Awhile back, my friends at Exit133 (www.exit133.com) gave me the opportunity to post some columns on their excellent blog. This was one of those.
Confessions of a Food-o-phile
Norman Maclean opens his full-of-grace novella “A River Runs Through It” with the beguiling line “in our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” Having recently driven Route 200 in western Montana, skirting the Big Blackfoot River that was Maclean’s spiritual inspiration, I had the opportunity to consider that opening line, as well as his summary judgment “I am haunted by waters.”
Aside from a layer of asphalt on Route 200, Maclean’s cathedral canyon is virtually unchanged from the days in the 1920’s when he would have driven the difficult miles from Missoula to Wolf Creek. Here, he was haunted not just by the waters, but by thoughts of a girl. Try driving that section of road sometime, with a CD by Ry Cooder (I recommend the soundtrack to “Paris, Texas”)on the car stereo and tell me there aren’t ghosts in them thar hills.
For those of us who grew up in religious families, the distinction between spiritual matters is often unclear. In my family, for example, the line was often blurred between religion and … eating.
If you are thinking of an idyllic household of Julia Child crossed with Jacques Pepin, I should hastily disabuse you of that notion. Aside from my Aunt Dorothy in Connecticut who made mousse au chocolat, not Jello Pudding, nobody would mistake us for gourmets. Let’s get real. This was rural Minnesota circa 1970. I never saw so much as a clove of garlic until I went away to college.
Still, we were enthusiastic eaters. And, thanks in no small part to my father, adventurous eaters as well. As an avid hunter and angler, our table often featured his fruits of the field. Wild venison, duck, pheasant and grouse were staples, with the summer fishing season bringing smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, bluegills, and crappies. “Where the Wild Things Are” had nothing on us.
Of course, that’s fare you’d find on almost any Midwestern table. My father, though, had a more expansive view of what might be good to eat, or at least possibly edible. From a culinary standpoint, he was, shall we say, “inclusive” to use a phrase now co-opted for the purpose of political correctness. For example: squirrel gets a bad rap as hillbilly food, but braised in a sauce made of cream of mushroom soup, it is almost tasty. Trappers often discard the carcasses of their catch in favor of the pelts, a practice my father found reprehensible. As a result of his friendships with local furriers, roast beaver was not uncommon on the Sunday dinner table at Chez Idstrom (he drew the line at muskrat). I’ll admit, some beaver can have a swamp-ish overtone on the palate, but often they are quite delicious, especially studded with cloves and sprinkled liberally with mace. It’s a dice roll, but what in life isn’t?
Of course not all the food we ate was so exotic. Like every other family in our neighborhood, ours was a diet reliant heavy on ground beef, which was the basis of meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, and pizza topping. Living in a pre-e coli world, we ate our burgers medium rare, cooked over charcoal briquettes doused with explosive lighter fluid (“stand back, your father is lighting the grill”). Cream of mushroom soup was as important to my Dad’s cooking as fish fumet was to Julia Child.
I hasten to add that not all my foodie influences came from my father’s intrepid imagination. A latter day Betty Crocker, my mother’s potato salad is the stuff summer dreams are made of. I always thought that the secret to her rhubarb crisp was that she soaked the ruby stalks in water at least two hours before cooking. Or so I thought until a couple of years ago, when she admitted that our massive rhubarb plant was a marking post for our male hunting dogs. No harm, no foul. If I close my eyes and breathe slowly from the belly, I can smell her snickerdoodles on a fresh fall afternoon, the olfactory memory indelibly imprinted on my psyche. Cookies and milk, bread and wine. This is my body. Who can tell the difference?
Today, I am as avid about food as anyone in my family ever was, including my father. Sad to say, I do not have everyday access to wild duck or venison, much less grouse or woodcock. Still this is a great time and place to be a food-ophile (I find the popular term “foodie” unnecessarily fey). Industrial food production came very close to ruining our sources of nutritional, psychic, and spiritual sustenance, but the times they are a-changin’. Last weekend I purchased grass-fed lamb kidneys from the Calendula Farms booth at the Proctor Farmers market, which I intend on marinating in dijon mustard, crushed garlic, Spanish olive oil, and rosemary, then grilling until just medium rare. These I will eat with organic chard from my own community garden, wilted in a pan with a little duck fat, which I reserved and rendered from a recent birthday meal. Duck is what God was thinking of first when he invented poultry. In addition to eating its breasts and hind-quarters, pan-roasted and served with a glaze of reduced balsamic vinegar, I roasted the leftover bones and trimmings and made a velveteen duck demi-glace which is now in my freezer under armed guard.
But I digress. Back to the original point, good food is relatively easy to come by these days. Some of it is a little more expensive than its industrial cousin, but not all of it, not by any stretch. A bundle of beets, into which you can turn a gorgeous borscht, can be had for a lowly dollar bill at any farmers market. At those prices you can afford to splurge on a slab of handcrafted goat cheese, a loaf of artisanal bread, or my personal favorite, Quilcene Bay Select oysters from the purveyor Quil Bay (ice cold and raw with a few drops of mignonette). Just $6.95 for a dozen nuggets of salt-water heaven.
Still, one ventures from one’s roots at their peril. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Illinois-born John Prine, wrote in his classic tune “Bruised Orange” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hos21J2kAWQ that “it ain’t such a long drop/don’t stammer, don’t stutter/from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter” and ain’t that the truth. It occurred to me the other night while making halibut (Northern Fish, $11.99/lb) crusted with parmesan, panko and parsley and smothered in a chantrelle lobster cream sauce that my dish was really not much more than a gussied up version of my mother’s tuna noodle hot dish, which if you’ve never had it, is delicious. At least that’s how I remember it.
Salvation is a tricky issue and if you are like me, the lines are seldom clear. We all find our own road to get there and some of us take a more circuitous route than others. But we’re all saved by grace one way or another, however that may find us.
I am haunted by food.
Jane’s Tuna Noodle Hotdish
One package egg noodles
1 can tuna
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can mushrooms
Crushed potato chips (preferably Old Dutch brand)
Cook egg noodles in boiling water. Mix tuna, mushroom soup and mushrooms in a bowl. Pour over noodles in oven-proof casserole dish. Top with crushed potato chips. Cook uncovered in oven set to 375 degrees for 45 minutes.