Secret Eating

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Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.

The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.

A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.

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anna’s secret eating

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.

Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.

There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.

For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.

Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.

I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.

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my room under the roof
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cathedral view from window by night

That February was bitterly cold.

I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.

When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.

Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.

The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.

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unsweetened dried mangoes

The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.

Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.

If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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dining room window
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with a view

Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.

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street side windows at sunrise

My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.

There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…

More Than Just an Egg Sandwich

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In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.

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A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with geography and longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.

Twenty-some years ago I was immersed in the writings of M.F.K. [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. She weaves autobiographical stories of people, places, and food into descriptive prose. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches caught my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life lessons are inseparable from a strong adult mentor.

When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained,

she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”

With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister Anne hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. There was always an egg sandwich or two carefully tucked into their pockets.

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the hills above laguna beach

In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it. —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970

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sunset at laguna

What I love about this story is that it speaks of satisfaction beyond physical hunger. Fisher was learning, as a child, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment was a metaphor for living well. The ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.

There are no cliffs overlooking an ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife are our spiritual geography. When home in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. A tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.

Aunt Gwen’s recipe was well documented. It started by heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart.

As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our version.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH  

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basic ingredients, before adding options

Ingredients [physical]

  • Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply                                                          
  • Eggs, preferably brown and free range
  • Jalapeño jack cheese or cheese of choice
  • Toasted English muffins or good brown bread
  • Salsa or fresh tomato slices
  • Fresh spinach or some kind of leafy green
  • Avocado slices or guacamole, optional
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional red pepper flakes as desired

Ingredients [spiritual]

Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Camaraderie shared. A new day begins.

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on the front porch in summer
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around the fireplace in winter

Method

Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea is good accompaniment.

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crack egg into a round egg form
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break the yolk, season with red pepper if desired
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constructing sandwich in layers
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with a mug of coffee
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toasted bread instead of english muffin

Traditions are important to children as they grow up. Aunt Gwen’s ritualized hiking and singing and eating egg sandwiches at sunset on a beach created a symbolic tradition, which in turn mentored a young girl that living well and eating well are intertwined.

All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous. MFK Fisher, Among Friends