Monday, March 24, 2008

Of Dearth and Home

Ring in that recession! Nothing fuels the home cooking fires like the bellows of inflation. No, seriously -- every generation defines its comfort food as whatever grandma cooked up when things were tough. The corn pone crumbled in bean soup. The ham bone that lent the beans their meaty savor. Mashed potatoes all winter long. Oatmeal for breakfast. Coffee brewed with burnt toast -- though that's venturing into the territory of full-on Depression. When things really get wild, when threadbare and barefoot take the runways by storm, when the Dust Bowl supersedes the Super Bowl, and dole means government handouts, not bananas. Thing of it is, I think it's fair to say that most of us picky-palated impecunious youngsters would take a handout over Dole bananas 'most any day of the year....

In the meantime, let's celebrate the fruits of economic hardship by reminding ourselves that a backyard garden is like backing up our dollars with gold: potatoes are immune to inflation. And what is more, the distinctive creativity of every ethnic cuisine derives not just from the cleverness of the people who've cooked it every day for a thousand years, but also from a dearth of culinary options. In other words, this next generation of poor kids is on the verge of inventing the new American cuisine. Haute dumpster. And perhaps this new cuisine will be defined by a dearth of bananas, or electric ovens, or beer.

In fact, I love the word "dearth". Dear-th, dear-ness. It's not the absence of everything wonderful, but the preciousness of the little we've got. It's the perfect antidote to the mesmerizing superfluity of food on grocery store shelves (and, in fact, the perfect antidote to the perplexing plethora of lifestyles, roles, and visions I could choose). When 26 enticing varieties of olive oil gang up and fix me to the floor with indecision and panic, it occurs to me that freedom isn't a linear function of the number of choices we've got. Maybe those dear deep-rooted folks, the ones who don't pretend to be self-made, but build themselves up on the foundation of a community and its traditions, who take hand-me-downs and make quilts or whatever tired metaphors they can mine from deep in their dearth -- maybe the deep-rooted ones are happier for it.

In other words, I went to church on Sunday. Sometimes a wayward Mennonite girl could use a dose of community -- some sermonizing, a hymn or two, maybe even a wee nibble of communion loaf and a long, thirsty swig of wine. In San Francisco, Mennonites are allowed to be gay and drink wine and the communion loaf might even be challah. Go back East and the church has its panty-hose in a wad trying to figure out just how much of the loaf it's allowed to dole out to so-called sinners. But there it is: I was born into a tightly-knit Mennonite world, and it's my particular "dearth", whether or not I view it as stricture or scripture, or just one useful structure among many.

And soon, we'll all have dearth a-plenty: recession! Bring it on, I say. Let's drink to our dearth, toast our burnt toast, and hunker down with what we've got. To that end, a recipe for coffee from Grandma's taped-together copy of The Mennonite Community Cookbook:


This coffee recipe accompanies a "birthday cake" made from alternating strata of bread and cottage cheese, topped with a whipped oatmeal-thickened skimmed-milk frosting. TMCC notes, "This is an original recipe from our Russian Mennonite refugees of World War II."

Toast slices of rye bread until they are quite black.
Pulverize these slices of bread to form fine crumbs.
Use the crumbs to make coffee.