Posts Tagged ‘Helen Gustafson’

$1.50

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

1.50

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

This just in: Ben Affleck, the movie star, is going to try to survive for five days spending only one dollar and fifty cents per day on food. He is lending his celebrity to the Live Below the Line Campaign to bring attention to the plight of millions of people in America and hundreds of millions of people around the world who try to survive on a dollar-fifty or less for food every day of their lives. Several celebrities I’ve never heard of (I’m old and don’t watch television) are joining Affleck along with twenty thousand other Americans voluntarily partaking of the five-day ordeal. The organizers of the event recommend that anyone wishing to attempt this amazing feat spend their entire budget of $7.50 at the start of the five days by purchasing “pasta, lentils, rice, bread, vegetables, potatoes and oats.”

Clearly, these folks don’t shop where we shop. Pasta? Forget it. Largely empty calories and too expensive. Bread? Are you kidding? At nearly six dollars for a decent loaf? Vegetables? Maybe a few carrots won’t bust the budget. Potatoes? Perhaps a russet or two. Oats? No way. Much ado about nothing. Rice? Brown rice. Yes. A big yes. Lentils? Sure, but be prepared for profound farting, and in lieu of lentils, how about pinto beans with that same fart disclaimer.

Eating for $1.50 a day would be a much more meaningful exercise if the well-fed Affleck tried to live on that amount per day for five weeks or five months, but I salute him for helping illuminate the plight of so many of our fellow earthlings. I mentioned to Marcia that Ben was going to be making this incredible sacrifice for five whole days, and she, too, reasoned that rice and beans were the way to go if Ben wants sufficient sustenance for so little money. In surmising how we would try to survive on such a small food allowance, Marcia and I are limited in our thinking by our adherence to buying organic produce, so our $1.50 purchases almost nothing. Yesterday, for instance, I bought three navel oranges, six big leaves of kale, and a little bag of millet flour, and my bill was eight bucks. So…

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

When I lived in Berkeley, I worked for a wonderful woman named Helen Gustafson who was, among many other things, the tea buyer at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery. I was Helen’s part-time editor and secretary for several years until her death in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times proclaiming Helen to be the tea pioneer most responsible for fine green and black tea being served in the many good restaurants in America now serving such tea.

Helen had carte blanche at Chez Panisse and took me to lunch and supper there on numerous occasions. I would never have taken myself to Chez Panisse because a simple meal in that groovy joint cost as much as I spent on two-weeks-worth of groceries, and if my meal included a glass of wine and dessert, make that three-weeks-worth. Because everything was free to us at Chez Panisse, Helen ordered lavishly and encouraged me to do so, too, but I couldn’t. Knowing that the diminutive ultra-delicious goat cheese salad cost as much as a belly-busting three-course meal at nearby Vegi Food (Chinese) made it impossible for me to order much at all, so Helen would order several appetizers, two or three salads and two or more entrees, and then delight in watching me eat my fill.

The wine I drank at Chez Panisse, the only white wine I have ever liked, cost twenty-seven dollars a glass and induced in me a state of well being akin to swimming in a high Sierra lake after a long hot hike. I am allergic to alcohol, more than a sip of wine usually makes me ill, but my allergy did not manifest when I drank that particular French wine, the name of which I intentionally chose not to remember.

I liked to walk home after dining with Helen at Chez Panisse, the downhill jaunt to the house I rented in the Berkeley flats enhanced by my mild hallucinatory state courtesy of that particular French wine and the delectable comestibles combusting so agreeably in my organically bloated tummy. Helen always insisted I take home the sizeable amount of food (and several handmade chocolate truffles) we had not consumed in the course of our feasting, and it became my habit to invite my neighbors over to partake of the Chez Panisse leftovers that they, too, would never buy for themselves.

Thus there was secondary feasting on the fabulous fare, minus the magic wine, with much oohing and ahing and marveling at the culinary delights usually reserved for the wealthy. One of my neighbors, a great amateur chef who volunteered to cook several meals a month at a homeless shelter, savored each little bite he took of the Chez Panisse ambrosia, attempting to discern the spices and secret ingredients that went into making such delicacies.

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” Franz Kafka

In 1970, in Mexico and Guatemala, almost every day for six months, my traveling companions and I encountered people who did not have enough food. When it was safe and feasible to do so, we shared our food with these people and gave them a little money, but on a number of occasions we found ourselves in villages where everyone was desperately hungry, and the fact that we had a little food and the villagers had no food made it necessary for us to skedaddle pronto.

One day we arrived in a remote village in Mexico adjacent to some Zapotec ruins we hoped to explore, and were greeted by a group of men who were so hungry their growling bellies sounded like a chorus of bullfrogs. Their leader demanded we pay him a large sum if we wanted to see the ruins. “We are starving,” he said to me, murder in his eyes. “The government promised to send food, but no food has come. We thought your van was the government truck.” I apologized, gave him the equivalent of ten dollars, and we sped away before the angry men could surround the van and keep us from leaving.

I was forever changed by those six months among so many desperately hungry people. Today I know several people who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, enjoying the warmth and inexpensive food and lodging, but I would not feel right doing that because I know too well that my government’s agricultural and economic and political policies are largely responsible for the massive suffering in those countries. I am also no longer comfortable with culinary extravagance, which always reminds me of the hungry little boys who followed me everywhere in Mexico and Guatemala, starving children hoping I would buy them some bread.

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” Calvin Trillin

My housemate for two of my eleven years in Berkeley was a cook at a popular restaurant. She was unquestionably the finest cook I have ever had the pleasure of cleaning up after. Though she gave me no formal training, I learned many things about cooking from watching her perform in our kitchen. She was an extremely private person and we spoke very little in the two years we lived together, though we shared hundreds of exquisite meals she prepared, mostly late morning breakfasts and late evening suppers. She concocted her dishes using whatever she found in the larder, some of which she bought, some of which she got from the restaurant where she worked, but most of which I purchased. And though she rarely told me what to buy, I knew that if I kept our cupboards and refrigerator stocked with promising ingredients, especially fresh vegetables, she couldn’t help but produce the most delectable meals.

She was a bold improviser and an absolute wizard with spices. She had four frying pans—seven, eight, ten, and twelve inches in diameter—and often employed all four in the making of a dish or dishes to go with the brown rice I cooked. She said I made good rice, and because I considered her a culinary master, her assessment of my rice made me feel talented and worthwhile.

One evening I came into the kitchen and saw that in her smallest pan she was browning almond slivers, in her other small pan she was sautéing diced onions and garlic in sesame oil, in her medium-sized pan she was simmering cauliflower in a red wine sauce, and in the large pan she was fast-frying a great mass of spinach leaves in olive oil and water, all this to be combined with eggs and other ingredients to create a stupendous frittata-like thing. And I remember thinking as I watched her cook: she never hurries and she is entirely free of doubt and fear.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I hope Ben Affleck is positively transformed by his experience of eating for five days on $1.50 a day. If I could speak to Ben before he begins his five-day experience of Spartan eating, I would say, “Simmer a few cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil and pour that over your brown rice. Don’t forget cumin and ginger and turmeric to make your rice and beans more interesting. And while you’re counting the hours before you go back to dropping two hundred bucks on dinner for two, watch the movies Big Night and Mostly Martha. With luck and skill and inspiration, maybe one day you’ll make a great food movie that is more than a food movie and uses food to open our minds and hearts to the fantastic powers of compassion and creativity.”

Cliff’s Bowl

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(This piece first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

Cliff Glover recently gave us one of his bowls. Cliff is an excellent potter and a superb cook. Tall, and possessed of a magnificent froth of silver gray hair, Cliff and his partner Marion Miller share a house and ceramic studio a couple miles inland from the hamlet of Albion. Marcia and I met Cliff and Marion for the first time at one of Juliette White’s spontaneous dinners, Juliette being Cliff and Marion’s neighbor for many years. The mugs we drank from that night were Cliff’s mugs; and for my birthday two years ago, Juliette gave me a Cliff Glover teapot, an exquisite two-cupper. Juliette was a big fan of Cliff’s pottery.

The bowl Cliff gave us on Marcia’s birthday in February is now my favorite bowl, and possibly my favorite thing, after my piano and not counting myriad mammals—Marcia, friends, cats; although the trouble with cats…but that’s another story. Cliff made it clear when he gave us the bowl that even though he was giving it to us on Marcia’s birthday, the bowl was for both of us. I asked him to repeat that when I was sure Marcia was listening so there wouldn’t be any confusion…that the bowl was for both of us, or in legal terms: the bowl is our joint property.

My previous favorite bowl, which I still love, (though not as much as I loved her before I met Cliff’s bowl) was given to me by my dear friend Katje Weingarten, an extraordinary poet who lives in Vermont, which is crazy. Katje should live around here. Both she and our community would be much happier if she lived in, oh, Caspar or Philo, but she’s married to Roger, and you know how that goes. Anyway, I showed Cliff the bowl Katje gave me and he knew who made it. He knew the actual person who threw the bowl and glazed it. Cliff can do that. He can glance at a ceramic bowl or vase or plate made somewhere in California, and most of the time he can tell by the glaze or the shape, or both, the potter who made the thing.

Which reminds me of a tea story. When I lived in Berkeley, I was adjuvant to Helen Gustafson, famous for introducing fine tea to the menu at Chez Panisse and training the servers there to make and serve fine tea as it was meant to be made and served. When Helen died in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times called her one of the pioneers of the fine tea renaissance in America. Helen often took me to lunch and supper at Alice’s restaurant (Chez Panisse) where she, Helen, had carte blanche in exchange for her tea duties. I was frequently under-funded in those days and always esurient, so…just imagine. Helen liked to introduce me to her cohorts and admirers as her editor—an understatement and a compliment.

One evening Helen threw a dinner and tea tasting at Chez Panisse for the famous tea writer James Norwood Pratt, Norwood’s marvelous mate Valerie Turner, moi, and Roy and Grace Fong, preeminent tea importers, Roy a bona fide tea master. We tasted several black teas that were essentially priceless. By that I mean, they were teas of such rarity and in such short supply, they could not be purchased at any price. The denouement of the evening was that Norwood had brought along a mystery tea with which he hoped to stump Roy Fong as to the origin of the goodly leaf.

Norwood directed one of Helen’s well-trained servers in the making of a pot of the mystery tea, and after the leaves had steeped for the appropriate number of minutes, the pot was placed before Roy. Without lifting the lid or bending close to the pot, Roy concluded, “Thailand.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Norwood, his accent richly North Carolinian. “How…”

Roy lifted the lid of the steel pot, glanced at the leaves, inhaled again, and correctly named the region, the plantation, and the location in the plantation where this particular tea had been grown. He then filled our cups and prophesied, “It will be some time before tea from these plants will be of any note. If ever.”

Cliff’s bowl, on the other hand, is of great note now at our house. Why do I love this bowl? Let me count the ways.

First, it is a perfect size: four inches tall and seven inches wide at the top.

Second, it has a beautiful shape: assuming nearly its full width close to the base.

Third, it is surprisingly light, and a delight to hold in one’s hand or hands.

Fourth, it is the color of an East African topi (antelope), of carob powder, of the skin of certain Moroccan nomads, and graced with that random mottling all living flesh is prey to.

Cliff declared the bowl to be a standard noodle bowl, nothing special, and so I dutifully ate noodles in it the first time I used it (brown rice spaghetti) but I have since used the bowl for goat milk yogurt topped with banana and apple and raisins with a dollop of huckleberry jam, for beating eggs for an omelet, for making pancake batter (and pouring the batter directly from the bowl into the frying pan), for watering house plants, for drinking water, and for eating rice with vegetables and spicy sausage. I have also gently tapped out several nifty rhythms on the bowl with chopsticks, and I sometimes place the bowl on the table in the living room as an object to contemplate and admire.

Do I believe Cliff’s bowl is alive? Yes. And I remind myself that not so very long ago our ancestors believed that all things, from the tiniest pebble to the mountains to the rivers and oceans and the gigantic earth in her entirety, were as animate as humans or whales or fleas. Fool’s Crow, a Lakota holy man I admire, used the ancient vernacular of his people when referring to rocks as stone people, trees as standing people, clouds as citizens of the cloud nation, and so forth.

I possess a stunning black and white photograph of Fool’s Crow taken by Michelle Vignes when Fool’s Crow was in his early nineties (he died at the age of 99); and when I look into his eyes, my entire being relaxes. Every time. While reading his book Wisdom & Power, I came upon his observation that some people need to carry stones in their pockets in order to feel grounded. I gasped in amazement and gratitude when I read this passage because I have carried stones in my pockets since I was a little kid, knowing intuitively I needed them, yet rarely revealing to anyone that I toted rocks in my pockets to stay sane in a world gone mad.

Cliff’s bowl, I think, is a divine manifestation of animate mud, composed of animate earth and animate water, shaped into exquisite form through the synergy of centrifugal force and gravity and the skillful ministrations of the strong hands and generous intentions of a practiced artisan: Cliff.

“I’ve made thousands of bowls,” Cliff declaimed, responding to my raving about the magnificence of this particular bowl. “And, yes, this is a good bowl. I was surprised when I found it because my good bowls sell pretty fast and I’m not sure why I still had this one…but I don’t think it’s all that special.”

I wanted to be a potter. I took Ceramics in high school as part of my rebellion against my parents wanting me to use only the left side of my brain; and three subsequent times in my life, I have endeavored to center balls of clay on potters’ wheels and make bowls. But I was not persistent, and so I failed. My only clay creation that I still have is an embarrassingly heavy little lumpish object I refer to as a bud vase because only a bud might fit therein. I love the little thing. The glaze, a murky greenish accident, is…subtle. And sometimes I tell myself I could make a good bowl if only I would commit myself to the task.

In the meantime, I (we) have Cliff’s bowl to inspire me (us) along with Cliff’s beguiling mugs and Marion Miller’s quietly erotic vases. Oh, and I must tell you about Cliff’s clay canisters, two of which I own. These elegant brown cylinders are ten-inches-tall and four-inches-wide. They are the only objects (other than the teak Buddha that Paula Mulligan brought us from Bali as a wedding gift and Marcia’s cello bows) I allow to reside on my piano. I am not a fan of pianos being used as display spaces, and until the advent of Marcia’s cello bows in my life, I never let anybody put anything on my piano. But the piano is teak, so the teak Buddha…and now Cliff’s lovely dark canisters, well…I’m not playing any less because of these inspiring passengers, and the piano sounds fine, so…

A few months before Juliette died, we were sitting around in her cottage having tea (or was it wine?) in Cliff’s mugs, and I fished in my pockets and brought forth two of my stones, each roughly the size of a walnut, one jade green, one bluish gray, both rounded and polished in a grand lapidary of surf meeting intractable stone. Juliette took the rocks from me, tumbled them around in her wise old hands, and then correctly identified their source as a tiny beach not far from the village of Mendocino—a brief spit of gravel that only comes into being at the lowest of tides.

Cliff Glover can be found at threeriversstudios.com