The power of food

‘I have absolutely no control over anything in this world except the combination of ingredients that I mix together and the temperature of the oven I cook it in’ i

BRATTLEBORO — I very clearly remember when I first discovered the true importance of food.

My family had transplanted itself in the early 1950s from suburban New Jersey to a small grocery store/gas station in central Vermont - Coutant's Country Center, doomed, unfortunately, from the start by the poverty of the area and my father's willingness to extend credit.

There were a few great years that I remember, though, when I had unlimited access to Creamsicles and Almond Joys, huge wheels of clothbound cheddar and cans of Deviled Ham, which I slathered on white bread with Miracle Whip. But the gradual and inevitable decline of our financial security weighed heavy on my father, and he was frequently withdrawn.

Visits from my great Aunt Pete provided a much-needed treat. She was a tiny woman who drove a huge, white Chrysler Imperial, propped up on a pile of pillows, the seat cranked as far forward as possible so her feet could reach the pedals.

She would arrive with a small container of chicken fat and a tiny pair of scissors in a little velvet pouch. The scissors were exclusively used to cut the veins from kidneys that went into the steak and kidney pie she made for my father. The chicken fat was for the crust.

A day or two into her visit, she would commandeer the kitchen table, laying out a bowl of lamb kidneys procured from the next-door neighbor; next to them, she would lay her famous scissors.

The outer membrane of the kidneys would be carefully removed. Sliced in half with the veiny white core taken out, the trimmed kidneys would sit in a bowl of milk while she prepared the rest. Chunks of beef would be browned in butter, onions fried, stock made into thick, rich gravy.

Then would come the crust.

She had a bowl of flour into which would go a few slabs of cold, yellow chicken fat. She quickly rubbed the fat into the flour using the thumb and fingers of each hand, pushing first against the pinky and then moving firmly up to the index finger. I watched the flour change from its original inert whiteness into a pale yellow, coarsely-textured something-more-than-flour, something filled with possibility.

Then she would put her sticky hands into another bowl that held ice water, and she would flick the water on top of the flour mixture. Using a table fork, she would toss and fling the whole combination around inside the bowl, not letting a speck escape. More water, more tossing, until the mixture just held together as a tentative, scrappy ball and she would gently place it on a floured area of the tabletop.

With a minimum of gesture, she would pull and knead the mass into a smooth, shiny ball that was soft, elastic, and beautiful. She would take half this dough, a bit more flour, and a rolling pin and, with bold, strong movements, she would stretch the shiny ball into a perfect round that would enclose the beef and the kidneys and bake up light and layered and flaky and golden.

When I first saw Aunt Pete make this pie, I thought it was the most brilliant and wonderful thing I had ever seen.

My father had a similar reaction. He sat there at the table while my aunt went through these preparations, and I watched him change into a different person. I watched him love her for her scissors and her crust and her gravy.

I understood the power of food.

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That power is so simple, yet so complicated. We eat every day, if we are lucky. Food keeps us alive; its absence can kill us or make us very sick.

It is hard to hold onto my serious love of food and cooking when so much of the world struggles with the lack of it.

Food has always been and is increasingly becoming even more political. The rich have lots of it. The poor have very little.

What we eat is political. Is it organic? Is it local? Has the chicken on our table been raised humanely? Is that corn tortilla GMO-free? Is “politically correct” food just a status symbol for the liberal well-to-do while the rest of the world is happy with the scraps?

Is Coca-Cola truly evil? Do some of us seriously think less of people who eat Kentucky Fried Chicken? That crust is really pretty crispy, you know.

Throughout this internal debate, I am in my kitchen churning out food. I utterly love cooking food - the endless combinations, the planning of menus, the experimentation. I love reading recipes and deciding what sounds great and what I think just won't work.

I frequently fall asleep with a cookbook in my hands. I love looking in the refrigerator at the end of the day and trying to make something wonderful with what's there. I love cooking supper every night. I never, or almost never, tire of it. It is the way I show love to the people I care about.

But there is another something that is involved in my relationship with food.

I am fighting chaos and death with every turn of the spoon. I have absolutely no control over anything in this world except the combination of ingredients that I mix together and the temperature of the oven I cook it in. I know with certainty that eggs and butter, flour and cheese can be mixed in a certain way and become a soufflé.

I know I cannot take away all the many things that cause unhappiness and sorrow, but I know I can bake a batch of cookies.

It is a small, but very simple, thing to bake cookies. But a homemade cookie can make someone happy, can allow someone to feel loved, can truly make someone forget about their troubles even for one brief moment. That's all there is to it.

So I leave you dear readers in this month of December, a month of celebration and serious food, with my thanks for your patience these last five years and with a recipe for my favorite cookies.

My cookies

They are “everyday” cookies, not fancy. They are cookies you can eat without guilt unless you are a complete zealot. I have made them probably at least twice a month for the past seven years or so.

Always the same cookie, always the same ritual, and they have always brought pleasure to me in the making and to someone I dearly love in the eating.

They are my steak and kidney pie.

This recipe makes 24 to 30 cookies depending on the size.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, mix:

¶1{3/4} cups old-fashioned rolled oats

¶{1/2} cup whole-wheat pastry flour

¶{1/4} cup white unbleached flour

¶1 teaspoon salt

¶{1/2} teaspoon baking soda

¶1 teaspoon cinnamon

¶{1/2} cups pecan pieces

¶{1/2} cup small chunks of bittersweet chocolate (I don't like the uniformity of chocolate chips. Just a weird personal preference.)

¶{1/2} cup golden raisins

Cream in a stand beater until light and fluffy:

¶10 tablespoons unsalted butter

¶{1/4} cup sugar

¶{1/3} cup light brown sugar

Add and beat until well blended but a bit curdy:

¶1 large egg

¶1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Add the flour mixture and beat briefly until dry ingredients are wet and just combined. Do not over-beat.

Wet your hands with cold water and form the dough into little heaping tablespoons. Space evenly on the parchment-lined baking sheets, around 24 to 30 balls total.

Wet your hand again and press gently on each ball to flatten it.

Bake for 7 minutes, then switch pans around and bake for 7 minutes more. Cookies should be quite brown; I like them crispy.

Cool on racks. Stored well, these cookies keep for 2 weeks.

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Have a great winter. Cook for your friends. Be brave in the kitchen.

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