What grounds you? That’s a serious question for a person who travels for work as much as I do.
When I’m rooted in my own time zone, my tastes run toward a particular balance of the exalted and earthy: intensely bittersweet music, especially the most baroque blues; accidental intimations of eternity in a conversation I stumble into, the relational equivalent of stubbing my toe and tumbling onto softest sand; the first taste of a ripe melon, honey laced with loam.
But after I’ve been on the road a while, I wake up in the morning to the rattle of jostling time zones. My eyes open too early. I’m hungry all day: my stomach sends out bulletins at mealtimes in my previous destination as well as mealtimes at home.
I have my little routines designed to banish the airplane buzz, rooting me in the here and now. (A friend recently told me I was 20 percent compulsive, but to be fair, I’d just said he was 20 percent ADD.) I like to unpack immediately, putting everything in its proper place with a satisfying sense of restoring order to the universe. I can’t achieve that effect unless I remove all travel detritus from the public parts of my apartment, but my rules allow me to heap my desk with the publications and documents my suitcase seems to attract as a magnet draws iron filings.
When unpacking works its magic, the calm it engenders reminds me of staying home from school when I was a little girl, something I did as often as my impersonations of illness succeeded. While everyone else was off at work or school, I was permitted to lie in the big bed watching TV reruns that were already ancient: if you want a flavor of those afternoons, check out “Have Gun, Will Travel” on Netflix sometime.
The most important part of the mise-en-scène I constructed was that the covers should be tucked in all around, smoothed to the perfect flatness of custard, disturbed only by the ridge of my childish limbs. Being alone and quiet, surrounded by order, was such a radical departure from the normal chaos of that household, hinting at the existence of an alternate universe. I can close my eyes right now and zoom across the decades, feeling the cool cotton of my personal cocoon against my palms.
My rituals suffice to summon a good night’s rest, the deliciousness of sleeping in one’s own bed after a week or two on the road. But to really ground myself, I need to cook.
I used to stay with the same friends when I visited England for work. Before I arrived, they’d shop for dinner. But the cooking wouldn’t commence until I started it. This was a mixed blessing, since changing that many timezones had annoyingly narcoleptic side-effects. Once or twice, I did fall asleep standing over the kitchen counter with a knife in my hand. But no blood was spilled.
When I left California a week or so ago, the sun shone warmly. It’s been raining ever since I returned. Yesterday afternoon, I lit a fire for the first time in more than half a year. The foods that ground me best are redolent of earth: onions, cabbage, mushrooms. They also embody autumn, every artist’s bittersweet favorite time of year (contending only occasionally with spring).
They are slow foods, yielding their distinct flavors and textures only after long cooking, like us. I love the way it sounds in Rumi’s famous chickpea poem:
The cook says,
“I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.
“My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher.”
This long-cooked soup is based on the technique of a classic Minestrone Genovese, but the ingredients produce an intensely flavored mushroom soup, the essence of earth. Dried porcini mushrooms are expensive in haute-foodie stores, but if you use a lot of them, as I do, you can buy them online in bulk for half the price, and a little goes a long way. If you start the pot cooking when you come home for your trip, pausing amidst unpacking to stir from time to time, I guarantee you will feel grounded in time and space by the time it is ready to eat.
2 ounced dried porcini mushrooms
1 pound ordinary white or crimini mushrooms
1 pound shitake mushrooms
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 sliced yellow onions
4 ribs celery, trimmed and diced
4 medium carrots, peel and diced
2 white or yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
I head of white cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 quart homemade or 2 cups canned chicken broth (optional)
1 1/2 cups dried white beans, cooked, or 2-15 ounce cans cooked white beans, rinsed
salt and pepper
large pinch of dried sage
grated Parmesan cheese for serving
Note: feel free to vary the types of mushrooms or adjust the proportions. The porcini provide a bottom note that can carry almost any type of fresh mushrooms.
Place the porcini in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to soak.
Dice the other mushrooms, or chop roughly. You want small pieces, but not mush.
Place the olive oil and butter in the bottom of a large, heavy stewpot. Add the onions, and sauté, stirring, over medium heat until they are limp and golden. Add the celery, carrots, and potatoes in turn, stirring well and stewing each one for a few minutes (until it barely colors) before adding the next. Add the cabbage and allow to cook for fifteen minutes or so, turning every few minutes. Add the diced mushrooms, turning and cooking for another fifteen minutes or so.
Pour the porcini soaking water into the pot through a sieve, to filter out grit. Finely chop the soaked porcini and add to the pot, stirring well. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, a few grinds of paper, and the crumbled sage. Add broth, if you are using it. Then add water to amply cover all the vegetables and bring to a boil.
Cook, stirring frequently, at a steady simmer. After an hour or so the vegetables will begin to disintegrate. After two hours, add the cooked beans. Simmer at least another hour, until the soup is thick and savory. Adjust the salt. At the table, guests will stir grated Parmesan into each bowl to taste.
This recipe makes a large pot, enough to feed at least a dozen. It is even better the second and third days. It freezes well: the frozen soup may separate a bit, but heating it restores the texture.
When I want to come home to my body after a long stretch flying my mind around the country, writing helps too. While I cook and write, I listen to aching soul music: “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” by Otis Redding, “Release Me,” by Esther Phillips, “Drown in My Own Tears,” the Ray Charles verison—and some of the new music that mines the same vein, “If You Call,” for instance, by Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings. (Last night, I got into downloading different versions of “To Love Somebody,” searching fruitlessly for one I remembered—and I’m not even in love: how jet-lagged is that?) For company and further grounding as you cook, then: “Found Love” by that late, great, slow cooker Jimmy Reed.