Somewhere Between the Knife and the Pen

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Holy effing pig on a pogo stick it’s COLD outside.  As I write this post, the temperature outside has dropped to a very cruel -51 F.  At that temperature, I think about food quite a lot, but not about cooking… I think about sinking my teeth into greasy, carbohydrate-rich cheeseburgers, heaping bowls of fettuccine covered in mounds of butter, heavy cream and parmesan, slabs of chocolate cake the size of Volkswagens.  I’ve decided that this is not a moral failing on my part; It’s evolution.  My cravings for carbs and fat in sub-zero temps is a sign of my evolutionary fitness.  Even vodka freezes at -51.  I however, am surviving.

One cannot help but to be introspective while trapped inside by subarctic temperatures and the noticeable absence of the sun.  My introspection lately has revolved around the topic of My Career.  Actually, that should be plural: My Careers.  I’ve managed to carve out small bits of success in a few areas: painting, writing, teaching.  All of which I love deeply, like children, each in their own way.  But, like children who grow up to live in your basement, none of these professions have been able to pay the bills.  Last fall I took a job designing online courses and, whereas it’s paying my bills, it keeps me away from the things I really want to do all day.  This isn’t uncommon.  It’s a cliche, really.  A bumper sticker: “I’d rather be writing/painting/cooking!”  The employment world is rife with artists who are wasting their talents on things like data entry, phone sales, administrative jobs.  I’m a medium size fish in a very enormous sea.

Yet, I think if I decide to abandon completely the things that make me feel genuinely engaged, I’ll be just another one of the Walking Dead that inhabit cubicle spaces everywhere.  I’m convinced that this is why Zombies and Vampires are the cultural Zeitgeists of today.  So many of us exist day to day just to get by and corporations and government agencies (seemingly immortal entities) suck the lifeblood from us in order to sustain their own vacuous existence.  Maintaining a sense of personal identity, free of the trappings of traditional employment, is vial then, I would argue, to my psychological well being.  Duh.

But we all know this is easier said than done.  Gone are the days when I could spend an entire weekend in the studio ignoring the real world.  It’s difficult to take my time thumbing through old cookbooks and trying out new recipes.  Last winter break, when I was still an adjunct English instructor, I spent days and days writing and cooking and reading volume after volume of Bourdain and Fisher and Reichl.  I had time then to write, to post here. To think about the ways that crafting language and crafting a meal are both ways of paying homage to the transitory nature of existence.

So I simply try to keep this in mind: that somewhere between the knife and the pen, lies my bliss. My true nature.  My calling to be in the world.  Rather than carving my life into sections, where in one place I am a Zombie Drone and in another I am a vital human being, I’m trying and occasionally succeeding at weaving what makes me feel most alive into my day to day existence. The most successful days seem to be those where I “cross list” the things I must do out of obligation with the things I do out of love.

I’m a huge fan of Top Chef.  I’ve seen every episode of every season.  I loathe all other reality shows.  But Top Chef is different I think because it revolves around skilled chefs who are both hugely passionate about what they do and fiercely competitive.  The Quickfire Challenges are my favorite because they reveal the true creative capabilities of a chef.  The ingredients are often limited or there are unusual constraints imposed upon the contestants and they must make do with what they have. I’m inspired by this… All artists have some kind of constraints imposed upon them in some way; whether it’s tradition or money or materials or time.  It’s out of constraint that true inspiration arises.

Last night I had to make dinner for my family.  I didn’t have time to construct an elaborate meal out of which I could spin an essay; I had to cook something fast and feed four hungry, frozen people.  I knew I might have a little time to write this morning (it was -50 last night so I figured we’d be stuck inside again) so I figured I could make do with what I had.  Constraint.  What could I come up with, Quickfire-style, that would be both delicious and something I could write about?  I looked around for unusual combinations of ingredients and decided upon this:


Quartered New Potatoes Roasted with Shallots, Tobasco Pepper Jelly, Cracked Pepper, and Sea Salt.

(I could just call this: Roasted Red Potatoes, but if I were a contestant on Top Chef I’d have to spiff things up a bit.)

  • 1-2 lbs. quartered new potatoes
  • 3-4 tablespoons of Tobasco Pepper Jelly
  • 1-2 thinly sliced shallots
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tsp cracked pepper
  • 2 tsp Kosher sea salt

Put the pepper jelly and shallots in a bowl with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 3 or four tablespoons of warm water and stir until the jelly is thinned out.  Coat the potatoes in this mixture and put it into a 350F oven.  Make sure the potatoes aren’t crowded.  If you crowd them, they won’t get crispy.  When the shallots and jelly have caramelized and the potatoes have a good crispy edge to them, take the pan out of the oven and let the potatoes cool a bit.  Once they’ve stopped steaming add the cracked pepper and salt.  Then, as M.F.K. Fisher would say, serve it forth!

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3 thoughts on “Somewhere Between the Knife and the Pen

  • Tracy McNeill

    Madara, your words hit home. I share your thoughts if not your coldness. Here’s to maintaining our very souls while also paying the bills. Love your M.F.K. reference. You make many great points in this article. I am taking a break from the stacks of essays and projects to grade to slice out a piece of your wisdom. Serving it with coffee. Black. I can buy sugar on Wednesday when I get paid by the Zombies!

  • KimNB

    My son was complaining about this jar of red pepper jelly taking up space in the fridge. I stumbled across your potato recipe while hunting for pad kee moa recipes.Now he has something he can try it on. Thanks.