Thursday, June 30, 2011

The World on a Plate

I’ve been at work on a book called Feeding the Hungry Ghost, which while peppered with recipes is not quite a cookbook, it’s like this blog -- it talks about food but it also talks about faith. It’s not driven by nutritional information, it’s driven by narrative, by story. A literary agent initially interested in the book came back to me with a pinched expression. “Well, it’s not quite a cookbook, is it?” And my first reaction was to cringe and whinge and apologize.

My heart goes out to literary agents these days. Old-school publishing is eroding out from under our toes the way the ocean shifts the shoreline. What will it become? E-books? No books? Nobody knows. But agents, editors everybody in the industry’s running scared. Fear makes our brains small. And the thing is, what I’m going for is big.

I’d never meant Feeding the Hungry Ghost to be just a cookbook. Between the sheer number of cookbooks out there and the internet’s stash of recipes, we don’t need another one (no, not even mine). We watch Food Network and Food Channel obsessively, but most of my friends don’t cook. We chase after today’s most Tweeted nutrient but one in three of us is obese. We’re incredibly hungry, but not just for food, and that’s what Feeding the Hungry Ghost is about. It takes its title from the Tao concept of restless souls still hungry, still seeking even beyond the grave.

For all our food processors and fancy food stores, our connection with food is very low,” as big-hearted novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin wrote. “We eat breakfast on the run. Our children’s lunch boxes are filled with instant pudding, instant soup, peanut butter and jelly on packaged bread. I do not believe that delicious food is a frill. Food is not fuel. It is not nutrition. It is fun, educational, horizon expanding, delightful. It is consoling, transporting and a comfort.”

To which I thought, yes.

Since Colwin wrote that -- almost 20 years go -- we’ve grown even more disconnected from our food even as we Tweet about mindful eating. Frankly, mindful eating sounds like a chore. But what if it felt like hanging with a friend, one who feeds you terrific things, too, maybe even popping a bit of chocolate cake in your mouth, which is forward as hell, but the cake is moist and velvety and winningly dark and your friend explains hand-feeding is an Ethiopian custom of friendship/kinship known as gursha. That’s what I want Feeding the Hungry Ghost to be.

My alluding to a Greek myth or The Good Soldier or a Strokes song may not have direct bearing on a recipe, but it can illuminate, enlarge, awaken. Like saffron and harissa and cinnamon, it makes the writing taste better, it makes life taste better, it feeds us. So I will not apologize for not quite writing a cookbook.

To discuss food without discussing our relationship to it, be it ties to a recipe, the culture, place or time it comes from or even the delight of sourcing, preparing and sharing food itself is to miss the bigger picture. M. F. K. Fisher, America’s premier food writer, showed us this, writing, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it. . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied. . . .and it is all one.”

For Hungry Ghost, I had to go back to Fisher, Colwin and other writers who’ve inspired me, who make me feel not alone in the universe. They do for me what chocolate seems to do for others. Their writing is delicious, yes, but sustaining, too.

Why settle for life served up in bytes, when you can get a feast cooked with love and with you in mind, to enjoy with wine and friends, with laughter and pleasure and meaning and connection?

Look, food Tweets and blogs and channels rock, but what feeds us isn’t just what goes in our mouths, it’s what enters our souls. Yeah, I get to say stuff like that now and again, and so does Terry Theise, wine guy extraordinaire and author of the slim but transformative Reading Between the Wines. If we slow down and allow ourselves to surrender to the pleasure of a wine -- okay, a really good wine, “we hear a kind of divinity,” he writes. “And loveliest of all, you don’t have to attain this by dint of some tremendous effort of ‘spiritual practice,’ you don’t have to meditate or hold seances or even do yoga. You just have to be willing to relax and step out of your damned life for a few minutes.”

And that is what I want for Feeding the Hungry Ghost, that is what I want for you -- a book that offers recipes you’re hungry to try but also gives you the world on a plate.

Vegan Chocolate Cake

I was testing plant-based milks for an Edgy Veggie column and thinking what recipe to make for it. Smoothie? Boring. Baked thing? Very boring. Sauce? Also boring. Plant-based milks, by the way, do not great custard bases make.

I took a mental health break to look through Laurie Colwin’s wonderful book More Home Cooking. I love her cozy way of giving you a recipe for something simple and comforting, something you want to eat right now and happily, you can, because it’s made with things you have on hand. Combined, though, these ingredients become greater than the sum of their parts. This not only yields you something worth eating, it makes you feel like you’ve executed a magic trick.

I came upon her chocolate cake chapter. I thought, hmmm. Some vegan chocolate cakes are good, some decidedly not, but most comprise arcane ingredients like xanthan gum. I’m sorry, I still don’t know what that is. And I’m a professional food writer. So I did some swapping for Colwin’s recipe and voila, came up with a cake that quick, easy, pantry-friendly and vegan and still provides a mind-blowing chocolate experience.

1-3/4 cup flour

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup soy milk (not lite)

2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup canola oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

powdered sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 350.

Lightly oil a 9-inch round cake pan.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa and baking soda. Stir in sugar.

In a small bowl, mix together soy milk and vinegar. It will curdle. Don’t sweat it, this is good. Stir in oil and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients gently into dry ones, stirring until just combined and it all coalesces into a dark, thick batter.

Spoon batter into prepared cake pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until fragrant and the cake springs back when touched.

Needs just a dusting of powdered sugar.

Keeps wrapped and refrigerated for several days.

Serves 8 to 10.


  1. Well, all I can say it - oh please hurry and write this book, get it published and into my hands. It sound just wonderful to me.

  2. Marigolds2, you're the sweetest flower in the bouquet -- many thanks. When you're out my way, let me know -- I'll make you dinner.

  3. This book idea is marvelous. It hits on the very things I have been thinking about recently. I had in-laws over last week, and they said not to "worry" about meals, and that they "didn't care" what we ate, that I "shouldn't bother" to be in the kitchen on account of them. What? Only Americans can think this way because of our disconnect to the real food culture. I responded that they shouldn't say to me what they wouldn't say to an Italian grandma. I don't think they got it.