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sometimes, the ugliest food tastes the best

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20 September 2005

sometimes, the ugliest food tastes the best

Jabba the Hut red pepper, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I swear, sometimes the squashed fruit tastes the best. The nectarine with the dull sheen, the lumpy tomato, the apples with holes in them. Lately, I’ve been realizing more and more deeply how obsessed we are in this country with everything looking pretty. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world—I’m sure that polished and shiny appeals to a wide swath of people—but it seems to me that in this country we sacrifice taste for appearance, again and again. You don’t believe me? Walk into any Safeway in this country and meander through the produce aisle. Everything gleams, vividly, from a distance. But step up to the neatly stacked pyramid of tomatoes and pluck one from the pile. Bring it to your nose and smell. What, you say you don’t smell anything? Well of course. That’s the modern-day tomato: all style and no substance.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Ballard Market, and I heard the organic, heirloom tomato guy, the one who sells the puffy, chunky, funny-looking tomatoes, say this: “It’s just like America. We’re far more interested in what things look like than what’s inside of them.”

Organic food just tastes better. That’s why I buy it. Yes, I want to support the farmers who grow it, the stores that stock it, the people who eat it as an attempt to do something good for the earth. I’m all for it. But in the end, my sybaritic tastes take over, and I want the enormous, lumpen tomato with the funny knob on the end, the one that oozes juice through my fingers as I cut it, the one that tastes like perfection with just a bit of sea salt. And I don’t need anything else.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a deformed red pepper in the bunch that looks like Jabba the Hut. Like the one above. I found it at the Market on Saturday, and I just had to buy it. I knew it would taste better than those waxy substitutions at the agro-business conglomerate.

I think about food all day long. While I’m busy teaching, listening, grading, conducting conferences, having conversations with colleagues, and planning for the next day, I’m present to what I’m doing. But always, in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Should I roast those eggplants tonight? What about sauteeing those shitake mushrooms? I could try that fig tapenade that Rachael suggested.” It’s a delicate balance: staying in the present moment, then letting it go for the next one. For me, food is one of the best physical ways to enact this, as often as I can. This evening, I feel sated, pleased with the day, listening to the quiet murmur of music in my living room and the thrum of the dishwasher in the kitchen. Soon, it will be time for bed, where I can sleep well and deeply. And already, I’m thinking about breakfast tomorrow.

If I weren’t buying the best ingredients, I don’t think I would be enjoying this so much. And for me, best does not mean most expensive or most exoctic. It means the freshest, the closest to home. And sometimes, the most imperfect.

Life is consistently, continuously imperfect. We long for the lives we’ve imagined in our minds, but they never turn up. Instead, as Henry James said, “These are the days we must live.” And I seem to live them better when I don’t expect anything from them, other than what they want to give.

This past week, I’ve been holding conferences in my back, corner office. One by one, my new students come in to tell me about themselves, their experiences with Humanities, their expectations of themselves. And one by one, the first time, they come in cringing. Withered into themselves, like a self-protective hunch, they say, immediately, “I know I’m not a good writer.” Or, “That paper sucked. You don’t have to tell me that.” It saddens me, to see them at sixteen already convinced of their own terrible flaws. And over and over, I tell them, “Writing is messy. It’s an act of discovery. You’re just learning. Why would you expect to be perfect? Just throw some words on the page. Let it be urgent. And then let it take you where it wants to go.” They look at me with disbelief, as though they can’t believe a teacher is saying this. Aren’t I supposed to be yelling at them? Telling them they’re not good enough? Well, I can’t. Because I know how imperfect I am. And also, because I am a writer. Every evening (or afternoon or morning), when I sit down to write these entries (or work on my novel or other pieces), I have only a visceral idea of what I’m going to write. Certainly, no thesis or structure rests solidly on the struts of my mind. I just have sensory images, phrases that have popped up during the day, a clicking cadence for the opening of the sentence. And then I start typing. Every day, every day, I’m surprised, and amazed, at what emerges. If I had begun writing with the rigid sense that I needed to know what I was writing, and it had to be the best piece of writing I had ever done, I would never make it through a page. And so, I’m trying to convince my students of that, coax them out of their protective shell of perfectionism, and just learn to write with abandon. Life tastes far juicier this way.

plum II

And then I have to come home and practice what I preach in the kitchen.

Last night, I returned home from a long day at school, satisfied but tired. Mondays always take me by surprise. The long weekend of cooking and feasting left my kitchen a mess, and me too tired to clean it thoroughly. I walked in the door to meet a mound of vegetables on the kitchen table, a floor that needed sweeping, and a buzz of possibilities for dinner in my mind. With all this imperfection, I could have just sat down on the couch and stayed away from it, had a bowl of yogurt and figs and went to bed. But not last night, because I had invited one of my friends over for dinner, the week before. And she had been hearing me talk about all the meals I had been making, reading my website and drooling over the photos. I felt I owed her. I wanted to wow her. But she was due in an hour, and there was no time to make gluten-free pasta from scratch, a stunning risotto, a fabulous new dish from my favorite new cookbook. I needed to start cooking now, and my kitchen was already a clutter. I felt a bit of panic rising in my chest, that old perfectionism creeping back. But then I started flipping through cookbooks, and the physical act calmed me. And then I ran across this quote from Jamie Oliver, in one of his books, one among many from the library strewn across my living room floor these days: “Just remember, it’s not about being a professional chef, weighed down with facts and figures and be creative, give it your best shot, and, as always, have a laugh.” I love him. That was just what I needed.

I popped across the street to Ken’s Market (how lucky am I to have a fabulous corner store stocked with gourmet items, forty yards from my front door?). I grabbed some avocados, soft to the touch. Some Beecher’s cheese, which is made here in Seattle, in Pike Place Market. Now that they have been open for over a year, their cheeses are really starting to burst forth with the flavor. I picked up their Mexican cheese, which is white with red threaded through it. That made my decision. A bottle of wine, some already peeled garlic cloves, and some lemon-pepper chicken slices, already cooked. For a moment, I felt like a fraud, buying some items pre-made. Especially the salsa, which seems ridiculously easy to make, but I’m still buying it in tubs. (At least it was Sonoma salsa, which tastes like fresh.) But then I remembered again what I had been saying all day: allow yourself to be imperfect and watch where it takes you.

So I walked home, put on some bouncy music, tied my Harrods apron around my waist (a present from a dear friend, years ago), and started chopping. I chopped up the deformed-looking red pepper, ten juicy Roma tomatoes from the Market, half a white onion, four cloves of garlic, and one green jalapeno pepper. I cut up the chicken, grated the cheese, and opened the salsa. The more I cook, the more comfortable I feel making up dishes, based on the tastes of the moment. I’m starting to trust my palate. Turning toward the kitchen shelves, I grabbed a big pot, filled it with water, and waited for it to boil. Ten plums went in, ready for blanching. Because, at this moment, I decided to make the fresh plum sorbet I had read about on Baking SheetBaking Sheet. In the midst of the chaos comes creativity. Reaching into the refrigerator for something else, I noticed the chicken I had bought on Saturday, for stock, and decided I neeed to make it that moment. So, soon, a stock began bubbling on the back burner, too.

When Tuney came in, I had red plum juice staining my fingers as I took off the skins. There were bits of vegetables littering the tile floor. The stock was boiling, the peppers were definitely done, and I was still nowhere done cooking. I could have panicked, if I were the kind of person who needs life perfect in the kitchen. But Tuney is one of my best friends. She didn’t care. She just wanted to be there. She opened the bottle of wine, and we began talking.

Soon, it was all bubbling away, all in its right place. I made a stack of homemade corn tortillas as we talked, and then we loaded our plates with pepper/tomato/onion/jalapeno/cumin/sea salt/paprika/cilantro/avocado/chicken/salsa dish I threw together. It looked like hell, not neat and tidy. And I have no idea what to call it. But damn, it tasted good.

We enjoyed it.

plum sorbet

The plum sorbet was terrific, the plush texture of real plums, that fragrant taste distilled down into icy goodness. If there were a few chips of plum core in it, because I had chopped them roughly and nicked a few of the stones into the mix, we didn’t care. We sat back, relaxed, happy with our evening, and the chance to spend it together.

And I have to tell you: the imperfect, unnamed, didn’t-come-from-a-book leftovers tasted great for breakfast this morning.

made-up Mexican dish


1/2 white onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 large red pepper, minced
10 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 large fistful of cilantro, torn into pieces
dash of cumin seeds
paprika to taste
a splash of good olive oil

1/2 breast of cooked chicken, sliced (or try a white fish or tofu)
2 avocadoes, chopped
4 ounces of truly good cheese of your choice, preferably Beecher’s Mexican
strong, clean salsa

2 cups of masa harina
1 cup of water

Chop everything and lay out on plates.

Heat your skillet and pour in some good olive oil. When it is heated, throw in the onion and cook until it is translucent. Toss in the garlic and jalapeno pepper, then the cumin and paprika. Cook for a few moments, until it has all melded. Throw in the red pepper and cook until softened. Then, put in the tomatoes and cook until they have almost fallen apart. Throw in a fistful of cilantro and let it wilt a bit. Take off the burner and put onto a plate, ready.

Combine the masa harina and water to form a dough. Roll out balls between layers of plastic bags until they are thick and approaching a round shape. Throw into a hot skillet and cook for thirty seconds. Turn, then cook for thirty more seconds. Take them off the burner. Keep cooking the masa dough until you have a stack of corn tortillas.

Assemble at will. Eat to your delight.


At 7:28 AM, Blogger Nic said...

I just don't think that anything that tastes so good could be ugly - but I'm biased because that sounds like what I have for dinner on a fairly regular basis.
I'm glad you both liked the sorbet!

At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said... friend and roomie, jana is doing the raw food diet because she is interested in natropathic medicince and just got back from this conference in texas and i sent her to your cite to look for recipes. I just thought i'd post to say hi and that youre amazing.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took a trip to Boston to visit my 85 year old grandmother in July. While I was there we visited all my Great Aunts at their cottages in York Beach, Maine. Tomatoes were one of the only things available for me to eat and when I bit into the first one, a thousand memories of what tomatoes are supposed to taste like came rushing back to me from childhood. I erroneously concluded that Colorado tomatoes must just not taste good. Last weekend I went to the farmers market and bought organic misshapen lovely tomatoes. There was that amazing taste again. I'm never going back. Thank you for encouraging me on the path...

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just want to say how much i love this blog. reading it each day is that breath of fresh air i need to keep me going and inspired about preparing food for myself, with spirit! thanks so much for sharing.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post today, Shauna. Loved the part about your student conferences, too. I totally know what you mean. I am not a "yeller" either. I remember too clearly what it feels like to be a young student.

Your students are lucky to have you and we're all lucky to have your blog! :)

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Shauna,

Third time lucky, I hope. I've tried to comment twice before but lost both posts through some computer glitch. The last time was on the post about your wonderful pie. It's weird because when I read the post about custard I was thinkin, "She should try pumpkin pie, because that's really a kind of custard too and it never fails." And it's one of my favourites because it even tastes good made without a crust. I know folks feel pretty loyal to the tastes of their childhood, but I want to suggest you do as we do in Nova Scotia and put Butternut(or other meaty) squash into the recipe instead of pumpkin. If you've never tried it you may be surprised at the deeper taste and creaminess. And it's best to cut it in two (the squash) and invert it on a pan and oven-cook it first. It picks up some nice caramel flavour this way.

The other thing I tried to comment on before was how sweet your nephew sounded with his excited discovery of the language to express his love of pie. Perhaps he will follow you into the magic of creative cookery and expression.

I so admire your advice to your students, and as an English teacher in Japan, love to hear teachers with the kind of inner light that you seem to have, spreading a little of the joy of language to the future writers, readers and speakers of these words that we use tell each other who we are and which have the power to open the hearts of lovers of food and language everywhere.

Oh and if you like miso soup in a slightly misshapen and un-fancy form, but that tastes very fine all the same, I have a Japanese recipe on my blog.:)

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Hi Shauna -
I couldn't agree more. I grew up on a farm (Colorado tomatoes ARE tasty!), and have been a tomato snob ever since. Ours were never perfect looking, but they had a flavor that could make your insides melt!

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a writer and a teacher of writing too, and I loved what you said to your students, about the imperfection and risk of writing--good advice for writing, and good advice for life.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Winslow said...

Hi Shauna,

You have a wonderful, wonderful blog. I'm a writer who has a food blog too, but mine is a lot more utilitarian than yours. You do a great job of capturing the spirit of caring about what you cook and eat. And your advice to your students is right on. Writing is all about throwing words at the paper, seeing what sticks, and seeing where it takes you.

Thanks so much for sharing your writing.


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