Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Life in Pie: Or, a Year of Creative Learning

My Life in Pie: Or, a Year of Creative Learning This article is about two things: the generosity of family and the growth of an individual. Clearly this is about me, and the good fortune I had this past year to be living with my older sister Courtney. While rarely mentioned in my writing, Courtney is actually the reason I am able to do it, and the reason I want to do it well.

I spent this past year living with her and her now husband, Bob, in their Boston loft apartment. That’s right, my sister spent her year of being engaged with her younger sister in relatively constant earshot. It was surprisingly seamless. While we grew up in the same house, it had been 16 years since we lived under the same roof. As children we were at odds, simultaneously loving and torturing one another (mostly I loved her, and she showed her love by pinning me to the ground, pretending to spit on me). Alas, she went to college and I stayed home. When I finally left for California years later, she had settled in Boston, securing more than a decade apart with only annual visits.

So when the time came for me to move home, she stepped up and offered her home to be considered as my own. I heard the voice of warning in my ear—this may not be the best idea—but ignored it. We would forge ahead with a new adult relationship. I have not regretted a moment of it. Sporadically throughout the year, Courtney and I would look at one another and ask, “Should I be moving out?” “Have I stayed too long?” and more importantly, “Does Bob want me out?” … “Do you want to leave?” she would ask. We kept deciding, together, that we weren’t done yet, that we still loved coming home to one another.

What does this have to do with travel? Artisans? Everything. They did not charge me rent, and because of that leeway of luxury, I was able to truly become an artisan of sorts, and could afford to become a true traveler. In exchange for my free house and home, they made it no secret that they wanted me to feed them. Having been a cook for so long, a farmer and a waitress, my life had been food, and they were not shy in hoping that I’d bring this part of me to Boston. Without much coercion, it exploded out of me. In this one year, I had the opportunity to explore every part of my creative self, thanks to their generosity and support.

It started with pies. Peach pies, chicken pot pies, strawberry pies, sweet potato pies… and moved on to jams. From there the pies loosened up into galettes: sweet potato with blue cheese, Brussels sprouts, roasted grapes and kale; quiche with leeks, mushrooms, fennel, grilled radicchio and herbs. I moved on to paella, abandoning my beloved crusts: seafood, chorizo, chicken…I made my own spice rubs and sofrito, homemade aioli and herb oils. The seafood got me itching for a Provencal style soup; I made the lightest herbed, saffron fish stock, dropped in my fish and shellfish at the last minute, topped it with rouille and crouton, and my sister and I ate half of it standing over the stovetop. This soup, inspired by my friend and boss, Nico Monday, of The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, was so good that when I took my first taste I said, “Nico Monday, eat your heart out.”

The year in food progressed. I cooked with a vengeance and drive that I had never had before. In California, you see, I lived with the best chef I’d ever known, and under him, my kitchen confidence waned. Independent of his ever-present skill however, the years spent watching him and learning his techniques proved to have been the best culinary school I could have attended. With his lessons in mind, I tackled chocolate, candies, cheesemaking, meringues, meats and every order of sauce I could imagine. Courtney and Bob did not object to my enthusiasm. Only once did they decide that there would be a dessert strike (out of respect for their waistlines), and I was not to make any more of those for a while.

But beyond what this year of communal family living did for me culinarily, it did much more for me professionally. I helped open and run The Market Restaurant for two summer seasons, present and proud when it was awarded Best New Restaurant this summer. I spent the winter learning inestimable amounts about cheese and wine at Esprit du Vin in Milton, MA. I took a position as the pastry chef at Central Kitchen, a restaurant in Cambridge. This was a job that would inspire my creativity, put pressure on my kitchen skills, and was, in effect, my chance to teach myself to run an entire portion of a restaurant’s menu. This opportunity initially kept me awake at night, dreaming of menus and jotting down notes at 4:00 a.m. out of anxiety.

I took over a public school’s garden too. With large, totally abandoned garden plots at Boston’s Blackstone School, I successfully rejuvenated the landscape and produced pounds and pounds of fresh produce for myself and the school children. I taught the kids about soil, bugs, flowers, nutrition, and plants. The students in my friend’s class, preschool special education, all responded to the sound of dried seed pods, the scent of herbs, and the taste of cucumbers. The garden is now part of a campaign to integrate the food produced into the school lunches and the care of the plants into science classes.

Lastly, I was able to take this job, the one that occupies my mind the most. I write weekly, this article will be my thirtieth (read the others here), and spend much of my time thinking about the next. I will always have to have other jobs while writing, for the work and the pay will never support my eating habits, and that I accept. Writing professionally has changed my life entirely though; much to Courtney’s delight, this position (and my dedication to it) has opened the door to the most supportable job she could ever see me do. Finally, she thinks, Lauren has a goal.

Without all the other jobs I completed this year, I wouldn’t have known that to write would be the best fit. None of the jobs I performed this year were full-time, none paid all that well (if they paid at all), and none offered benefits. But combined, I lived happily and healthily while enriching my life experience. I was also able to eliminate other career paths, all the while cooking and writing to my heart’s (and my sister’s) content.

This year, when asked what I did for a living, I explained that I had given myself a year of learning creatively. Without realizing it beforehand, that’s exactly what I had done; I took one year of my sister’s generosity and explored all my options. I learned incredible amounts about topics I love, I gained practice and experience that otherwise never could have, and got to carve a relationship of stone with my sister. The thing about Courtney is that she expects a lot from me, and expects that I should work hard for it. In many ways it troubles her to see me jumping from job to job, doing things for the sake of learning instead of for the financial stability. This year has made her more understanding of my creative mind, my seemingly unquenchable desire to learn more (maybe it’s just because I couldn’t actually decide what to focus on…but that’s one for the therapist), and my desire to do what I want, instead of what I should do. She’s been limitlessly patient, but I think that’s because her belly has been full.

The biggest gifts though are yet to come. I’ve promised to move out, just as soon as I get home from a long journey to the Eastern Mediterranean I have planned. This trip, of course, is only possible because I haven’t been paying rent, so again, the benefits I’ve received are innumerable. She is proud of my courage when traveling; she spent her wedding night telling all of her friends and new family about my plans. I still have hopes she’ll meet me in Europe, for we’ve already successfully tackled Germany, Prague and Amsterdam together. This year has created a whole new me and a new relationship with my sister. This writer will be her personal chef and travel partner whenever called upon, forever.

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