'What a feast we had'
Two food lovers with a passion for cookingand each other
To describe the writing of a cookbook in the anniversary month of 9/11 does not seem odd to me. Consider that shortly after the disaster, food service workers, magazine editors, celebrities and countless others began cooking. Began ferrying pots and platters and pans and cauldrons, lasagnas and chilies and garlic bread and brownies, down to the site. Began feeding rescue workers.
The act of volunteers scooping food onto plates for those ash-covered people as they emerged from hell said what could not be said in words: "There is nothing we can do, but we must do something. We are helpless and stunned, yet we long to help. We must go on. We will go on. Please eat; please continue on with us."
To cook, eat and serve others is the transaction of living, to celebrate right in the face of death.
These ideas are close to me personally now. My new book, Passionate Vegetarian, was written during the last seven or eight years of a radiant 23-year marriage. Ned Shank, six-foot-four, bearded, blue-eyed, washed the dishes of all those recipes I developed, tested and retested, commenting thoughtfully along with other family and friends who came, eight at a time, to several years worth of tasting parties. The only rule was that the party guests had to give their honest reactionsincluding the things they might typically say only in the car going home. An enthusiastic eaterbig, kind, quick to quip but discerningthis was the Ned who might simply close his eyes in pleasure at the sublimity of a particular chocolate torte, or remark of a casserole, "What if you added something salty, astringent, like, say, a handful of those oil-cured olives, minced up, to the sauce?"
But he was also the man I recently rediscovered in going over proofs: "The empty box of Uncle Ben's Converted fell on the floor. Ned and I both had our hands full, so hein the inexplicable fashion of the testosteronedkicked it in the direction of the waste basket. I gave him the dubious-but-amused, corner-of-the-eye look common to my sex in such circumstances. By way of clarification, he said, 'Rice hockey.'"
One November afternoon, after the book was written, but before it was publsihed, Ned went out on his customary three-times-a-week bicycle ride. A red Chevy hit him. He bicycled through the air, the windshield, the pavement and into eternity. He was 44. The dedication to Passionate Vegetarian reads, "For Ned Shank, February 19th, 1956-November 30, 2000. What a feast we had."
Feast we did. The grief I feel is commensurate with the joy of that feast. A feast I chose, after soul-searching, to leave in present tense in the book. Glimpses of daily Ned-and-Crescent life are scattered among the recipes: Yucatan Lime Soup, Stir-Fry of Asparagus with Black Bean-Ginger Sauce, Black-Eyed Pea Ragout with Shiitakes and Tomatoes over Cheddared Grits, Talk of the Town Barbequed Tofu, CD's Famed Broccoli Enchiladas, Salad of Tender Greens, Blackberries & Toasted Almonds with Sweet-Peppery Blackberry Vinaigrette, Chocolate Bread Pudding Maurice, to name just a few.
That these recipes are vegetarian (many with vegan variations) and somewhat healthful is almost beside the point. They are sensuous, soul-satisfying dishes for every course, every hour of the day and every celebration of the year.
Can we speak of celebration and mourning in the same breath? How can we not? As our nation struggles to catch hold post-9/11, as I grieve Ned, we are brought to this: Life is unknowable, without guarantees, inherently insecure. That youor, what may be far worse, someone you adoremay be in the middle of normal life (going to work, to school, getting on a plane or bicycle) and may vanish from life, and your life, utterly.
That memory is both comfort and scourge. That you go on. Live. Eat. Break bread with those who love you in the full knowledge these anxious days have given us. Life's very impermanence gives a shimmer to each evanescent, particular moment. Celebrate it.
Crescent Dragonwagon owned the award-winning Dairy Hollow House, a country inn and restaurant in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, with her late husband, Ned Shank, for 18 years. The longtime vegetarian and author of more than 40 books created 1,000 recipes for Passionate Vegetarian, available this month from Workman Publishing.