Heaven and Hell; Or, for the love of food

Penn Quarter Bodega may bring fresh food at last to center city DC.

Washington, DC, August 21, 2012 —August floods us with tomatoes, finally. The wait has been long and reminds us when the gardens were planted to give fruit in the here and now—that is, if you live anywhere but here. Here is the downtown bustle of the Penn Quarter in DC where I live in the dearth of fresh food and the plenty of richly supplied restaurants: Restaurant heaven and cooking hell if you have a home kitchen, and who doesn’t in every condo that’s here? 

My Penn Quarter heaven and hell bring me to June Blanks and M.F.K. Fisher, joined here to celebrate the love of food. 

Their names are food destiny: 

Fisher is the famous food writer. She married a man who put the poisson in her name and, when they moved to Paris, the love of food, bought the way the French still do it and where markets can be found on every block where city residents live. But even in Provence, where the markets were harder to find, she describes their prevalence when she lived there: “The big market is held three times a week—on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—but every day, behind the post office, there is the Little Market. Both of them are beautiful and exciting and soothing, a tonic to the senses…. It was a good way to live.”

June Blanks bears the name of the month when the bounty of fresh produce appears in the Farmers Market that comes to Eighth Street, NW, on Thursdays, April through Thanksgiving. She has chosen the seemingly impossible task of bringing a bodega to the Penn Quarter. She says, “I would never have thought this before I moved to the middle of downtown. It’s a neighborhood where people live and cook and wave to each other on the street. We should have what we need, meaning fresh food inside our half mile.”

June Blanks and Reid Soloman.

June Blanks displays the Penn Quarter Bodega logo. Also pictured: Reid Soloman.

When I bought my condo here, the false promise of Balducci’s came with it. That was six years ago and still I wait to be able to walk each day to buy a head of garlic, a fine small poulet or anything I might cook. 

Those of us who live here are grateful for our once a week, seasonal market, but we cook to eat and love all year round. 

June’s response to the question, “Why did we lose Balducci’s and why didn’t anyone else take that space where Carmine’s Restaurant now holds court?” is: “The larger food chains are looking for hundreds of parking spaces.” That’s why June sees the walk-to bodega as an answer, and she’s put her life and her savings on the line to try get a small market in this half-mile that comprises the Penn Quarter. 

Indeed, Penn Quarter is quite the half-mile. June estimates that over 9,000 residents live in this area, and over 100,000 folks work here, along with ten to twelve million tourists who come through every year.

Do those tourists, who may also visit Paris or Manhattan, think that we who live where they tour never cook? They must wonder as they wander from The Portrait Gallery to The Spy Museum or walk to the nation’s Mall where the Smithsonian holds court on the nation’s front yard that is the Penn Quarter’s backyard.

We, who live and love here, can eat in restaurants. But we can’t buy produce or meat year round, let alone any day of the week except Thursdays and only in season.

I say it’s cooking hell.

You may ask, “Oh come on, why cook in restaurant heaven?” Let’s disregard for the moment the fact that restaurant food is way more expensive than a home cooked meal and turn to M.F.K. Fisher, who also loved and wrote eloquently of fine restaurant cuisine: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.”

I have cooked like a mad woman in search of the perfect recipe, in search of the joining of family, in search of the beloved. I have heard my husband sigh after I’ve made angel hair pasta with pesto, after I’ve roasted a chicken with caramelized carrots and onions, after I’ve placed in front of him my first fork-stirred omelet lightly dusted with white cheddar cheese before I’d rolled it onto his plate.

I envy M.F.K. Fisher’s Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday market in Provence, let alone the one that was there every day behind the post office. I envy the bodegas in every block of virtually every Parisian neighborhood or any Manhattan neighborhood, east side, west side, uptown or downtown.

I believe that to love, I must cook. The two are part and parcel of one another.

June Blanks agrees.

Hear, hear to her effort to bring a bodega to the 9,000 residents who have made their greatest investment, their homes, in city central. The following YouTube video explains it all for you.

M.F.K. Fisher puts our shared longing for fresh produce and meat in walking distance this way: …I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.

Hear, hear to the love of food. And here’s a recipe for the best roast chicken ever:

Thomas Keller’s Mon Poulet Rôti from Epicurious:

Ingredients:

One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)

 

Unsalted butter

Dijon mustard

 

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be super-elegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

 

If June Blanks succeeds with the Penn Quarter Bodega, you and I may be able to buy that fresh poulet in the half mile where some 9,000 other residents and I live—and where we cook to love.

 

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. Her novel Who by Fire will be published this fall. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com

 


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Mary Tabor

I’m the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked, which won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award. I graduated from high school and went to college when I was barely sixteen. I always think I am the youngest person in the room—am trying to get over that—or maybe not because I have so much to learn.

You can read more about the so-called literal biography, where I went to school and jobs I’ve held, at http://maryltabor.com but one thing’s for sure: I believe love is the answer. Now, what was the question? In this column, I’ll try to figure that out with you.

 

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