I’ve always been an enthusiastic cook. When I was first married, about a million years ago, a series of layoffs and career changing left us broke. For a year and a half we didn’t go out to eat unless the in-laws treated us. I mean not at all. Not even coffee shops. I was working from home, trying to build a clientele for my writing and copywriting. It was a difficult time.
Every Wednesday, I’d go to Santa Monica for the farmers market there. (Hard to believe now, but their vegetables were cheaper than the supermarket’s. This greenmarket had originally been formed to provide the senior residents of downtown Santa Monica with fresh produce they could afford. Seems incredible now, doesn’t it?)
Anyway, that was when I really learned to cook. My favorite resources were “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine and Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook.” My ingredients, thanks to the market, were the very best.
I can still see, and taste, the produce from that Wednesday market. Lettuce varieties that tasted different from any I’d ever had; actually, make that lettuce that had a taste. Golden beets and purple string beans that turned green upon cooking. Yellow crookneck squash so fresh it still had the whiskery bristles. Perfect white aubergines, the size and shape of hen's eggs. (The market had those, too.) Those long french radishes with the white tips. Baskets full of basil so fresh it nearly quivered when touched.
Everything was organic. It was required to be, and also had to be harvested within the previous 24 hours. Therefore, no tomatoes in December. Winter was the time of the root vegetables with their greens; beets, and turnips, and cabbages, carrots, brussels sprouts still on the stalk. Summer was for the nightshades — tomatoes and eggplants and summer squash in endless variety — and the herbs. Having grown up on supermarket food, I hadn't realized that broccoli was a winter vegetable and squash a summer one. Forced to cook and eat seasonally, I became more attuned to other natural cycles, too.
There were no chef-y demonstrations or wildly expensive designer vegetables at this market. It was just food and flowers. I’d buy big bunches of daisies for a dollar. Sometimes street musicians would show up and play, and the benevolent city government would let them. But none of it ever felt contrived.
Most places have greenmarkets now — we have one in my little-town-inside-big-city — but they’re very expensive, a few tables set up with baskets of $5 tomatoes (that's per tomato, not per basket) — so I’ve learned to buy produce elsewhere at a vast shedlike “farmers market” here that’s really an international grocery store. But I miss that California cornucopia, four blocks of the earth’s best, to this day.
I bring this up because of the way appreciation of perfumery opens appreciation of taste. Whereas once I’d just retrieve the (one) bottle of cinnamon from my spice pantry and spoon out some, now I hold one of the several kinds I have to my nose and consider which would be best for the dish, performing those little sniffs as I do when testing a perfume. So many cinammons, all so different; some warm, some cool, some pungent. I buy whole spices, and grind my own mixes from them. This is a lot like painting, like knowing your pigments so well that you can confidently choose not just a white, but which white; warm? Cool? Pasty? Opaque, semi-transparent, goopy, ropy, what?
I’ve been playing around with fragrance oils and essential oils lately. Last week I got one called "Dirt." It smells like, well, dirt. It smells just like dirt. Garden dirt. The humus-y, dark, rooty kind. I don’t know what’s in it, although it’s got some patchouli; that I know. I also know this. Open that bottle and I’m back at the market, my nose pressed into a bunch of beets I’ve just bought, dug out of the ground that morning and smelling more earthy than the earth that they grew in.
We get caught up in reviewing and comparing and comparing and reviewing readymades; what is that note, damn it, why can’t I place it, aaaargh! Or comparing this perfumer or that perfumer’s work. I lose track, sometimes, of why I do this. Many reasons; the interesting friends, the sense of community, the samples and swaps, the sheer opportunity to spend time writing about something I love and knowing (well, hoping) that it will be appreciated by the like-minded. And it’s all great. But every now and then it’s good to slow down, empty the mind, and smell the dirt.
Photo by Zigzagmtart, used under license from Dreamstime.com.