Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Simply the Holidays

A few years ago, Pegasus published a marvelous little book entitled Provençal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France by Mary Ann Caws. I absolutely loved working with Caws on this charming combination of memoir, cook book, mini-travelogue, and philosophical treatise on the joy of living simply.

Complex does not necessarily mean better, whether it is food, prose, art or music. Sometimes the most pleasing meal is one that is the simplest to prepare and maybe only has a few ingredients. When Caws lived in Provence, she lived without electricity in half her house and no plumbing. Needless to say, she had to completely revamp her approach to cooking. It's much easier to make do without a modern kitchen when you are in the middle of the French country side and you can walk right outside your door and partake of the fruits of the earth (and perhaps your neighbors vineyard), versus in, say, a budget NYC apartment, which might have plumbing an electricity, but the stove and oven are patchy at best and your closest thing to local produce is a pack of Marlboros and a bag of Fritos from the vermin festooned mini-market around the corner.

But what I found the most appealing in Provençal Cooking was Caws' call for simplicity. In today's world, almost any one at some point will bemoan the fact that their life is too complicated. They are trying to be too many things to too many people. I have certainly felt that way from time to time, and it usually rears up in instances of feeling inferior because someone else has managed to start a non-profit that is about to spear-head a cure for AIDS, published a collection of poetry, qualified for the Boston Marathon, is a classically trained oboist, a volunteer at the ASPCA, and has managed to bake a pie from scratch and bring it to the church pot-luck. Meanwhile, I'm standing there with a plate full of uneven slice-and-bake cookies because I could not get my sh*t together in time to make anything better.

Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, yet I have a feeling that I am not alone. It seems like the holidays bring out this feeling more than any other time of year. There is the stress of giving gifts and perhaps preparing the holiday meal. Family can certainly make this worse more often than they make this better, and while there are always pithy little sayings like "Christ is the Reason for the Season" or Linus' monologue that are bandied about to try and calm us down, I find that the best way to savor a bit of simplicity can be through food.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Ramadan or Christmas, if you look back to the basic rituals of these faiths' social foundations, you find an extremely simple meal. Whether it is Jesus breaking the bread and sharing it with his disciples over some wine, fish and challah bread on shabbat, or bread, fruit and stew after a day of fasting, these meals are completely no frills but nourishing in every sense. And they are all meant to be shared with people, as holiday meals are today. Communion is always meant to be taken with your spiritual community, the sabbath meal is traditionally the family's main gathering point for the week, and the sunset meal iftar is an incredibly social occasion, with people meeting at family homes or mosques. There was no prize for who could make the best bread or bring the most exotic fruit. It simply was not the point. You were there to share the food with those you cared about and reflect on what mattered most to you--the simple, often blessed, things that should be remembered but often get lost in the complexity of day to day life.

Remembering the roots of this whole crazy season, no matter what faith, helped me keep my sanity this year more than ever before. Between work, family and social obligations, I had been sleeping on top of my laundry for several days because I literally could not find an hour to put it away. But what made me feel even better than an extra hour of sleep (or even putting my clothes away), was the twenty minutes I spent making icing last week.

Every year my roommates and I host a cookie decorating party, and while my designs are probably the worst of the bunch and I spent most of my time this year trying to keep my new puppy out of trouble, there was something really lovely about standing there, idly chatting over some B-grade white wine, mixing sugar and water. I had not spent any real time with them for weeks, and I had had this nagging feeling for months that my friendships, more than anything else, were being neglected at this point in my life. Wedding planning can do that, but it doesn't mean it should. But finally, here we were, playing with sprinkles and candy cane crumbles, slathering icing onto sugar cookies. It was simple, it was delicious, and it finally felt like Christmas.


  1. I've had the pleasure of reading Mary Ann's memoir.... Kudos to you for publishing such an excellent food book.

    What other foodie books would you recommend?

  2. HEAT by Bill Buford is a personal favorite, and of course anything by MFK Fisher. Bourdain's books are a lot of fun, if a bit decadent, and Kinglsey Amis' books on drinking are so stylish and funny.