I work for a company that provides lunch for its employees each day. My life has not always been this way, I assure you, and I am exceedingly grateful. I think these meals—the wholesome food, eating together—actually do our team a lot of good, but that’s a conversation for another time. I mention it today only because I want to talk about one of our wonderful chefs, Tomás.
While eating lunch together last Tuesday, we were telling one another how we came to love food, what we feel about it. We’ve both come to the same conclusion—food is about everything; everything is about food. It’s all intertwined. We need food to live, to thrive, to persevere. And I guess it’s true that many of the things we need become mundane, but food…? How is it that we let this happen? It’s like a miracle, these things that grow from the ground, the chemistry that happens in our kitchens. Eating ought to be remarkable.
Tomás told me how he views the act of cooking. How he pays attention to what we need and cooks accordingly. We’ve been passing around a classic November cold, and so he makes soup one day and a big pot of brothy beans the next and uses ginger wherever it fits. The first day I came into the kitchen with the sniffles, seeking honey to doctor up my tea, he’d pulled a ginger potion out of the refrigerator and told me to wait a moment–I’ve got a lemon here, too, he said. I mixed the ginger, honey and lemon into my hot water, feeling so well cared for and somewhat astonished by that fact. We hardly knew one another then, and yet here he was, reaching out in this most intimate of ways like it was no small thing.
What does my food matter if I’m not cooking what you need? Tomás wondered aloud. This, of course, is a rare attitude, one held by those who aren’t cooking for praise and glory but out of love and compassion and concern for the human condition. It’s what many of us were lucky to experience when we were young, fed by parents who cooked to nourish our little bodies and souls. I don’t think we experience it that much as adults, hurrying to put dinner on the table for ourselves, hurrying all the time.
In many ways, I do cook for myself. I cooked and I baked all the time when I lived alone. I love the ritual, and I often start out with a craving for the end result—the quick breads and cakes, the comforting soups. But yet, I want my food to be about more than that.
The evening that followed my lovely conversation with Tomás, I volunteered at an 18 Reasons event focused on mindful cooking. At the start of the class, the instructors asked the participants to share what they’re excited about and what they’re anxious for as the holidays approach. The sentiments were quite universal, everyone concerned about family drama, obligations and/or rampant consumerism. I understand, of course. I’m there, too. And the point of the exercise was to cut through this, to maintain a sense of calm and cheer throughout the season. But still, I’m sad that joy, celebration and togetherness aren’t the first words we associate with the holidays.
With Thanksgiving nearly here and the whole holiday season speeding toward us, doesn’t it seem wise to start with the notion that food is a vehicle for compassion and kindness and so many good things? We all need grace. We all want to be loved. Let’s start in the kitchen.
Adapted from Elisabeth M. Prueitt & Chad Robertson’s Tartine
1 cup all-purpose flour
Scant 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, or more all-purpose (total 225 g flour)
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 cup / 280 g pumpkin purée
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons / 200 g extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup + 2 tablespoons cane sugar
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as demerara, for topping
2 tablespoons raw pepitas, for topping
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the pumpkin purée, olive oil, cane sugar and salt with a whisk until well mixed. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture, stirring until just combined. Beat for 5 to 10 seconds more to make a smooth batter that is the consistency of a thick purée.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Sprinkle evenly with the coarse sugar and pepitas. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 20 minutes, then remove from the pan and allow to cool completely. The cake will keep, well wrapped, at room temperature for 4 days or in the refrigerator for about 1 week.