"On the fly. On the run. Standing up, or in a car." It sounds like a fanciful line by Dr. Seuss. But these words were uttered by food writer Elissa Altman on the very real state of American eating.
Altman, author of the newly released Poor Man's Feast and the James Beard award-winning blog by the same name, wants Americans to slow down and remind themselves of the simple, yet immeasurable joy of cooking.
"We're just pulled from pillar to post in this country," she tells U.S. News. "Running from one thing to the next has become part of who we are at the most basic levels, and the idea of sitting down at the table as a family all together--whatever that family might look like, if it's a family of two or family of four--and really making that a priority has really gone by the wayside."
Despite that pace, and likely because of it, the yearning for a simpler life has ironically reached a fevered pitch. People are "champing at the bit to try to relax," Altman says, citing the calming color tones now in vogue and the popularity of magazines on simplifying life. These things offer "the promise of simplicity," she says, but very often result in more stuff that people don't know how to use.
Part memoir, part cookbook, part social commentary, Poor Man's Feast details Altman's journey toward a simpler and more meaningful life, one introduced to her by a woman who would become her life partner.
Altman came of age amid an excess of excess--New York in the 70s and 80s, where extravagant food symbolized the longing for social elevation. In her Forest Hills family, fancy was done regularly and with reverence, be it clothes or food. For her father, an advertising executive, food represented comfort; for her mother, a model haunted by the chubbiness of her youth and continuously on crash diets, food was a source of terror.
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During her mother's salon appointments and modeling jobs, Altman and her father ventured on secret culinary escapades, driving from Queens into Manhattan for foie gras and mille-feuille (aka Napoleon) in exquisite French dining rooms, but also to Brooklyn for juicy roast-beef sandwiches. If time was short, Ben's Best on Queens Boulevard supplied a feast of Jewish deli ("My father introduced me to their specials platter: two immense, kosher beef franks with the girth of the transatlantic cable, nestled in a snood of sweetened baked beans," she writes).
Altman assumed her father's adoration of dressed-up food. And she found its epicenter, working at the original Dean & Deluca, the gourmet food emporium, in Soho, where the obscure accoutrements included "larding needles and tiny, perforated metal caper spoons so you could lift the pungent nuggets out of their brine and not remove any of the precious liquid," she writes. It comes to life in a scene she depicts about her first day of work, when one of the owners grilled her on the inventory with rapid-fire questions:
"What's this?" he asked, pulling a wire egg separator out of a crock on the other side of the table.
"A round whisk," I answered, confidently.
"Wrong!" he roared, shaking his head. "We're going to do this again tomorrow--and I want you to learn what every single tool does, and exactly how it works--it has to be on the tip of your tongue," he instructed, snapping his fingers, just inches from the tip of my nose.
At that time, Altman was very big on vertical food, meals constructed into towers of art. As she writes: "I wanted to make tall food--very fancy, very tall food that would impress my dinner guests--and leave them astonished and surprised and gazing in awe at my hidden talent ... even something as elemental as a piece of roast chicken could be elevated out of the mundane into the architectural and breathtaking. Assuming everyone could figure out how to eat it without a degree in deconstructive architecture, or before it got cold."
Even for herself, she would whip up something fancy for dinner like oysters smoked in tea, she says, adding, however, that "that's not really a complicated kind of thing."
So imagine her bewilderment, really bedazzlement, by Susan, who lived sparingly in small-town Connecticut and created simple food that was staggeringly good. "One of the first things that she made for me was she poached an egg and put it on a piece of toast," Altman says. "I was kind of in a crazy way sort of transfixed by this," she says. "She wasn't using contraptions. She wasn't using expensive stuff, and it was delicious and satisfying and emotionally satisfying, and it spoke to all of my senses, and things started to change at that point."
In simplifying her relationship with food, Altman aims to make the case that everyone else can, too. "If your ingredients are simple and the best quality that you can afford, and you don't dither with them in service to trend, you will eat very, very well, and you will feed your family," she says.
The problem, however, is that many people don't even know how to do that, she says. In our hyperscheduled lives, cooking has taken a backseat to grab-and-go eating. "Until we can get back to food as sustenance, rather than food as fuel, we'll be stuck," she says. Despite the move toward organic food and farmers markets, both of which Altman advocates, "it means nothing if people don't know how to feed themselves."
So where does one start? With what Altman calls "quiet time"--a few minutes to decompress. It's up to each of us, she says, to find that rest.
For her part, cooking does the trick--providing a calming antidote to busy weeks. But even sitting down to eat at a restaurant helps. Altman says her weekdays start at 5 a.m., at a restaurant for coffee and oatmeal on arriving into Manhattan for work. Those days tend to turn out better for her than "the ones when I'm sort of shoving a hard-boiled egg down my throat while having a meeting at the same time."
To make life simpler, Altman suggests starting simply. Although people often suggest cooking one day for the rest of the week, she finds the task to be "too big." Instead, focus on making one favorite dish. "Just giving yourself the pleasure of eating something that you made, that you know you love and your family loves, I think is hugely empowering," she says. Cookbooks by Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, she says, offer basic recipes.
And when it comes to relationships, simplicity also plays a role.
"We want the Cinderella story," she says. "We all come to the table with a lot of shoulds," about the requirements one wants in a mate, and those restrictions can get in the way of finding a harmonious match with whom you can face life's unexpected trials. "What you want in life is a partner who is going to help you get through that, and you need to help them get through that," she says, adding, with a laugh, that "of course, extreme attraction helps."