Laurie Colwin, whom I believe I may have mentioned my fondness for, wrote compellingly about the little challenges and satisfactions to be found in selecting just the right thing to offer to a hungry person. In her case, she was discussing a person just in from the airport after a long flight:
“This person must be coddled, comforted and made to know that something delicious but not taxing will be waiting for him to eat…The question is, What? There are certain things a jet-lagged person should never be given. Complicated pastry, such as a napoleon, should never even be shown to people who have been in an airport within the past ten hours. Nor should they be offered steak or grilled meat. An omelet sounds right but is in fact wrong.”
She continues to mull the options, eventually crafting a small meal that will heal all the little injuries and indignities of air travel. I read this with rapt attention when I first stumbled across it–I didn’t know anyone else who obsessed to quite this degree, or derived the same happiness from getting it just right.
At the faintest hint of invitation, I will make a dinner basket for people with a new baby. Feeding pregnant people, the recently-parental and the convalescent is my idea of happy work. Everything must be tempting and satisfying, not too rich or spicy, soothing but not dull, nourishing but not heavy. It makes me chortle with contentment to do this. Does this mean I am some kind of nutball? Of course it does. Oh, well.
To me, the measure of how well I know someone is how just-right a meal I could make them–even if I never do. If you ask me to assess my closeness to any of my pals, my first thought is “do I know what they like to eat?” Can I name the thing on a plate that makes them scoot up closer to the table, could I bring them a little treat and know it would delight them, do I know what arcane childhood aversion they have toted along into adulthood (no white food! No cold cheese! No scratchy lettuce in the salad!)? When I think about it, this kind of knowledge isn’t a substitute for intimacy, it’s the kind of information you can only glean from time in someone’s company. It IS intimacy.
The funny thing I’ve noticed paying close attention to feeding people, especially children and pregnant people and those who are recovering from illness, who are really making use of the calories in meaningful ways, is that the more your body needs something, the more you are likely to find it appealing. I am not referring here to the irresistible urge to eat a doughnut. That is another principle entirely. But take the case of the Slippery Soup. A friend was told not long ago by a fancy doctor that her troublesome vocal chords were giving her trouble because they were exceptionally parched. Something about this word, “parched,” put me in mind of the Slippery Soup I would make for my children when they were small and had just emerged from one of those feverish little sudden illnesses that blow through like a storm at sea and leave a person droopy and dry and in need of restoration. The soup sounds kind of unappealing, I warned her, and frankly looks rather that way as well, though there is nothing unequivocally yucky in it (it is not, for example, made with innards or tentacles or anything that smells bad). But if it is the right stuff for you, I told her (remembering my flushed tots slurping it down), you will probably find it tasty. Friend made it. Husband of friend, appalled, said “what the hell is that stuff you are making?” but she could not answer him, because she was eating it up.
You will not want to serve this to guests, but the indignities of the holiday season may mean you’ll want it yourself at some point. You’ll know when the time arrives, because it will sound way better than it sounds right now.
for restoration, rehydration and recovery (not dinner parties)
1-2 strips of dried kombu seaweed (in the Japanese section of your local natural foods store; no mail order or sea voyages required)
1/4 c pearled barley (you could use any other whole grain, if gluten is an issue)
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
1 large carrot, cut in chunks
tamari, miso or bragg’s liquid aminos (to taste)
Simmer the first four ingredients in about 3 cups of water until the seaweed is softened, carrots are very tender and barley is entirely cooked, and the liquid looks to the untrained eye a bit like bilge water. Strain out the solids. You can chop up the seaweed and carrots and return them to the soup along with the barley (I generally leave out the garlic, as by now it has worked its magic and lost its charm, both), or just serve it as a broth. Either way, season with the miso or soy, maybe a squeeze of lemon, too, and either add or don’t add the solids back in. You’ll be back on your feet in no time.