My Spitting Image

My job requires spitting. Well-aimed, unself-conscious, fine-streamed expectoration. A few times each week, I sit at a meeting room table or perch on a chair in my boss’s crowded cubicle with a winemaker, vendor, or importer sampling their liquid wares. After swirls, sniffs and sips, accompanied by audible swishes and slurps- and if the mouthful is a pleasing one- hums of pleasure and affirmation, we pass around an aluminum bucket  for the obligatory expelling of libation and saliva we have stirred up in our oral cavities.

I consider it fortunate that we are romanced by visitors and thus can avoid the cocktail party scene of industry tastings. Set up just like the study abroad fairs I organized or participated in so many lifetimes ago, vendors open their portfolios and representatives rattle off canned speeches about their products. Spitting is optional. Industry colleagues happily capitalize on the free plonk and party platters and as the afternoon wears on, the volume level rises to that of Happy Hour at Tini Bigs. The big chain buyers, slick players in Men’s Wearhouse off-the-rack,  slap palms and talk golf, while the restaurant sommeliers clump in a corner, sniffing haughtily at the retail grocery types who tipsily calculate margins on the latest California-style Riojas.

Yet this personalized wooing means I’ve had to refine my spitting technique, as there is no way to cover gaffes or spittle in the quiet of our cramped offices.

Communal spitting is not for the squeamish, as the gross-out factor is high. When four people taste eight wines from the Republic of Georgia, that spit bucket fills up quickly with a thick and foamy mixture of wine and slime. When it comes sloshing your way 3/4 full, you must carefully gauge the force of your discharge. Too vigorous and you risk splashback of vin de sputum. Too delicately and your own drool will trickle down your chin in a thin red rope.

Beer presents its own unique hazards. The lovely froth of cream that forms a beer’s head  does not lend itself to a clean ejection from pursed lips- the bubbles insist on clinging to your tongue or tucking themselves into the space between your lower lip and your teeth.

Fortified wines and  stickies – the ports, sherries, Muscats, late harvest delicacies, vins doux naturels, Sauternes- are such flirts. Their rich viscosity remains in your mouth, coating your tongue and your teeth and sweetening your lips, despite your best efforts to clear your mouth of their fanciful tendrils.

All this spitting- what a waste of beautiful libation, no? Of course, drinking on the job is verboten, but even if swallowing were permitted, this would be the tragic waste. It takes only a few ingested sips to dull the senses and swell the palate to a woolly thickness. At least half the story is told in the deep inhale of aromas that releases as the wine touches the air; the rest unfolds in your mouth, as the aromas connect with the nasal passages at the back of your mouth, as your palate discerns the weight of the alcohol, the strength of the tannins, the degree of acidity- your bloodstream and belly aren’t part of the analytical equation.

Not to mention how doomed to inertia would I be when faced with another fours hours of correcting price codes mangled by a software upgrade after allowing the sparkling wines and Champagnes we’re bringing in for the holiday season to pass my throat’s threshold. Oy. Of course, you can’t escape the trace amounts that are absorbed by the mouth’s skin and the trickles that invariably slip down the back of your throat, but such are the workplace hazards. It really just calls for more practice.

All this spitting doesn’t for a moment diminish the pleasure of uncorking a bottle at home or being served a glass of something gorgeous when out on the town. Wine (and beer!) brings out the best in food – they are Bogart and Bacall, Ginger and Fred, John and Yoko- damn good on their own, to be sure, but together: Be still my heart (of course, things can go badly astray and you might end up with Tipper and Al or Angelina and Billy Bob, but really, just drink what you like with what you like to eat- it’s all about the adventure).  Give me the glories of albariño and mussels, of Barolo and mushroom risotto, of syrah and Moroccan stew, of riesling d’Alsace and pork loin, of Côtes du Rhône and roast chicken, of zinfandel and black bean chili , of pinot noir and salmon, dark chocolate souffle and Russian Imperial Stout. And watch me swallow.

Dinner is served. At least for tonight.

Alysha's Marinara Magnifica

As I sit down to write, marinara is burbling on the stove and moussaka is cooling on the table.  The earthy aroma of oregano, marjoram and roasted eggplant mingles with the tangy perfume of caramelized onions and sweet tomatoes. The air is thick with the scent of comfort and love, of industry and purpose.

Once upon a different lifetime, I prepared a meal every evening. I would plan my weekly menu carefully, seeking balance between vegetarian and meat-based mains, using leftovers to create meals later in the week, focusing on seasonal produce,

Eggplant and Tomato Vegetarian Moussaka

trying new recipes from the shelves of cookbooks in my library, and perfecting the tried and true in my roster. For several years I belonged to an on-line community of foodies, through whose guidance, encouragement and humor I discovered a passion for cooking, gained confidence in the kitchen, and found an intellectual and emotional outlet creating beautiful food that gave me great joy when shared with others.

Life runs in a different rhythm now. We don’t work traditional hours,  or have more than two or three evenings during the week to enjoy a meal together. Many nights I return home almost too late to eat dinner before bed, certainly too late to prepare a meal.

These days my cooking has a far more utilitarian approach: I cook in two- to three- hour sessions on a Saturday, preparing several dishes at a time. Hearty casseroles of quinoa and roasted vegetables, creamy soups of yam or lentils, long-lived salads of farro and black beans, only that which can be spooned into a container as part of a brown bag lunch or reheated in the microwave, mindlessly and wearily consumed for dinner at the end of a long day.  I fall back on a familiar roster of favorites that I know will last several days, the leftovers folded into Thursday night’s kitchen sink frittata.  On the occasional weekend when I can’t make it into the kitchen for an intensive cooking session, (or during the months of July and August, when summer’s heat shuts down my kitchen for the brief Northwest summer) it means a week of egg white omelets, stir fry, tuna fish sandwiches, or, if I’ve managed to plan ahead, something defrosted and resurrected in the oven.

But the muse hasn’t left the kitchen. Her spirit waits patiently in my cupboard, offering gentle inspiration when she knows I have the time to focus, when I need the peace of puttering, kneading, mincing, braising; she knows when it is time to open my doors to friends and loved ones, to offer the friendship and love I don’t always express in words, but that arises in wafts of cinnamon and cardamom, in waves of red wine reduction, in spoonfuls of chocolate and crème anglaise.

I trust that life will make its periodic adjustments and I will find myself again in the kitchen on a regular basis, cooking for pleasure, not just for nourishment or simple necessity. In the meantime, I have afternoons such as today’s: no place to be but my kitchen, no excuse but to cook what tickles my fancy and fires my imagination.

And thank goodness for the public record that is the internet. A quick search of that online cooking community in which I participated brought up years’ worth of menus. Just think of all that planning that’s already been done for me, BY me. And what a perfect excuse to  repurchase some of those cookbooks I gave away.

A look back…

Weekly Menu, May 2-9, 2003

Eggplant Parmesan, Italian Vegetables
Marinated Salmon w/Roasted Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salsa
Baked Garlic-Cheese Grits, Garlicky Green Beans
Cate’s Springtime Risotto Soup, Dried Pear and Cardamom Scones
Almond-Crusted Chicken w/Scallion Rice
Braised Butternut Squash; Leftover Garlicky Green Beans
Chickpea, Red Pepper and Basil Saute, Mixed vegetables
Thyme-Scented Salmon w/Tuscan White Beans, Fennel Salad w/Green Olive Vinaigrette
Grilled Onion, Beef, and Sweet Potato Salad
Linguine w/Pine Nuts, Roasted garlic and Capers, spinach/vegetable salad

Tune in, turn on, say “Ahhh….”

Recently I read an article in the New York Times* that chronicled the adventures of five eminent neuroscientists who spent a week camping “off the grid” in southern Utah- no laptops, no cellphones, just gear and a guide.  In between rafting and hiking excursions, these academics discussed how the compulsive use of digital technology affects our learning, memory and decision-making abilities and whether we should give our brains an occasional vacation.

Like me, you probably don’t have any trips to the back of beyond in your near future, no forced retreat from the demands of your digital technology addiction. You must grasp those moments of peace and tune in, turn on to what you can access with your five senses, not with a wireless connection.

Let me offer you a simple exercise, an antidote to the rush and whirl of the daily digital grind. We’ll call it “Mindfulness in a Glass. “

Disconnect the phone, turn off the computer and the HiDef whatsit (it’s all right to have Cassandra Wilson or David Gray playing softly in the background). Pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in.

Tilt that glass to the light and consider the wine’s color and intensity. It may be the pale lemon of verdejo, or the deep purple of syrah. Notice how the light reflects the brilliant clarity of youth or the rich warmth of age.  Now, gently swirl the wine and stick your nose deep in the bowl of the glass. Inhale. Savor.  You may be transported to an orchard of ripe peaches or a meadow of violets, or find yourself tangled in a thicket of blackberries.  Inhale again and let almond blossoms or freshly-mown hay tickle childhood memories, allow the lavender and tobacco to take you to warm and distant lands.

Take a generous sip and let the wine spread throughout your mouth, coating your teeth and tongue. Close your eyes and be seduced by the musky mango of Spätlese or the rosewater-laced cherry jam of Barolo. Imagine the forces that combined to create this moment of quiet pleasure; the millennia of floods and glaciers, the seasons of sun and rain, the labor of planting and harvest, the passion of the winemaker, the volatility of chemistry, and the patience of the cellar.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in physics, once said “if we look at a glass [of wine] closely enough, we can see the whole universe.” We might think we hold the universe in our iPhones; a glass of wine reminds us that by savoring unplugged time, we can discover a universe of far more real and satisfying pleasures.

*(Richtel, Matt. “Outdoors and Out of Reach.”  The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2010).