the waiting for dribs and drabs of extra money here and there to finally vanquish a student loan — in contrast, the waiting to eat fresh, homemade bread when it’s cool enough to cut but still warm enough to melt butter, or to finally taste the flavor when bacon fat is infused in a bottle of bourbon holds the sweetness of time and anticipation.

I doubt my bacon Old-Fashioneds would have been as fun to drink if I hadn’t first spent half an hour slowly frying the bacon “till all fat had been rendered,” then swirling the fat and bourbon to sit and mingle in my dark garage for three days before finally separating by the cold after nearly a day in the fridge. Somehow the waiting imbued them with a worth and pleasure they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And when I was mincing two onions Friday night (with eye goggles, in a somewhat futile attempt to reduce the tears) and working around the giant stockpot of dhansaak that filled the fridge Saturday and Sunday morning, this quiet submission to the vagaries of time was quietly priming my palate for joy.

Do I always perfectly sterilize my ginger beer bottles? No. Yet for how consistently I convince myself that the recipe has failed, there’s been only one time so far that fermentation hasn’t happened at all. Nor do I always get the proportions of sugar and yeast right when I bake bread, or the temperature of water exactly right, either. But there is in these foods and drinks a forgiveness of sorts, a grace imparted by time and other mysteries. 

Foods that yield their flavors and textures swiftly can tend to affirm a belief that my work and labor is all based upon whether I have raw tomatoes and a crackling, still-wrapped onion, or a bowl of zesty guacamole. But bread and bacon-flavored bourbon, ginger beer, and dhansaak: these are my sparrows, each providing small but soul-nourishing reminders that my life is not my own or my own idea, and it is not the sufficiency of my work that makes the real difference, but another’s.

This is something I’ve struggled with mightily in adulthood, the trusting posture of dependence easily conflated with the inaction of a child — a luxury I’ve long since lost the right to enjoy. The stab is sometimes most keen at meals with relatives, when the memory wafts back of those days when I could play in the living room until the meal was served, or eat without calculation about my fair contribution toward the tab. Such thoughts unfailingly prompt a stern interior voice, reminding me that such things were immature ways and now, I must pull my own weight and always jump up or chip in as a responsible grown-up should. Nor would I want to shirk my rightful duties. But if lack of obligation was a hallmark of childhood, that does not make rest, too, a thing to be weaned from. And for the gift some foods give me — in their small, slow way — of briefly feeling like a baby bird again, sitting snugly and waiting open-beaked, I am grateful.

The waiting is, of course, not always tranquil. I remember the story a married friend once told me, of how her small son, while smelling the melting cheese as she grilled him a sandwich, started chewing her shoe, convinced she wasn’t going to feed him — that she was ignoring his pangs of hunger. As much as I long for the surrender of dependence, the truth is that my first reaction in moments of lost control is often to squawk with impatience and alarm, rather than remembering that this pause and suspension of power may be part of the very provision I so long for.

How could your delays be transformed into anticipation and trust this week? I know I’ll be trying to ponder that when my bike commute bogs me down, and the next time I have to write “not applicable” on the lines for spouse and children’s names.

Recipes mentioned here, as printable PDF recipe cards:

Sourdough Starter

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls

Border Storm and Ginger Beer

Lentil Stew

Bacon-Bourbon Old-Fashioned

 

Anna Broadway is a writer, web editor, music fiend, and knitter living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is also a contributor to the Her.meneutics blog. In a previous life, she was featured in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle, but these days she tools around on her folding bike and, of course, cooks. You can find her on Twitter @annabroadway.

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Reader Comments (2)

This is so true! My last 3 years getting my bachelors' were spent grumbling about being forced to perpetually create (it was a fine art degree in photography). "We're not meant to be robots!" And yet, after I graduated, I was driven practically mad with having no direction and no more than one or two things to do at once. All a good sign my life was in desperate need of better balance and rhythm.

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Rushing

Thank you for writing this.

August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKay Lynn

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