At a certain point in the summer, I realized that I’d peeled, and sliced, and cooked up more shallots in the past few months than I’d probably cooked in my whole life.
Shallots are, I decided, one funny but true way to tell the story of my sabbatical.
It’s not like I hadn’t ever made anything with shallots before. But I confess that a lot of the time when I’ve seen “shallot” in a recipe I just substitute whatever onion I have on hand.
But sabbatical means: time to shop, and cook, and consider our meals carefully. And it means: the meals can include peeling, and chopping, and food processing, special dressings and marinades that must be remembered and executed well-in-advance.
Which means, during sabbatical, shallots can become regular.
So much so, I start to wonder about shallots – why does a recipe want a shallot instead of a red, or white, or yellow onion? What’s special about shallots?
And because sabbatical means I can follow such random curiosities into actual knowledge, I learned that shallots are more subtle than those other onions, and are more akin to garlic, so add a little extra and different, but subtle flavor. Many of the recipes I’ve tried this summer have some sort of complex dressing, many served without cooking – for which shallots are the perfect, interesting flavor.
And because sabbatical also means indulging even beyond the intial site of inquiry, I reveled in the fun facts about all the onions offered on one of my new favorite podcasts, The Splendid Table, in their interview with onion-expert Kate Winslow.
I have tried so many new recipes in the past 14 weeks – some that took hours and then were pretty so-so…some that were fast and then turned out to be so delicious and satisfying. What my kids call – keepers. As in, this ones a keeper, mom. My kids are adventurous, and discerning when it comes to food – so it’s not a shallow compliment. Some of the keepers included portabella tacos, beef fried rice, broccoli chicken tikka masala, and just this week, a leek and sausage gnocchi and a killer greek salad.
I’ve learned that effort and time does not always correlate to a good product. Instead, a good read of the full recipe, and the flavors, and the care to get all the elements fresh or fully defrosted – this goes a long ways. I’ve learned what a difference it makes to not multi-task while cooking. As in, not read emails, or catch up on facebook, or talk on the phone, or even think about an upcoming sermon – while cooking. It is a gift to be able to focus on one thing, and to give ourselves to it, to just pay attention and to learn what is there.
My spiritual director told me, before sabbatical – this is your chance to learn more fully about the reality of your life. Without the chance for distractions – like, send an email, call a meeting, write a sermon. This is your life – is it funny, irritating, boring, sweet, scary, fascinating, confusing, endearing, joyful….maybe all of these, and more? Sabbatical, she said, is your chance to find out. And as with most things my spiritual director says to me, she was horribly, wonderfully, right.
When we learned to cook, we became fully human – Michael Pollan says in his netflix documentary, Cooked. (based on his book of the same name.)
It’s a big statement that a lot of the times I’ll admit was hard to keep in mind when the kids would look at me after hours of chopping and sweating and mixing – and say, this one is not a keeper, mom. Or, when the garden was calling, and my mom was calling, and laundry was still not done (the laundry became not even a tiny bit easier to conquer during sabbatical, why is that?!?), and I was drudging through one of my well-researched, well-considered “interesting” recipes, likely with shallots.
Pollan’s big push is for us all to cook more – to resist the rush of corporatized food, the outsourcing of food, the glamorizing of covenience – to slow down, and to sit down – to cook, and to eat, together. He says it doesn’t really matter what we cook, but only that we really take and pay attention to the experience of cooking, and eating, and being. Especially in these times, in these days. His is a cooking as resistance, as counter-cultural. Cooking as community, and care. He says that preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love – despite what our culture wants to teach us – there is no time less wasted than when we do this.
This is the story of my sabbatical. These hours of each day spent learning, and mixing, and hoping the timing works out. This begging my children to get their drinks so that we could sit down together. This remembering to pull the meat out of the freezer, or this carefully placing the summer fruit in a row so to slow down the spoiling. This race to get all that has been bought each week, to be eaten, before it goes bad.
Every minute of it a love note. Felt then, and if not, maybe later. Years, or decades even. So that when the day comes when I cannot always be there to chop shallots, or peppers, or mushrooms, or thyme – when that first Board meeting – which is already scheduled – runs fully through the dinner hour – that they will, and I will, remember the smell of garlic, and ginger, and the sprinkled sesame seeds or parmesan cheese, and feel still connected, and together, and loved.