June 30th, 2016
Saving Food from Ourselves
After writing about Korean artist Jihyun Ryou’s “Saving Food from the Fridge” project, I planned to try some of her ideas for myself. Of course, I typically have more plans than time but serendipity chose to intervene. It happened when some freshly purchased bok choy ended up on the counter beside a mysteriously shaped ceramic that my daughter made. It’s a dark blue thing somewhat like a pie tin and I found that — following Jihyun Ryou’s precepts — if I treated the bok choy like flowers, standing in a little water, the mysterious blue thing served as a kind of flat vase.
It worked better than I could have imagined, because the rather floppy leaves quickly rehydrated into something that seemed freshly picked. This was an immediate improvement over wrapping them in plastic and stuffing them in the fridge. But the actual improvement in storage was fundamentally forgotten because of what happened when I went all the way with the flower metaphor by placing the “bouquet” in the middle of the dining table.
A variety of sensibilities converge on that table, starting from grade school and going on up and often those sensibilities are busy thinking about other things. But the bok choy centerpiece crashed everyone’s mental party and led to the most spirited dinner conversation in recent months.
Partly it was about the total violation of convention; substituting Chinese cabbage for a flower arrangement has an implicit sense of jokery. But that was only the first reaction. What proved to be more enduring was the sense of discovery. What (I want to say “who”) was this new presence who’d come to dinner? How long would it be here? What was its destination?
All of these questions, half offered in amusement (but half not) seemed to stem from this foodstuff escaping the category of stuff and becoming “this specific thing right here in front of us.” It revealed the kind of beauty you see in almost anything when you look, really look, at it. And it transformed these three bok choys into individuals, if you will, a set of triplets that you’ve come to know.
When the bok choy finished its time as a centerpiece and returned to the table as an ingredient, the conversation started all over again, centering on — I kid you not — saying farewell to the centerpiece. We’ve all heard about how hunting and gathering societies have a relationship with their prey — the gratitude of the hunter for the hunted — but in a completely surreal moment, I found we were having an analogous experience with a vegetable. This wasn’t the same as pulling something out of the garden. There’s a difference between just growing a carrot and growing attached to one.
And there was more. The vanishing of our centerpiece prompted further questions — are we doing it again and (incredibly) what’s next? As the lead cook in the household I have never heard — nor expected to hear — anyone asking what vegetable they can look forward to in a coming meal. This was particularly startling coming from my daughter who, while I wouldn’t exactly call her vegetable phobic, certainly anticipates them less than any other element of her dinner.
The shock waves of the experiment radiated all the way back to the grocery where where I discovered the season’s first appearance of that vegetable from another planet, romanesco (AKA romanesco cauliflower or broccoli.) These fractal beauties waylaid my meal planning because, well, how could I not make a centerpiece out of this and what meal might it fit with? Thereupon I spent a full five minutes choosing my particular romanesco because — I discovered — I was now making a choice that was aesthetic as well as utilitarian.
Back at home, the new centerpiece was greeted like the welcome return of some long-lost relative. Questions immediately centered on how long our new friend would be with us with a notable hint of concern that it would vanish too soon.
What’s funny is that it’s common to see vegetables placed in the spotlight; our culture’s compulsion to turn cameras on food means that we often encounter examples of vegetal boudoir photography. But meeting this in the flesh, so to speak, is a dramatically different experience, hammering home the unbridgeable gap between seeing a representation and being in the presence. Still, it was all new, and I was uncertain whether we’d made a fundamental change or whether this was just about the novelty.
I got my answer several days later, when my search for produce of suitable drama ended in defeat and I returned home with an ordinary cabbage. I busied myself with unloading the groceries, only eventually turning to the task of getting the cabbage in its “vase.” But to my surprise, it was already happening, because my vegetable-incurious daughter had found the unassuming brassica and was primping it for a turn at center stage.
I paused. Watching my daughter — placing the cabbage in the middle of the table, slowly turning it to find the angle at which the window light best revealed the contours and colors — I was astonished. I’d struggled in the kitchen for a decade, searching for a way to intrigue her with the edible vegetable kingdom, mostly without success. It was part of the larger project of trying to shift the household’s center of culinary gravity, to eat farther down the food chain for the betterment of life both inside and outside the house. But now, I realized, I’d been trying to inflect her relationship with food strictly by culinary means and that was a fool’s errand, because she is more a creature of the eye and the mind, of narrative and character. Here, she’d broken the barrier herself, triggered by the Ryou’s centerpiece notion, which not only piqued her sense of aesthetics but, just as significantly, allowed her to form a relationship with something as humble as a cabbage.
It was a gift, after all this time, and it was all I could do to not blow it by saying something about it to her. When we sat down at dinner the next day, the cabbage now on the plate accompanying bratwurst, I felt a quiet but profound satisfaction. This meal, which we’d had many times before, was now different and better. Or at least, that’s what I thought until I saw her gazing down at her plate, perturbed.
“I can’t eat this. It’s my friend.”