Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Would you like a slice of pasta?"

Hearing this phrase was a common occurrence in my dorm. During my freshman year at UC Davis I was lucky to be randomly placed in the luxury dormitory. I shared a space that held four of us in two bedrooms which connected to a common space, our own bathroom, and - faith and begorra - a kitchen.

This meant two important things: that I would never have to buy a pair of shower flip-flops, and that I was able to prepare my own food rather than go to the Dining Commons.

This wasn't to say that the food at the D.C. was bad, the variety of healthy options both nostalgic and inventive were wonderful. I relished in the visceral pleasure of working with my hands and feeding my friends.

The thing is, back in 2001, I didn't know how to cook. At all. My first Spring away from home I recall phoning my mom and asking her how to boil corn. (Fill a pot with water and add enough salt and sugar till it tastes like sweet salt water, then boil until some of the kernels show an orange tinge.)

Lucky for me on the first day of freshmen orientation I met Sarah Shannon. Currently a PhD. student at Indiana University in plant ecology and, as I write this, on a plane to Iceland for her honeymoon. Years before she was a simple first year plant biology student away from home for the first time like the rest of us. Sarah, a practicing modern Pagan with wild, nut-brown hair who nailed a broom carved out of cinnamon wood above her doorway and kept the works of Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien on her nightstand, was one of those people who understood the primal, nurturing qualities of good food at a young age. Sarah is the type who challenges her friends to meatloaf contests and can't understand why a landlord would be upset to suddenly discover a chicken coop on the property. I love that girl.

In 2001 we knew how to appreciate food. This doesn't mean we necessarily knew what to do with it. Our weekends, when not involved with studying or watching Anime (the shame) we're filled with culinary experimentation.

Saturday mornings were filled with brisk walks in cheek flushing air to the Farmers' Market where we would load up on fruit and veggies. We would always pick up two or three loaves of garlic Parmesan bread from the Village Bakery stall - a yeasty epiphany if you've ever had it - and fresh apple cider served iced into a block in summer or scalding after sitting in a hot water bath in winter.

Once home we would all sit and eat as we caught up and traded stories, flitting the hours away playing video games and reading novels or possibly, maybe, doing homework. These were the days before adulthood creeped into our lives, something I feel we're still only playacting at most of the time.

It was during these wistful hours that we would attempt to cook up a storm. While the only recipe I knew when I came to college was the one for Tollhouse cookies (still have it memorized) she knew a few tricks she could turn with our fresh produce.

Sarah would take our fresh grapes and place them in the freezer, allowing their sugars to crystallize. Come late afternoon we would break them out, now frozen and sweeter than they were before, as a way to combat the stifling Nor Cal heat. We learned to roast stone fruit for salads of fresh mixed greens of arugula and sorrel. We brewed pots of potato leek soup on sweater wrapped fall days would steam the windows. All year long Sarah would separate the supremes of a lemon and lightly salt them, eating them raw as nature's lemon drops. This was a treat she would offer to anyone around, although I don't recall a single taker in the nine years I've known her.

Has it been that long?

-Frozen grapes. A treat taught to me by Sarah.-

Still, our actual cooking skills were rudimentary. We were novices with knives. More than once did our homemade garlic bread set off the smoke alarm and a first-aid kit could be found under the sink next to the trash bags for the many injuries we incurred.

The first few times we ever made pasta the leftovers always glued themselves into one pasta mass. This would prompt us to offer any hungry friends virtual slices of pasta, cut and served with a pie knife. Nuked in the microwave we would eat it with a splash of olive oil, feta and olives. It would be almost a year before it occurred to us to lubricate the pasta when hot.

My annual Christmas peppermint cake was a joke. Sarah's first rosemary bread was a bit dense. I think we both overcooked the chicken and burnt the rice enough times to know that some nights would end with a trip to the D.C. for a hamburger.

We learned as we cooked but Sarah was always there to offer advice on which apple to pick up and why I should clean everything that the raw chicken touched. Most people talk about Alice Waters, but Sarah Shannon was the one who showed me what food really was.

Eventually we actually gained competence. Sarah's style of cooking developed into earthy sustenance, food most would pass off as hippie chow, granola, and tasteless. Her food is far from tasteless and her granola kicks ass.

You can talk how local you are all you want. Sarah is the embodiment of utilizing seasonal and local. She gets her wool local, washes it, spins it to yarn and even knits her own clothes before canning her own food.

I believe we call this HARDCORE.

Sarah now cares for her own herb and vegetable gardens and keeps chickens in her backyard. I'm reworking my peppermint cake into something more grand. She cans tomatoes. I can jam.

Nowadays I don't talk to her as much as I wish I did, and see her even less. Still, she's someone I can rely on and will always have fond memories of.

In a way she's always with me in the kitchen. To this day every time I put oil in my spaghetti I can help but ask out loud to no one in particular if they'd like a slice of pasta.


  1. That was a lovely ode to friendship.

  2. This was such a beautiful story...very much showing that the simple things in life that you both shared is precious and a cherished memory. I enjoyed this. :)

  3. There is no shame in liking/watching Anime....right? >_>

  4. Loved that post. Maybe it's because I'm a fellow UCD grad, or because I too love frozen grapes, or maybe yet because it's just such a simple story about food and friendship.

  5. Very sweet tribute to a friend, as well as to food.

    I wish I'd had a friend like this back in college. Although I was not so lucky as to ever have a dorm like that. I've only recently really started playing around with food. So I wish I'd had someone similar, someone to play around with, to test out recipes, etc. :)

  6. I don't know how they grow corn where you are, but Qu├ębec's corn is sweet enough without adding sugar to the water!!

    And I loved reading this post; it's true you always remember how you learned the things you love, and you always love the ones who taught you.

  7. a friend of mine in college froze her grapes and then tossed/rolled them around in sugar free cherry or strawberry jello. it was edible.

  8. You know what I like about your writing, Garrett? You are REAL food writing. Such innocence and appreciation of the obvious is completley refreshing in a world of food bloggers who have become the new authority on food itself. Keep up th killer work.

  9. Clifford: I still watch Naruto and Bleach.

    The Sugar: Wow, thank you. =)

  10. This is so sweet. I have some good friends scattered around the country from college and grad school, with a few good food stories to tell as well, but not with such intensity and obvious love.

  11. Great story -- it brings to mind tales of my roommate throughout university, who actually suggested this blog to me. Whenever I experiment off-recipe, I think of her!

  12. Everyone needs a friend like that :o)

  13. What a beautiful tribute to your friend.

    A slice of pasta! I should totally make "glued" pasta for my kids -- they would think it was a great invention. :)

    My mom always froze grapes for us, and now I freeze them for my children! Like tiny popsicles in the mouth. Yummy.

    I also spin wool and then knit with it, make my own granola and bread... Does your friend Sarah have a blog? I'd love to virtually "meet" her.

  14. Yay! Fellow UCD grad! I was unfortunate enough to have a dorm at Ryerson (you know where that is!). That meant I did have to get flip flops for the shower. My first foray into cooking was my second year when I got an apartment with my friends. I have a similar story with my friends as I didn't know how to cook either. Funny how now I'm the gourmet cook and resident foodie among my friends. Thanks for the great story!

  15. WOW!!!! That's a lovely post... :-)

    Chanced upon your blog thru a note posted....

    Made me glad to stop by..... baking has given me a bunch of lovely friends too ;-)

    The Variable - Nachiketa

  16. O Vanilla Garlic Guru, I have a question about the frozen grapes. Is there a limit to how long they can be kept in the freezer before they become unpalatable? My husband is not a fan of grapes, so if I buy any I have to eat them all myself, and the ones at the bottom inevitably go bad before I get to them. I figure that freezing them will lengthen their tasty little lives, but how long is too long?

  17. Plumtomato: I eat them all in 3 days, tops. Still, I would venture a few weeks before they begin to get odd.

  18. You know you've read a great piece of writing when you want to meet - heck, cook a meal with! - the person written about. A great way to spend your formative years, Garrett.
    My favorite times in the kitchen are those spent cooking with my sister, my parents, and my friends (we have culturally-themed "cooking potlucks" to learn together)....

  19. :) I don't think I've ever been referred to as "hardcore" before!

    You forgot to mention the first time we tried to steam artichokes and ended up with artichoke soup.


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