Monday, February 13, 2006

There are many things to be cynical about, but food shouldn't be one of them. I'm ashamed, therefore, that I've just been looking through my writing to find something suitable for P A Moed's Valentine's Feast, and I can't find anything sensuous, or loving, or even tasty to share. So I'm going to have to steal crumbs from other people's tables this year, but make a promise to myself that this time next year, my cupboards are going to be over-filling with good things to eat.

But in the meantime, here's an extract from one of my favourite books of all time, Never Eat Your Heart Out by Judith Moore:

"As a child rolling out mud crusts I felt much as I feel now, wearing an apron in my kitchen--that making a pie I'm handmaiden to a miracle. I will begin, let's say, with pale green and ruby rhubarb stalks, sour red pie cherries, McIntosh apples, butter, sugar, flour, salt, and shortening. I peel the coarse strings off the outer blades of the rhubarb, pit cherries, peel and core apples. I spoon the raw fruit into the bottom pie shell, daub the fruit with chunks of butter, dribble sugar and strew flour, the latter for thickening. I sprinkle all this with no more cinnamon than will lightly freckle the fruit. I fold the second round of pie dough in half and gently lift it onto the heaped high fruit with the fold in the pie's center. One half of the pie's fruit, then, is covered. Last, ever so painstakingly, I unfold the top crust across the pie's other half and crimp the edges of the top and bottom crusts together. With a fork I prick the top crust in several places so that while the pie bakes steam can escape.

"A transformation that is almost sorcery begins when the pie is set on a middle rack in the heated oven. While I wash the bowl and knives and dust flour off the pastry board, the baking fruit's aroma begins to perfume the house. Thirty, forty minutes later, I open the oven door a few inches and peer in. The oven's radiating heat rises around the pie in indistinct waves, like the contours of a dream. The heat is insinuating itself into the pie's interior, creating between the sealed crusts its own steamy, primordial climate, a site (to use the French postman-philosopher Gaston Bachelard's translated-into-English words) of "thermal sympathy" and "calorific happiness," in which apple and rhubarb and cherry cell walls break down and sugar crystals alter and butter melts.

"Another half hour passes and I lean over, open the oven door. Heat rushes out onto my cheeks. What I take out from the oven (my hands protected by potholders) seems precisely like those childhood pies: born rather than made.

"If the weather's right I'll set the pie to cool on the windowsill. I have no trouble, all these years later, imagining that heat floats off the pie's browned crust out the window and sails in stylized whorls out into the courtyard and over the fence into the neighborhood. If I happen to be anxious, I may fear that the pie's aroma may tempt a distant wolf. The wolf will appear decidedly older, leaner, and more vicious than the wolves from my childhood.

"As a child with mud and as an adult with crust and apples, in the moment before the first cut is taken into a pie, I often have felt uncomfortable, as if I were about to violate a taboo. Someone has suggested to me that cutting into a pie is not all that different from cutting into a body. So I think it is good to make something of a ceremony of cutting a pie. The table can be laid with a pretty cloth and napkins and the best silver and your favorite plates.

"Once the pie is brought to the table, I like to take a moment to admire it. I like to give the pie a chance to wet the mouth with anticipation of its tastes (the mouth's imagination at work). I like to contemplate the lustrous lightly browned crust. I like to think one more time about inside and out. Because the moment the pie is cut, outside will have no more meaning. A new dimension, the dimension of this pie's delectable inferiority, opens up.

"Gathered around the table, those about to eat will say "Ahhh" and "Mmmmm, doesn't that look delicious." They will lean forward, noses alert. Sometimes you can hear them breathing in.

"The first bite rises toward the opening mouth. The sentinel nose having anticipated pie's arrival, a tide of saliva crests in the mouth, pools in the tongue's center, washes over the several thousand taste buds. The teeth bite through flaky, slightly salty crust and then into tart cherries and rhubarb and apple. The fruits' sweet and buttery juices, in a total immersion baptism of the mouth, flood tongue, teeth, cheeks. There is no more outside. Everything is in."

Oh, this book is beautiful. Do buy it, and enjoy rolling in the senses. Happy Valentine's Day!

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