Desperately Seeking Ordinary

Now that I’m teaching Comp 2, I try to make sure I’m reading more popular market articles so that I can offer up examples to my students, pose questions to them to get discussion started. Unfortunately, most of the articles I tend towards have to do with writing, which doesn’t interest my students, and food, which only mildly interests them. I have a feeling they’d be a lot more into the food thing if I put actual food in front of them.

But on Friday, as I sat through my office hours, I checked out this interview on Mother Jones with Tamar Adler. Tamar Adler was a magazine editor at Harper’s who was obsessed with food and cooking, so she began apprenticing one day a week at a high-end restaurant in New York. When juggling the two became too much, she chose food. She is now the author of the cookbook Everlasting Meal:  Cooking with Economy and Grace.

Not too long ago, my friend Mary and I were talking about a few articles she read about those writers who have some totally ridiculous, low-paying job during the spring and summer months. “And in the winter, they write.” I forage for extremely rare mushrooms, and in the winter, I write. I knit cute tea cozies that I sell on Etsy, and in the winter, I write. I [insert low-paying job that no one, let alone anyone in New York, could ever live on], and in the winter, I write. And let’s just remember:  writing, by and large, does not yield money. At least not for a long time, and usually not during the actual writing process.

As we bitched and moaned over that sentiment and resented anyone who could spend the winter doing anything other than the same drudgery they did in the spring, our thoughts turned, as they often do, to food. Mary recalled the practice of being able to make meals out of leftovers, a bit of a lost art. Whenever we both had CSA memberships, Mary could make her vegetables stretch, making quiche, veggie burgers, stew, soup, popsicles (okay, probably not). It’s a skill I admire; I tend to find some target recipe for turnips or collards or mustard greens or fish, and it only really makes that one recipe.

This weekend, my girlfriend made a whole chicken in the crock pot. She found the recipe in one of her cookbooks; she salted and peppered the bird inside and out, squeezed lime juice over the whole thing, then put the lime, a bunch of cilantro, and a few whole garlic cloves inside and cooked it for about six and a half hours. What came out was an incredibly juicy, lightly flavored blank slate. We had shredded chicken, which we made into chicken nachos. Then we used some more of the chicken on another day to make chicken tacos. We tossed back and forth ideas:  chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, taco salad with chicken and guacamole. We brainstormed other flavor families too; instead of cilantro and lime, what about olive oil and Italian seasoning, stuffing the cavity with basil and rosemary and even more garlic? Chicken pasta, chicken salad… the list goes on.

Chicken nachos

I found the idea of making meal after meal out of one cooking endeavor extremely appealing. One of the things Tamar Adler says in the Mother Jones interview is this:

The great thing about knowing how to cook is you get more variety for free.

By learning how to make ingredients stretch, we get many different options in our refrigerator without having to pay for the difference. It rather begins to resemble that scene from Forrest Gump where Bubba tells Forrest all the different ways he can use shrimp.

Naturally, any talk of food leads me back to writing. Tamar Adler said something about food that got me thinking about writing; of course, contextually, she was saying that we don’t need to do something different and fancy just because we have guests coming over, but for me, this might as well have been about writing:

Eating just has to be ordinary. Cooking has to be ordinary.

Substitute the words. Really, anything you want to be doing that you’re not could be substituted in. Writing just has to be ordinary. Reading just has to be ordinary. Working out just has to be ordinary. Stretching after a work out just has to be ordinary.

What do we gain by making things ordinary? In making something a non-event, we normalize it. We make it habitual and low-stress, and we streamline it with the whole rest of our lives. Eating can become easy; we can give it properties of least resistance.

You know that feeling, in the midst of a big party you’re throwing, when you want to find a linen closet and knock the quilts and beach towels out into the hallway and curl up inside like a kid playing hide and seek? That’s the event. It’s the antithesis of ordinary. How can anyone sustain that, make it a daily habit to carry on in years ahead? I don’t see a way.

Cinnamon toast: really, so much more than ordinary.

And as I begin working towards writing my novel, I don’t need the party; I need the ordinary. Writing isn’t an event; it’s just what I do, as ordinary as doing laundry or taking a shower or making cinnamon toast after a long day of teaching. I can make those hours spent staring out a window, telling myself stories, ordinary too. The hot tea and the scribbling into journals and the developing of characters in my head as if they were real people – ordinary.

Twenty-seven year-old female seeks ordinary.

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