martha dawson

errant inspiration

the extraordinary lives in the ordinary

meet my oldest spiritual teacher

face made out of food

I have had a lifelong relationship with this mentor.
We have met numerous times every day since I was born.
Actually we have shared many lifetimes together.
And our interactions have literally kept me alive.

You, too, know this teacher.
Any guesses?

It’s food!

Some people eat to live.
Others live to eat.

I happily reside in the second category. Food has always delighted and intrigued me. Eschewing team sports in high school, my friends and I opted to cook “exotic” dinners together, and I always loved reading cookbooks, especially old ones that would give me a glimpse into daily life of bygone days. I even owned a catering business in my 20’s, and on a road trip through the Florida Keys I ate Key Lime Pie at every place we stopped just to see how varied the interpretation of one recipe could be. Heck, my very first email address was queenofcakes!

To this day the memory of my first exquisite mouthful of escargot in a light garlicky cream sauce flecked with fresh parsley can make my toes curl up in sheer pleasure. That meal 40 years ago ended with a heavenly dessert called Floating Islands. I remember more about that dinner than I do my college graduation!

Well, you get the picture. Food and I go way back.

Food has taught me about love, creativity, flexibility, curiosity, mindfulness, generosity, magic, gratitude, self-care, abundance, oneness, metamorphosis, and that there is joy in being in a physical body. 

It was brilliant of my soul to have chosen food as one of my passions. For someone like me who is more at home in my head and in spirit, I need enticing tethers to keep me interested in the physical world, and food engages all five of the physical senses so it’s very efficient at pulling me into my body. Having grown up in an abusive family, being fed (which my mother did well) was one of the few comforting acts of love I could count upon. It offered moments of sweetness to a very anxious child. Through the passing down of recipes, food has supplied me with a tangible and delicious connection with my ancestors. My daughter is the 5th recorded generation of women in my family who has baked shortbread from the same recipe. Not surprisingly, cooking good food became one of my favourite ways to express my love and gratitude to others, and as a bonus, it has provided an inroad into loving and caring for myself.

So when the pandemic restricted trips to the market I wondered how this would affect my relationship with food. With longer periods between shopping excursions and the looming reality that I would not always find what I had on my list, new lessons in flexibility and creativity became part of the curriculum. 

My first concern was running out of fresh veggies between market runs. They are the main staple of my diet. Yes, I stocked up on a few frozen ones to fill in some gaps, but they just aren’t as flavourful or as varied. Turned out there was an easy solution. I got to work and stocked my freezer with my favourite homemade soups and entrees. You can find me on occasion standing in front of my open freezer admiring the colourful rows of containers of yam and peanut, cream of asparagus, and pea and bacon soups nestled next to stacks of foil wrapped veggie bean burritos and slices of caramelized onion, sage, and goat cheese quiche. I’m having a great time exercising my creativity muscles, and I am especially grateful on the nights when I don’t feel like cooking.

I’m going to make a confession. I did become a wee bit irritated when the virus gave birth to a brood of newbie bakers who cleared the shelves of flour. I am an avid baker and have made my own bread for years. I eat toast in some form every day. As frustrating as the supply interruption is, I cannot bring myself to hoard my favourite flour when I do find it  believing if we all share what is available and don’t give into the fear of scarcity we can get through this together. What to do? When I squatted down I discovered there would often be a lonely bag of whole wheat, rye or buckwheat flour huddled at the very back of a shelf, so I began combining it with my beloved King Arthur flour to stretch out my supply which led to some yummy new recipes. This tiny act of flexibility reignited my old passion for trying new foods. I’ve been making things like anchovy butter with lemon and smoked paprika, and this week I’m going to create a Mexican inspired chocolate pudding. Thank you, newbie bakers, for this gift!

Being shaken out of some stale habits was a great catalyst for deepening my awareness of what food can teach me about life. It reminds me that there is magic in this world. Think about it. Is there anything more wondrous than a seed transforming into an heirloom tomato or a tree creating something as succulent as a pear? And if that’s not awe inspiring enough, what about the pure alchemy of combining foods and applying some heat, a magic so powerful it can delight the soul, nourish the body, and quiet the mind? What a beautiful reminder that change does not need to be feared. It’s a natural constant in the universe. Imagine what could happen if we embraced it and even actively participated in it?

Why not take this opportunity to try new things and reexamine established habits? You could start with your relationship with food and follow it into other areas of your life. What would you like to keep, discard or add? Life is not on hold while we shelter at home. It’s still happening, and we are creating it! 

The food guru also offers me an illustration of commonality and interconnectedness. We ALL need to eat (Except for those few that have learned to live on prana!), and nature generously offers us its bounty. EVERYTHING in the universe is connected and therefore each part influences the whole. Does this not inspire one to act with respect, compassion, and gratitude? Thinking of the whole in whatever we do reduces suffering and restores balance.

There are many other lessons I have learned from food, but I’m going to stop here.

Whether your daily menu is a simple bowl of rice or an elaborate concoction of exotic ingredients, food can be your teacher. Here are a few fun suggestions on how to enter the classroom of life through the food door.

  • Include comfort foods in your diet. They will lighten your mood and raise your frequency. Two things we all need right now. I find comfort food falls into two categories, the enduring ones from childhood and the more fluid ones of adulthood. For me, egg custard, cinnamon toast, frozen pudding ice cream, bakery fig squares, and ketchup have been with me since I was little, and my present comforts include pink olives, roasted asparagus, good Scottish marmalade, digestive biscuits, italian roasted coffee, and Medjool dates with a dab of peanut butter. 

  • Every time you go to the market, be armed with a list of ingredients for a new recipe or a new food to try. Possibly olives stuffed with blue cheese, Marmite or a spicy Korean stir fry sauce?

  • Make a game out of creating a new recipe out of the bits and bobs in your fridge and pantry. I came up with Strawberry Banana Orange muffins when my fruit was getting overripe and developed garlic toast with orange marmalade topped with sauteed greens and a fried egg. Totally delicious!

  • Don’t eat what you don’t like. This might seem like a no brainer, but take a look at foods you eat because you think you should. Instead of asking your mind, which bases  diet choices on external sources of information, how about asking your body what it wants since it’s the one that uses the nourishment? Throw out your preconceived notions of what foods go together. My body requested mashed potatoes with homemade coleslaw and a drizzle of BBQ sauce as a meal. It’s now a favourite!

  • Learn everything you can about a favourite food. I spent a lovely afternoon researching the history of toast and what people around the world put on it. I found out that the ancient Egyptians were the first to record the toasting of bread, the Romans gave it its name, and the first electric toaster was a complete flop because it tended to catch on fire and melt. I now look forward to trying Boursin cheese and fresh cherries with a drizzle of maple syrup on toast. 

  • Eat with your hands. It’s fun, and it helps you get past the rules that have been ingrained in your head.

  • Read foodie books to get inspired or just for the vicarious thrill. People have written about their love affair with food for eons. Here are some suggestions to drool over. 

Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin 
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant  edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichel
Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti
Absolutely anything by M.FK. Fisher 

  • Watch foodie movies. See how a passion for food transformed the lives of others. Here are some of my favourites:

               Babette’s Feast
               Julie and Julia
               The Hundred-Foot Journey
               Toast
               Woman on Top
               Mostly Martha
               Chocolat
               Big Night
               Like Water for Chocolate
               Ratatouille
               Jiro Dreams of Sushi
               Two Fat Ladies: This is my favourite cooking show!

Our spiritual teachers are everywhere waiting to be of service. Slow down, be present, and pay attention. You don’t have to visit an ashram to learn your truth. Maybe next time I will share with you what cleaning out the tub drain taught me.

Got to go. I have dried cherry and almond shortbread in the oven.

From my heart to yours,

Martha

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