Senses and Soul


Katherine Hauswirth


A good meal can be a welcome balm for the strains and stresses of the day. This is a lesson I’ve learned a little too well in the past couple of decades. But I’ve kept my reading and eating lives fairly separate until this week, when the best meals I savored never reached my tongue.

At the library, I was drawn mostly to the subtitle of Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy. I didn’t notice until I got home that author Michael Tucker, lying on a bench looking happy with his head in the lap of his smiling wife, looked familiar. Both Tucker and his wife starred in the long-running TV series LA Law, and early in the book Michael is experiencing a “now what” moment. All good series must come to an end, as does theirs, and Michael and Jill find themselves at a juncture—where to go; what to do? I am so happy they landed in Umbria so I could share some blissful moments vicariously through Michael’s words.

These words surely were the balm I needed for a nonstop week filled with work and family obligations.

It seems we never had time to get things done because our days were filled to the brim with lingering. Breakfast became a longer and longer linger . . . Jill and Caroline have a way of making breakfast into a full-length play which unfolds in long, slow, Chekhovian acts—from the yogurt and peaches, into the cheese, prosciutto, tomatoes, and panini, into the biscotti dipped in chestnut honey, all washed down with tea.

The book’s got a hungry sense of “keep it coming”. Michael, Jill, and their friends anticipate being served or cooking fresh, delectable courses, a parade of them, with enormous delight. The conversation flows more and more freely as does the wine. Sometimes it’s a tiny, unassuming eatery where the menu’s sung out proudly—strangozzi tartufo, gnocchi con patate, tortellini con panna—by the proprietor; others it’s a night at home with a party around the ancient, cavernous oven that came with the farmhouse they’ve purchased. These people know how to have some serious fun.

But, while Tucker and his circle are bona fide foodies and expert party throwers, the book is completed by the affection with which it’s infused. This affection covers the countryside, the ancient ways of the rural Italian people, and family and friends. The book’s peppered with snapshots of those who prepare these memorable meals, as well as those who sit down to enjoy them. Michael reflects on the rich life that is completed by these people, especially Jill, for whom his passion surpasses even the best ravioli and grappa.

My feast continued with a unique first novel that, like Foreign Language, is suffused with lingering over food and a lingering sense of appreciation and affection. The School of Essential Ingredients mostly takes place at Lillian’s restaurant, where she conducts a cooking class every Monday night. I basked in the healing power of good smells and tastes, like student Claire, who’s told to “smell the change in the air as the crab cooks”:

The fragrance of the warming ingredients drifted across the room, seeping into her skin, scents both mellow and intriguing, like the lazy excitement of a finger running down the inside of your arm. When Claire lifted her glass to her lips, the white wine erased the other sensations in a clean, cool wave, only to allow them to return again.

Essential Ingredients has a soft, kind, and practical tone that is voiced through cooking instructor Lillian. We could all use a Lillian in our life. She intuits the dish each student needs to cook, and what results is more than dinner. Tom comes to terms with loss as the ingredients of his pasta and sauce recall the finest memories of his lover. Claire, a frazzled young mother, reconnects with her buried sense of self and sensuality over buttery crab. Each of the six other students has a quiet epiphany of his or her own. Each is sated in some way, and the food is just the beginning. More important is the window of time in an otherwise busy life to thoughtfully conceive of, prepare, and savor a relaxed meal, a prayer of gratitude for the senses and the relationships that heighten them.

Tom’s lover sums it all up: “Poetry isn’t any different from food . . . We humans want to make things, and those things sink into us, whether we know it or not. Maybe your mind won’t remember what I cooked last week, but your body will.”

I’m often more apt to appreciate a meal of good words than I am an actual plate of finely prepared food. But Foreign Language and Essential Ingredients reminded me that the body, mind, and soul share a strong and important connection that can be awakened with tangible, tasty forays into the kitchen. My black coffee tasted richer as I wrote this, recalling the very real sustenance for the soul that good food and friends can provide even, or perhaps especially, in a life that’s sometimes estranged from the very finest flavors.

Books mentioned in this column:
Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy, by Michael Tucker (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007)
The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister (Berkley Books, 2009)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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