"To let each impression and each embryo of feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating." (Rainer Maria Rilke)
As I slit the leek with smooth precision down its center to open its tender insides, my sharp knife etches into the marble counter and my thoughts immediately wander towards my grandmother. She used to visit us in Malibu once or twice a year, cooking from morning until night, squirreling away pieces of damp paper towel for later use. I would get aggravated, telling her there are plenty of paper towels. She never listened. That is why I loved her.
When I lived with her back in Michigan, I sliced the first avocado she would ever taste in her 60s. She, like I, became obsessed with them; their purity of flavor and texture, so subtle and sublime. Growing up in Macedonia, avocados were an exotic food to her, though she didn’t have any problem discovering Pringles potato chips pretty soon after she arrived in the United States. They were her favorite snack. Salty, roasted cashews, too. (Also a favorite of mine.) The saltiness is so satisfying.
On one of her last trips I was making soup. I love making soup. I always start a vibrant veggie stock before I make the final pot. Leeks are my allium of choice, over onions for the mirepoix. Their flavor is softer and more delicate for my tastes. On this particular day we had an abundance of leeks growing in the garden so I felt powerful to use what I wanted. I sliced the tender white and light green parts away from the darker, tougher, thicker green stalk at the top and discarded them into the compost bin. My grandmother let out a scream. “What are you doing? Why are you throwing that away?”
“Babi,” I said, “the white part is best and the dark green is too harsh for food,” I responded in my own defense. “Ahh! Who told you that?” she laughed as she grabbed the leeks out of the bin and cleaned them thoroughly under the running water. Upset, she put them away near her paper towels on a clean plate. I continued making the stock, chopping celery, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, ginger, tomatoes and jalapenos, sautéing them slowly and making bouquet garnis to add to the soon to be simmering liquid. When the stock was finished a while later, I strained the liquid into another pot, squeezed the last of the juices from the vegetables in the strainer and proceeded to throw away the cooked vegetables. My grandmother gave me another look of shock.
“Don’t worry. I have taken all I can from these vegetables for the stock. The soup will be delicious with fresh vegetables and the layers of flavors I just built. I promise,” I said. She was doubtful and upset. I continued slicing and dicing fresh vegetables – carrots, potatoes, zucchini, haricot verts, spinach – and adding them to the stock accordingly. My grandmother came next to me at the stove and took out a sauté pan, placed it on the burner opposite me and lit the gas. She began thinly slicing her dark green leeks that she gently sautéed in olive oil. She scrambled six eggs and added them to the pan when the leeks were ready. A healthy dash of sea salt and a number of grinds from the pepper mill and her dish was ready right in sync with the soup. We toasted thick slices of bread, cut some salty Macedonian cheese and set the table for a delicious meal.
Each time I slice a leek I think of my grandmother and the lessons of making something beautiful out of what may otherwise have not been desired. She was the kind of woman who could make a gourmet meal with an empty pantry.
The other day when I began to make soup again, I had just finished reading an article about a winemaker who refused a shipment of fruit during harvest because the berry size was not to the winemaker’s specifications. This winemaker was being lauded because of the exacting demands this winemaker placed on the growers this winemaker worked with. This was apparently a good example of strict adherence to quality. To me, in fact, it was quite the opposite. I thought how insensitive and wasteful this was, actually. And moreover, how sad, too, that this winemaker couldn’t see the beauty of improvisation and a new way to change the paradigm of said winemaker’s template. Maybe a different berry size would create a new flavor profile never experienced before, possibly better then before. Maybe the winemaker needed to change processing of this fruit to create something even more unique instead of being stuck into a regimen that doesn’t work with the impossible human demands on nature. I also wondered if the winemaker ever visited the vineyard to know the growing cycle of that vineyard so it wasn’t such a disappointment when the fruit actually arrived on harvest day.
I wanted the addendum to the story to be of the person who took that rejected fruit in the fire sale of fresh picked grapes with no shelf life. That person is probably supremely happy with the result of this wine from a great vineyard that happened to be sub par to one and impeccable to another.
To me, winemaking is about working with the best of what nature can provide guided by intelligent, thoughtful and careful people. We are so lucky to make wine in an area here in Santa Barbara County where bad fruit really is not an option. And from what I know of said winemaker, the vineyards that this person works with are incredible, as well. This isn’t about accepting mediocrity or paying for lousy, lazy work. But there is a fine line in farming and sometimes we have to know when to delicately scramble the dark green parts to make something delicious to share with others.