Just over five years ago, back in October of 2009, it was announced that I was a surplus commodity in the workplace. The plant that I worked in was being closed. Oh well, there you have it. There were lots of reasons: an intransigent union, public policies that seemed inhospitable, a culture of entitlement, ubiquitous greed, and of course a market that simply took a holiday, leaving us with no place to sell our product, the latter being a not inconsiderable part of the equation.
Such were the times that with the virulence and callousness of an epidemic, unemployment spread in this region, so that one in every five people who wanted to work couldn't. In California, there were at least two and a quarter million people unemployed. That's a lot of people with families, kids and mortgages. Yes, there is a safety net that can keep food on the table (for a while), but any of you who have been on unemployment know that it is at best a Band-Aid, and despite the grumblings of a few curmudgeonly old Mr. Potter types, everyone I know would prefer earning a living to being on the dole. Yes, that's an absolute statement -- everyone I know. The Mr. Potter types could no doubt produce examples of people sucking off the system, and no doubt some of those people suck off of unemployment insurance, but hey, we can't all be Bernie Madoffs.
There were, and still are, a lot of people out there that need to work. The truth of the matter is that I am not one of them. If I don't work again, it will be okay. I won't lose my home, I won't go hungry. I also won't be going on any cruises, and I won't be going to my grave a rich man, but I'll be okay. I wouldn't want to take a job just to heap a few more things on top of a pile that's already big enough, not when there are so many young people trying to get started on a pile of their own. So, I retired -- that is, I am no longer unemployed, I am just invisible. I've got no income other than interest on savings. Yet because I am not gainfully employed does not mean I am not otherwise gainfully engaged.
My wife is the smartest person I know. Yes, that's another absolute statement -- the smartest person I know. She knew, for instance that the plural of cow was kine. How cool is that? She's an artist and a writer. She is editor of an online literary magazine. She can sew. She can make tortillas from scratch. Scratch! I could go on, but you get my drift. After I had promised her that I would not kill myself or become pathologically depressed as a result of losing my job, she told me that living is about gathering, preparing and eating your food, and keeping things neat. There is a natural rhythm to the process, and sharing that rhythm was what we were meant to do.
Gathering, preparing and eating your food, and keeping things neat.
Such an elegant, simple and intuitive paradigm. It can be used to describe the corporate striving of mankind or the pastime of an individual outside the economic mainstream. I'm sure that my wife is not the first person to view life from this perspective, but she has the kind of understanding of the principle that Vivaldi had of violins and music. In her hands, gathering and preparing become "La primavera" and one can imagine oneself scattering rose petals about while doing an extended series of pirouettes in the kitchen. Perhaps you think me besotted, and perhaps I am. Nonetheless, I have found myself drawn ever more deeply into the natural rhythms of food preparation, and the result has not only been a real sense of purpose and productivity, but some darn good food.
Recently, my wife presented me with a pasta maker. Pasta has always been one of those mysteriously industrially produced foodstuffs. The uniformity of the product, the generally unnatural shapes, the fact that it could sit un-refrigerated on a pantry shelf and then be activated simply by placing it in boiling water for a dozen minutes -- pasta had all the earmarks of better living through chemistry. And while I knew it was theoretically possible, no one I had ever known had made pasta from scratch. (My wife had regularly made "noodles" for her "potpie" dishes, and these were intriguing and delicious, but not quite pasta.)
I made ravioli the other day. I didn't really have a recipe, just an idea that I wanted a richly-flavored filling that could complement a creamy supreme sauce. I've used chicken before, but I thought it was a bit too mild, so this time I went with a beef and spinach filling. As it turned out, it was fabulous.
There is a nice rhythm to making food. It really starts the day before, thinking ahead to the next day's meal, deciding what you want, and then doing a quick mental review of ingredients and the process to create a plan. It doesn't have to be elaborate, although it can be depending on how ambitious of a meal you anticipate. The pasta is pretty simple -- flour, eggs, about 30 minutes of prep time and a pot of boiling water. Add another 30 minutes to turn the pasta into ravioli.
Having a plan structures a day. You know when you've got to start cooking, so you know what things can fit into the rest of the day. It's all negotiable I guess, but it's a nice starting point. The promise of a well cooked meal, the smell of bread baking, the delights of a fresh pie, any of these can assay the value of a lot of different activities. Ravioli, for instance, with a little supreme sauce can be ever so more meaningful than a trip to the mall. And it is in the mixing and kneading and rolling and stuffing and shaping, in the immersion of one's self into the process that the real value of the experience lies. It is sensuous, it is visceral, it is engaging. It is art, a personal expression of something that is of more than ordinary significance.
Work used to provide a similar kind of structure. I enjoyed manufacturing. Attention to the "m's" of the process -- man, material, method, machine -- immersed you (if you allowed it) in the creation of an environment that could be both productive and fulfilling. I never identified too completely with a particular place or product, so that when one job ended, I moved on; different widgets, same task -- gathering, doing, cleaning.
Catholic spirituality, interestingly, harkens to a similar rhythm. Days before, sometimes weeks and even months before receiving the Sacraments, we are drawn into a period of preparation and reflection in which we are asked to consider the significance of the actions we are about to undertake and to make proper preparations. This can mean months of study and participation in the life of the community in the case of those who are to be initiated through baptism, or for the fully initiated, spending time the day before the reception of the Eucharist in thoughtful anticipation, gathering our thoughts about the relationship we have with God, trying to order our lives to be more in accord with creation. It is no coincidence that our most sacred act as a community is the sharing of bread and wine.
Maybe I'm making too much of this whole cooking thing, but I'm retired -- I've got the time to be maudlin if I want to.
PASTA FOR RAVIOLI
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup flour (AP is good, semolina is good, or mix the two)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp. olive oil
Mix ingredients into a ball of dough, let it rest for 30 minutes or so, then run it through the pasta machine to form noodles.
This is one serving of pasta, and will make 10-12 ravioli which is a generous serving of ravioli.
BEEF AND SPINACH RAVIOLI FILLING
- 1/4 lb. ground beef
- 2-3 cups spinach
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- Salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano to taste. Try 1/4 tsp. each to start and adjust.
In sauce pan, brown meat and season. Add spinach and let it cook down until soft bet not mushy.
Place cooked meat and spinach in a food processor, add cheese and buzz it up until it smooth.
This will make enough filling for 4 servings (roughly 40 raviolis). You can try to make less, but there it gets harder for the food processor to do its job when the quantities get too small.
I know that last line is kind of like Kliban's "How to Draw a Cat." (I am myself still working out the process. When I get a little better at it, I'll tell you all about it.
By the way, Happy Easter. Christmas, Lent, Easter -- it's another one of those rhythm things.