The hint of fall was unmistakeable this past weekend. A chill permeated early morning and evening, yellow and rust-colored flowers bloomed in our garden, Saturday’s rain prompted me to buy firewood. And I thought about cooking.
I think about food a lot, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, how it varies across cultures, and how we share it. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, slowly over the summer, digesting his stories about the origins of specific meals he prepared. And, now that fruits and vegetables are plentiful and gorgeous as they erupt from the garden, I’m constantly thinking about what to prepare and share.
Mick and I have done a lot of our shopping at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market this year. On Sunday, it beckoned again, the stalls filled with large colorful peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, corn, squash, herbs, potatoes, brussels sprouts. It took discipline to fill our bags only with what we needed. The bumpy squash and smooth red slicing tomatoes begged to be touched. Juicy melons sliced open to offer fragrant deeply-hued flesh tempted everyone who passed by.
We brought a list for a Sunday supper that we planned on sharing with friends, but our first purchase was a bunch of deep orange carrots that would be eaten later in the week. We purchased chicken from one farmer; corn, cucumbers, and a miniature melon from another; cilantro and mint from another; red onions from yet another. Folk music wafted around the market from a single vocalist/guitarist who set up behind a salsa table. I watched a young couple take their baby and his carseat off a stroller frame so they could squeeze an entire box of roma tomatoes into the cargo spot on the bottom, then put the baby and seat back on the frame. The baby was quiet and happy the entire time. We walked past an egg farmer who advertised vegetarian-fed chickens that were free-range; I wondered how a chicken that got to wander around where grubs and insects were free for the pecking is considered vegetarian. Perhaps I need to brush up on what free-range means. People strolled by with glorious bouquets of flowers – purples, yellows, reds – to grace tables at home. We noticed the donut vendors were nearly out of donuts by 10:00 a.m.
Once we had wandered through the entire market and our shopping was done, Mick and I headed out. We stopped at a grocery store to pick up what the farmers’ market didn’t have: yogurt, naan, ginger, sesame seeds, soy sauce.
Back at home, I relished being in the kitchen on an oddly cool August afternoon. To spend a few hours hanging out preparing food is one of my favorite things. The chicken thighs we bought were already packed and frozen for transport, so those went right into a water bath to thaw. While the chicken hung out in water, I made chutney in my food processor: cilantro and mint from the farmers market, lemon juice, fresh ginger, a jalapeño from our own garden, plain yogurt. The chutney would go with the naan that we planned on tossing onto the grill for a few minutes after the chicken was cooked.
I cut up a small watermelon. The cool red fruit would balance the heat from the marinade that I was planning for the chicken: yogurt, lemon juice, paprika, garlic, jalapeños, cumin, salt, ginger, coriander. Mid-afternoon, the thawed chicken thighs and marinade went into a gallon-size resealable bag and into the refrigerator. I thought about the woman from whom we bought the chicken. Like me, she was a middle-aged white woman. Not like me, she raised chickens, let them run in a pasture in the sunshine. She had calloused hands, gray hair, smile wrinkles around her eyes. I wondered what a life spent raising chickens would feel like.
Next came the salad prep. I washed, peeled, seeded, and sliced a couple of long narrow cucumbers and thought about the farmer who sold them. He made me think of a skinny Jerry Garcia and was delighted that I chose his cukes. He seemed to have been a small-scale farmer for a long time, from before it became popular with hipsters and foodies to buy fresh food at weekend farmers’ markets. Mick, who was standing behind me when I bought the cucumbers, could not walk away from that particular farm stand without buying some sweet corn from the other guy who was working there. He, too, had that old hippie happy-to-be-here demeanor; he beamed at everyone to whom he handed a bag of corn.
When I reached for the red onions that were going in the salad with the cucumbers, I thought about that farmer, too. She was a young Hmong woman whose family’s produce included many varieties of onions and peppers and herbs. I wondered if she actually tended those plants or if her parents and grandparents were the ones who worked the agrarian magic. She was quiet and kind as we completed our transaction. I finished slicing the red onions and tossed them together with the cucumbers. At dinner time, I would dress them with a mixture of rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, soy sauce, fresh grated ginger, and black pepper, and then toss toasted sesame seeds into the salad.
At the beginning of the evening, our friends arrived for Sunday supper. We put the spice-infused chicken on the grill, cooked some basmati rice, cracked open a few beers. Outside in the waning light, we caught up with each other. Smoke rose from the grill and we could hear the occasional sizzle as the chicken cooked. When the food was ready and we gathered around the table, I kept thinking about all the people truly involved in this meal from the farmers and their helpers to the people who organize the farmers’ market to us, who planned and cooked this meal with what was available. And I felt so grateful that this is what my life looks like: healthy food, a table to hold it, and people with whom to share it.
After dinner, we had a fire outside. We sat around, roasted marshmallows, had a sip of whiskey. The warmth of the evening was not from the weather; it was the food, the fire, the whiskey, and the friendship. It was the perfect Sunday late-summer kind of night.