Dear Mrs. Robinson

I have finished the book you gave me at Christmas and am now ready to submit my book report. I hope that you will enjoy reading it and I look forward to receiving your feedback.

The Sabbatical Chef March 29, 2020

I am suspicious of people who do not like to eat. If I ask someone to describe their favorite meal or dish and they cannot quickly come up with a response, my antenna goes up and I immediately begin to question whether or not I could be friends with this person. And if they are already a friend, then I think perhaps that was a bit of a mistake. It may be a character flaw, but I am judge-y that way. That does not mean that my friends and family have to like the same food as I do. Nor does it mean that everyone should enjoy preparing a meal for themselves or for their loved ones. However, we are all programmed to be eaters.

With the joy of eating, though, comes issues with food, both positive and negative. I remember being in the elevator with girls in college and listening to them talk about throwing up the amazing pizza we just ate. I had never encountered bulimia but soon learned that it is real. When I moved to Chapel Hill, I shared an apartment with a high school friend who was anorexic. Another first for me. She was a very good cook and made delicious, inexpensive meals for me and for others, but I began to notice that she ate very little. She later confessed that she watched everyone at the table to make sure that she ate the least amount. And then she would go run it all off, miles and miles no matter what the weather. I fully expected to get a call one night that she had been hit by a car while out on one of these runs and was in the hospital or worse. I myself am a stress eater. I am working to stop labeling food as either good or bad. It’s just food. And food is really good.

I think that my food memories began with my grandparents who lived next door to me. My grandmother was in charge of breakfast, scrambled eggs, bacon and toast with lots of butter and jelly. She was also in charge of desserts. Her coconut cake was famous among the members of First Baptist Church. My grandfather was the “real food” cook. He had been a chef at one point in his life at a hotel in High Point. Family legend is that Grandma was a waitress at the hotel and that’s how they met. I spent hours sitting in the kitchen watching him make beef stew and stuffed peppers. Sadly, those are the only two recipes I remember, but I try to make my beef stew taste like Papa’s did. My mother inherited her mother’s wood cookstove. My dad set it up for her and she actually used it, even though we had a perfectly good stove in our house. When I came home on breaks from college, Mama would make pinto beans and cornbread on that cookstove for me. A true labor of love.

Sometimes if asked to describe a favorite meal, I can’t always come up with the actual food or at least not much of it. The place and the people eating with me is easier. The picnic in Monet’s gardens at Giverny? 2006 with the Arles 6, as we named ourselves. Cheese and bread. Maybe some cherries or strawberries and chocolate. Definitely wine. A hot summer’s day under the shade of pine trees looking at the lavender fields at the Abbé de Sénanque in 2007? Chef Érick’s tuna and chickpea salad with Érick and clients sitting on a blanket listening to the sound of cicadas. Not sure what else was consumed. Christmas dinner 2019 with my family around the table? Beef tenderloin, garlic mashed potatoes and gravy. Me rushing around like crazy to get it all on the table at the same time, but loving the fact that we were all together. Sunset Beach summer vacations? Making shrimp and grits with Son #2 because Son #1 tells us we have to, the week isn’t complete without it (we got lazy a couple of summers ago and he hasn’t let us forget it yet). Italy in September 2008 with the BFF and Mo? Risotto at an outdoor restaurant as the sun went down. Mousse au chocolat in Fanny’s kitchen in the south of France. Licking the beaters while she snapped my photo. Watching my father-in-law grill on summer evenings. The Ex-Ex is still intimidated by the skill that man had around a charcoal grill. I am pretty sure that I would ask for one of his grilled burgers for my last meal. And just a couple of weeks ago, at a social distancing picnic in downtown Durham, Bull City Burger and Brewery burgers eaten on a wall on a lovely spring evening with the Ex-Ex and AP. With the BFF wishing us bon appétit from a distance. I could go on and on, but I will stop there.

In Eat Joy: Stories and Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers editor Natalie Eve Garrett divided the book into sections: Growing Pains, Loss, Healing, and Homecoming. The title of each section gave me warning about the stories’ content so that I could somewhat prepare myself. Each author chose a recipe to share, but it was the stories that drew me in. The authors opened themselves up to me,a total stranger, sharing intimate details of their lives. I would like to thank each of them individually for baring their souls. Alas, this book report will have to do for the time being.

I want to be that brave in my writing, to let go of the “Everything’s fine” automatic response. Because right now everything is not fine. We are at the end of what has been a very traumatic month. I may never again be so glad to see April 1, a day which I have never found particularly amusing, not even the year I arrived at school to find that my homeroom kiddos had moved all the desks outside. We just had class outside that day. I want to just ride all of these emotions into the sunset, but I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon. However, with the help of friends, family members, colleagues, and students who are also willing to be vulnerable we will indeed get to the other side.

The point is that food should bring us joy and comfort. Remember that. Eat something good today. Make your favorite comfort food. Share it. Keep breathing. And eating.

After reading Claire Messud’s “The Taste of Consolation” in section of Eat Joy devoted to Growing Pains, this recipe got stuck in my head and wouldn’t go away until I made it. And yes, I licked those beaters!

Mrs. Hemmings Chocolate Brownies

(aka 2020 Socially Distanced Brownies, made with love and a lot of handwashing)

Brownies:

1 c. sugar

1/2 c. cocoa

1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. melted butter

2 eggs, unbeaten

1/2 c. chopped walnuts

pinch salt

1 tsp. vanilla

Sift together sugar, cocoa and flour (I am lazy- I just whisked them together). Add melted butter to dry ingredients. Beat in eggs. Add walnuts, salt, and vanilla. Don’t forget to lightly butter the baking pan (I love this reminder because sometimes I do forget). Bake 30 minutes in a 325˚ oven

Icing:

3 ounces chocolate

2 Tbsp. butter

2-1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla

6 Tbsp. light cream (I used half and half)

For the icing, mix (melt) chocolate and butter in a double boiler. Combine in blender with confectioner’s sugar, salt, vanilla, and cream. The icing can also be beaten with a mixer (I chose this method), an implement that’s easier to clean than a blender.

Voilà!

Bon appétit to everyone out there. I wish that I could deliver brownies to all of you. Hang in there. As Maureen McGovern sang for the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, “there’s got to be a morning after.”

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