Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Roger Ebert: Courageous Soul with a Rice Cooker

Many of us probably best remember Roger Ebert for his film reviews in the Chicago Sun Times and when he retired, probably never thought anything of him ever again. Well, regardless of what you may have thought of his media personality or his criticism, you cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of respect for his courage and joie de vive in how he has handled his battle with jaw cancer as portrayed in this New York Times article last week.

You see, Ebert had to have his entire lower-jaw removed due to a malignant tumor, and while he is no longer able to speak or eat despite several attempts to rebuild his jaw, he has now turned to food writing and is an avid cook in his Michigan home. "Food for me is in the present tense," while "eating" is in the past. He says he has a "voluptuous food memory" that is growing ever day, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that he can now no longer taste anything. Shortly after he was no longer able to eat for good, he found that his taste memory of certain things were surprisingly strong and peculiar. He had an intense "root beer" period, followed by candy cravings, and every meal he ever at at the "Steak N' Shake" of his childhood.

Ebert did not have the proverbial "last meal," because he didn't know at the time that the doctors would not be able to restore his ability to taste and eat, but for me personally, I don't know how he (or I) could ever choose the "last meal" you could ever taste. And would it really matter? I would probably choose my mom's spaghetti with green peas and fresh watermelon and blueberry pie , all things I have had countless times before and already have extremely vivid memories of, both in terms of taste and broader nostalgia.

And that is what Ebert actually really misses. The wider context of eating. Laughter, jokes, earnest conversation. The camaraderie of eating. Because food as an experience is so much more than taste, it's who you're with, where you are you, perhaps even the peripheral smells. Crisp pink lady apples on an equally crisp fall day? Your memory of that moment will be forever intertwined with that specific autumn smell of burning fires, fallen leaves and whatever else gives that time of year that wonderful aroma. If I could bottle it I would! And of course, perhaps your tromping through the crunchy leaves munching your apple with someone special. Or a furry friend.

Ebert might not be able to enjoy this camaraderie in the traditional sense, but forever undeterred, he's persevered in the most incredibly inspiring way possible. He has written a book (always an A+ move in my mind) about his rice cooker. That's right, people. He has not just written an ode to his write cooker on some blog, he has written an entire book called The Pot and How to Use it: The Mystery and Romance of The Rice Cooker. You see, when Ebert was on the road writing in his early days as a critic and journalist, he got sick of eating crappy room service food and/or the same old diner food every week, so he got creative and started hauling his "pot," or rice cooker, along with him, and learned to cook a myriad of meals in his room while he worked. Plus, it's a hell of a lot healthier, too.

It's a wonderful machine and even I am shocked as to how many different things you can prepare in "the pot." Ebert has a devoted following on Twitter and Facebook and has learned even more recipes from his readers and fans, giving him back a bit of that camaraderie he misses. He still cooks meals for his friends and family in his pot because he's made so many meals in it over the years, he knows the recipes by heart and does not need to depend on tasting and smelling as he goes, something all of us home cooks surely take for granted. He makes everything from sauces to soup, stews and full scale entrees.

At the close of the article, he's preparing some sort of pork dish while his wife, Chaz, a lawyer who also loves to cook, prepares Ebert's Isosource, the nutrient mix that keeps him alive via his feeding tube.

While he’s in the chair "eating," she tends to the pot. After about 15 minutes he walks out and scribbles her a note asking if the pork was cooked properly, followed quickly by an apology.

“I come across as a tyrannical chef because I never speak and am in a hurry because of my shoulder.”

No worries, chef, she says, and lifts the lid from the pot. He pours a little spicy Saigon Sizzle sauce from a bottle and stirs it in. He gives the thumbs up, and it is time to eat.

1 comment:

  1. What an experience. Well done, Gastro Jess!