Are you hungry?
I am a woman on a mission (to state the obvious). No doubt, it sometimes looks like several missions: art’s public purpose, integrity and accountability in both public and private institutions, acknowledging our differences and healing the wounds we’ve made from them. But really, I have only one mission: to awaken awareness of our tremendous human capacity to create love, beauty, and meaning, shining a light on how we might fully inhabit it.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about public issues and the way they relate to conflicts we face within our own minds and the little worlds we make with family and friends. But a voice inside my head has been nagging me not to neglect the rest of life. We experience the world through our senses, the cultivation of sensory experience being one of the richest paths to self-knowledge.
As many spiritual traditions recognize, our sensory organs are what distinguish us from disembodied Spirit, granting us the capacity not only to experience pleasure, but to create the occasions that generate it. As St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “God has no hands but our hands,” which also goes for ears, eyes, mouths and the rest of our bodies. “A person will one day give reckoning for everything his eyes saw which, although permissible, he did not enjoy,” says the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12).
Among many paths to the expansion of awareness and capacity is that which leads to heart and mind via the stomach. How we experience hunger, how we nourish ourselves, what food teaches us about ourselves and each other—these have enduring importance to me. I love to cook, particularly for special occasions on which food carries meaning far beyond mere fuel for our bodies. I love to design and improvise a meal for someone special, very much as one might page through a music library to create a mix for a particular friend or occasion. I’ve written two (alas, unpublished) books about food, played with friends over numberless meals, read cookbooks all my life for pleasure. But in the half-dozen years I’ve been writing here, I’ve never written about this essential part of my life.
Are you hungry? Allow me the pleasure of fixing you something. From time to time, I’ll write here about food, focusing on culinary experiences that develop sensory awareness and expand sensory pleasure.
Today, my text is from an ancient love poem, The Song of Songs (in Hebrew Shir HaShirim, sometimes called the “Song of Solomon”), the epic poem of love and desire, one of the five sacred scrolls which are part of the Hebrew bible. No one knows exactly when it was written, but the newest parts are thought to be more than 2200 years old. If you read to the end, you will find a recipe that includes every type of food mentioned in this vast ode, and a ritual to enhance its consumption.
The Song of Songs has a place in Jewish liturgy: it is recited on Passover; in some Sephardic congregations, part is recited every Sabbath. To get there, it had to be reinterpreted as an allegory of yearning for the Divine. Whether it is seen that way, or as a straightforward account of love between two human beings, it is one of the most intensely erotic poems ever written. This is from chapter 5:
His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as banks of sweet herbs; his lips are as lilies, dropping with flowing myrrh.
His hands are as rods of gold set with beryl; his body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.
His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold; his aspect is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
His mouth is most sweet; yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
It may seem odd to offer a biblical feast when I am about to enter into a fast on Yom Kippur, not only from food but from all the ordinary things of life. The prophetic reading for that holiday is from Isaiah (57:14-58:14), a divine rebuke for observing the forms of spiritual practice but not the heart:
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
I take this message as relating as much to inner constriction as outer. Depriving the senses of satisfaction cultivates appreciation of their wondrous power: in part, I fast so as to be fully present—fully awake, engaged and grateful—when it is time to feast.
Here is my recipe for “The Great Song,” both a delicious dessert and an experience designed to enhance its consumption.
The Great Song
You will need a copy of The Song of Songs, a candlelit and fragrant room (incense of frankincense, myrrh, cedar, or cypress is appropriate), flowers (preferably roses and lilies) to look at and smell, something lovely to drink, and the following recipes.
This dessert comprises three components: apples baked with nuts and dried fruit in a pomegranate syrup; a honey and rosewater cream to spoon over the apples; and wheat-and-nut cookies to nibble alongside.
To serve, for each person place two apple halves in a shallow dish and spoon over some syrup. Place the cream in a pitcher for each person to add his or her own. Serve the cookies on the side. This recipe is enough for six for dessert, but you might like to skip dinner and have a second helping instead of guests.
As you eat, read each other verses of the poem, alternating and pausing whenever you wish—and as long as you wish—but always returning until you have completed the poem.
6 large flavorful cooking apples, peeled, cored and halved
1/2 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup raisins, preferably Muscat
6 dried figs, stemmed and quartered
2 cups pomegranate juice
2-4 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup sweet fortified wine (Sherry, Madeira or Port)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Arrange the apples, cut sides up, in a non-stick baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer. Distribute the almonds, raisins and figs equally, piling them in the cavities of the apple halves. Don’t worry if some escape into the baking pan.
In a bowl, stir together the cinnamon, wine, pomegranate juice and 2 tablespoons of the honey until the honey is dissolved. Taste and add more honey if needed. The liquid will become sweeter and more concentrated as it cooks, but if the juice is very sour or if the apples themselves are very tart, use the larger quantity of honey. Pour the liquid gently over the apples, filling the cavities and letting the excess drip into the pan. Cover the dish with a lid or foil and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid or foil. The apples will have thrown off more liquid, and the raisins and figs will have absorbed liquid and swelled. With a spoon or bulb baster, baste the apples, ensuring that liquid remains in all the cavities. Return the dish to the oven, uncovered. Bake for 10 minutes, baste again, bake 10 minutes more, then check for doneness: the apples should be very tender when pierced with a skewer, and the liquid should have reduced to a syrup. If necessary, baste again and return to the oven for 10 minutes more or until done, even if it takes longer. If the liquid is still very soupy, raise the oven heat to 400 for the last baking.
When the apples are done, baste a final time and cool to room temperature in the baking dish. Ideally, you will serve this freshly made at room temperature, but if you must wait, cover and refrigerate, then remove from the refrigerator an hour before serving.
Honey Rose Cream
1 pint heavy cream
1-2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons arrowroot powder
Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon honey, then lower the heat to a simmer. Taste for sweetness. If you like it sweeter, add more honey.
While the cream is simmering, mix the arrowroot powder with 1 tablespoon of cold water to form a slurry. Remove the cream from the heat and whisk in the arrowroot slurry, whisking constantly until well combined; return to the low flame to simmer until slightly thickened. This will be quick; don’t let it boil actively.
Cool in the refrigerator. When the cream has cooled to room temperature or below, add rosewater, beginning with one teaspoon. Keep tasting. Some people like this taste only if it is very subtle, and some like it stronger. Stop when it tastes good to you, then pour into a pitcher, cover and refrigerate until you serve the dish.
Heaps of Wheat Set About by Lilies
3/4 cup almonds or filberts, or 3/8 cup of each
24 blanched almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Toast nuts on a baking sheet in a 375 degree oven, shaking frequently, until colored but not dark. If using filberts, rub them in a kitchen towel to remove the tough skins. Finely grind the nuts in a blender or food processor. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.
Beat butter and sugar until well-creamed, then add ground nuts and almond extract. Gradually stir in whole wheat flour until well-blended. Form the dough into 2 dozen small balls. Space well apart on ungreased baking sheets, and flatten each one with a fork into a small heap about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, slightly thicker in the middle. Press a blanched almond into each one. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden and slightly darker around the edges. They will be soft at first, so cool in the pan for a few minutes, then finish cooling on a rack.
Are you hungry? Next week in the “Something Delicious” series, something completely different: surprising your mouth.