Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Nourishing Letters: Supper with James Beard


My friend Laleña Dolby is working with local letterpress greeting card company Egg Press on its campaign, Write On, to get folks to start writing again. Appropriately enough, April is National Letter Writing Month, and Egg Press with its partner Hello! Lucky, is launching the Write On Challenge, the mission of which is "to promote joy, creativity, expression and connection through hand-written correspondence." People accept the Challenge to write 30 letters in 30 days in April, or as many as they can. I thought Laleña's contribution was so compelling that it deserved reposting here.

Before the barrage of food images on our Instagram feeds, there were stories of food. There was a time when we could not, instantaneously, capture the bright white foam of a latte, or the particular way spring greens weave together on the plate, and send them to someone on the other side of a screen. If we shared an experience of food, it was with those privy to the scent, colors and textures of our nourishment—those sitting across the table from us. If we wanted to relate a dining experience to someone who was not at the table, we used words to translate the visceral experience of eating. We told food stories. Sometimes, these stories were shared via letter. Like a great meal, letters allow both the author and the recipient to slow down, and savor the moment.

I recently caught up with a good friend of mine, Katherine, in our favorite meeting spot, her kitchen.  She dished up two bowls of braised kohlrabi that she'd just pulled off the stove. She is the founder of Cook With What You Have, a resource for delicious, simple, vegetable-rich meals, so it was not at all odd to find myself enjoying a savory bowl of winter produce at 10 am instead of a plate of pastries with her. Between bites, we got up to speed on the comings and goings of our lives. For years, we'd worked together on initiatives to help people understand where their food comes from and to develop an appreciation for the people who grow it and prepare it.  So it was no surprise that much of our conversation on this morning was around food, but I also told her about the work I am now doing to encourage people to connect with one another via letters. This prompted her to pull a small blue envelope from a stack of papers on her kitchen counter.

The outside of the envelope was marked February 10th, 1941. It was surprisingly sturdy for its age. I opened it, revealing a blue toothsome paper, on which a saturated, silky blue ink flowed across the pages like a beautiful stream, curving gently from side to side, up and down: cursive. In this letter, Katherine’s grandmother, Deborah, writes to her mother. It is a letter home. Deborah had recently moved to New York from Oregon. Now in the big city, she knew but one person, who was also a transplant from the Pacific Northwest. At one point in the letter, she describes sharing a meal with him, James Beard, or Jim, as she called him. Seated at the kitchen counter, I scooped up warm cubes of kohlrabi as Katherine read the letter to me—a story of a dinner with the dean of American cookery.

 Deborah writes: “Then I went to Jim Beard’s for supper. He is a most entertaining person. A charming apartment. Lives with a Jim Culhum—likely enough. Plus three other guests, all very delightful. A wonderful dinner done by Jim. Baked ham, delicious sweet pickled tomato sauce, French potato salad, bananas baked in rum, hot biscuits, pickled walnuts and coffee, after some good rum cocktails.”

As someone who has spent a good wedge of time pouring over James Beard cookbooks, locating the street on which he grew up in Portland, and driving to the Oregon Coast to commune with a stretch of beach where his family held sandy cookouts every summer, this letter granted a kind of kinship with James Beard that I previously thought impossible. I moved through time and space; the blue ink on manuscript paper transporting me to the New York apartment table of a hero. There with Jim, I sipped a rum cocktail, plucked a pickled walnut from a delicate dish and enjoyed the warmth of a hot biscuit. That morning, a special connection was forged that defied life and death and time and space, as letters tend to do.

This month, we encourage you to share your own story of a memorable meal, an account of a time spent together at the table, or a description of a food that connects you to someone you love. Write it down. Send it off. You never know, it may end up in the hands of someone like me someday, who treasures it beyond measure.

And, if you are in Portland, Oregon, we encourage you to visit our two Write On restaurant partners who also believe in the power that stories and food have to connect us. Pine State Biscuits and Ned Ludd are offering complimentary Write On cards to all diners this month. Belly up to the table, enjoy a wholesome meal and make a memory with someone. Both restaurants are offering writing prompts, that, you guessed it, are all about the nourishing potential of stories.

1 comment:

Cook With What You Have said...

Thank you for posting this wonderful piece. My grandmother would be delighted to see that her words being used to encourage letter writing.