I've been feeling especially good lately, in spite of the heat that has the sidewalk as hot as Ma Patton's iron skillet. The felicitous state of mind is related to having recently moved from a desk in the middle of the newsroom to a small office--which, despite a certain loneliness for the bustle at deadline time, has brought several unexpected benefits. What my little office provides is the chance to tie into my own thoughts, uninterrupted by the fragments of ideas, stories, conversations and gossip that fly about in newrooms.
One thought that keeps returning--brought, no doubt, by the arrival of Washington's annual muggy season--is about summer. As I walk and drive around in the neighborhoods, there are men with no shirts, there are people cooling out in the parks and along the river, there are kids playing double dutch like it's 75 degrees, and there are business-suited men enviously eyeing other men who are dressed to be cool.
Close upon thoughts of summer are those of food--incongruous, perhaps, given the heat. Blame it on midsummer madness, or maybe it's because I've been talking recently to my friend Vertamae Grosvenor, who writes about cooking and what it tells us about how people live.
You can't think of food and summertime without thinking about my mother's picnics. She didn't like fancy food, she liked it plain and simple but very fresh. She could never get into my fascination with French cuisine. Her idea of a picnic was a full course meal--fried chicken, string beans brought to the park warm in a bowl and covered tightly with foil, macaroni and iced tea. Except for when she made rolls, she never measured her ingredients, but used approximate amounts. My friend Vertamae calls that "vibration cooking."
When our children were younger and used to spend summers with my mother they looked forward to these occasions, the annual Sunday school picnic of Youngs Chapel AME Church.
I'm from Louisville, Ky., and food is a big part of the Southern culture down there. You love some people in an extra-special way because of the things they cook, and the Sunday school picnic was a battle of food. Could Ma Patton's cake outshine my mother's chicken? It was tasty fun.
These memories of summer past made me think of one of my favorite meals, which I had nearly forsaken in these days of light eating, fasting, "jazzercise" and yogurt. I had a deep craving for greens, okra and corn bread. The supermarket where I knew I could buy these things is at 14th Street and Park Road. I had plenty of advice about picking the freshest collards and turnips from the other women pushing their carts up and down the aisles. "Be sure and cook 'em as soon as you get home, honey, they'll get sour in this hot weather," said a tall, thin woman remarking about the good buy in canned salmon. When I began the lengthy process of cleaning the greens in my kitchen, which is not air-conditioned, I remembered why I hadn't cooked this favorite meal in a very long time.
My children had been pestering me for barbecue from Scott's, and I decided it was the perfect accompaniment. "Is it too hot for this?" I asked several friends as they ate my special meal in the evening darkness on our deck. "It's never too hot!" said one, with a sniff that implied it was a silly question. She insisted on the iced tea our mothers would have served instead of the chilled white wine that has become a modern reflex.
Having such a good time cooking and eating with friends and family brought to mind the contrast between now and years past. It is a good thing that we do not consume the huge meals of old that made us a heavier and less healthy society--health foods are a boon to us all. But we're also getting out of the habit of doing for each other, and cooking and enjoying our family and friends are part of this. There's not much love associated with quiche and Perrier for one.
The dead of Washington summer, when it shouldn't be this hot anywhere on earth, might seem a strange time for musing on food and togetherness, on trying to get closer to our essential selves, family and friends. But in these times of recession, depression and general psychic letdown, I suppose we have to feel good any way we can.