The bluebird boxes go up today (even if it is snowing); in a few days I’ll set up the Mason bee house. Audubon called this morning with the news that their report on our bird habitat is complete and we’ll soon receive it in the mail. I’m interested to see if any of their recommendations involve the expansion of the orchard, the new nut grove, the elderberry hedge, the gardens.
I write often about life on these rural acres as an inhabitant of a complex and fascinating ecosystem. I garden with the snakes in mind, the bees, the rabbits and wild turkeys and chipmunks and raptors and bobcats, the grubs and worms and bugs. How they interact with what I plant is every bit as important as how I do. Right now there’s gleaning going on–the birds and rabbits combing the beds for seeds they missed before the snow blew in, for the old kale and leeks; things that look pretty useless to the human eye are significant to them.
We seem to overlook a good deal. And not just as we garden. As we cook. And as we eat. We’re distracted. Busy. We don’t look. We don’t touch. We barely listen.
How many of us really pay attention to the vessels that hold our food? People who are truly hungry could probably care less about bowl or plate, and with good reason. But the rest of us who know we’ll eat if we want to at mealtime or anytime? What sort of relationship does the shape, or texture or color or heft of a bowl have to the experience of eating and connecting with the journey our food made to get to our bowl? If we’re dining on microwaved fast-food–who cares? If we’re eating food we grew, or a local farmer grew, food we took care and time to prepare, does the plate or bowl link us to the complex interplay of the ecosystem, to the soil, to the living Earth? Does it remind us that the food we’re eating is a gift?
I try to stay aware of the relationship between what I serve and how it’s served. Not because I have any interest at all in food styling, or making it pretty, but because I want to show real respect for the ingredients. I love the pottery on my shelves, from the few special bowls made by Irish potter Deirdre Malone to the lovely plates we bought back from the Italian pottery, Cama Deruta: they all hold stories, memories of meals and gardens and adventures past.
When I got married, instead of ordering the usual fancy china set that I couldn’t imagine ever using, we had a potter, my mother’s good friend, Kit Cornell, make our plates. We have used those blue earthenware dishes every day for thirty years and know they have enhanced whatever food they have held. But after all these years, we’ve finally broken or chipped every single one of them.
We celebrated a rather big anniversary this past year (30) and decided to mark the occasion by having new plates made for us that reflected our close tie to the land, this life on these scrubby acres. This weekend we picked up the set we ordered from the magnificent potter, Jane Herold. Rustic plates. Plates that feel good in the hand, look like the earth, and have simple, graceful, accommodating shapes. Plates that would invite an incredible stew or soup, a perfect pasta or pizza, a slice of cassis-almond cake or a salad. Plates that have character–each one looking and feeling like itself. Plates made by someone who feels the same way we do about food. Enter Jane Herold, a master potter who not only understands the relationship between the texture, heft, color, shape of a dish and the food that it will receive, but who loves to cook. She says that every one of the pots she makes, she makes with a specific use in mind, say a an earthy green-brown bowl for red pepper soup. Read her “New Definition of Useful,” a beautiful musing on the role of a pot.
I know that the soup/stew/pasta bowls she made us are playing a starring role in tonight’s dinner, a simple vegetable soup topped by shallots roasted with rosemary-infused honey. I’m certain it tasted as good as it did because we were eating it from Jane’s bowls.
Food recognized and treated as gift. Kate, a painter, tells me it’s quite Japanese of me to feel this way. Even the simplest soup or piece of cheese served intentionally in a complementary vessel will–if I pay attention– help slow me down to think about where our food comes from, and how truly remarkable this complex planet is, the interplay of all the different forms of life living here–what a gift.