Ice wine martini garnished with frozen grapes

If you ever, on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, find yourself in the Italian enclave known as Boston’s North End, don’t bother with a map, guidebook, or other source of guidance. Boston’s North End is such that anywhere you wander, you will find delightful surprises, and any restaurant you enter will serve you the meal of your life.

I’m convinced you can’t make a bad choice if you head toward the North End on a Friday afternoon with “food and drink” held gently at the back of your mind. First, you’ll aimlessly wander streets filled with history, personality, and charm. You’ll probably walk down Hanover Street, and you’ll probably remark about the Christmas-like tinsel decorations spanning narrow side streets: remnants from the last (or preparations for the next) Catholic saint’s day festival. You might climb up Copp’s Hill to overlook the harbor, and you might stop by the burying ground to pay your respects to the Reverend Mathers or to leave a coin atop patriot Robert Newman’s grave. However long and in whichever direction you walk, the distant landmarks of Zakim Bridge and the Custom House tower will be visible over one or the other shoulder. You can’t get lost in Boston’s North End, so let your feet take you where they will.

Homemade

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, your thoughts will turn toward dinner, and you might briefly worry about finding a “good” place to eat. In a word, don’t. There are no “bad” places to eat in the North End, so let your choice be governed by whim and fancy. Does this place look alluring with its family-sized tables, or does that place look romantic with its tables for two? Do you prefer to compare menus, which in most places are prominently posted outside? Or are you adventurous, entering an establishment that doesn’t have a menu, just a chalkboard description of whatever someone’s Italian mama happens to be cooking today?

If you enjoy your food al fresco, you might choose one of several restaurants with open front windows, and if there are only two of you, your waiter might sit you right up front, where one of you can watch passersby in the street while the other watches the cooks in the kitchen. Either way, you’ve chosen well: in the North End, it’s impossible to choose poorly. Your handsome Italian waiter will present you with menus, but you won’t really need those, for this dark-eyed god of appetite will then regale you with velvet-voiced descriptions of tonight’s specials: cocktails you never dreamed possible, antipasto and pasta you couldn’t have hoped for, and entrees whose preparation, it seems, has been painstaking days in the making.

Processing

At first, all you’ll choose is whatever elaborately described cocktail your velvet-voiced waiter says he prefers…then under its powerful spell, you’ll pay heed to his other recommendations. At first blush, you’ll hesitate to order the three full courses of a traditional Italian meal: considering the sequence of antipasto, pasta, and entree, you wonder how stuffed and uncomfortable you’ll be by meal’s end. Immediately cast these thoughts from your mind. Your dark-eyed waiter makes his living from food–being Italian, he lives for food. He will not misguide you, so heed him. The three full courses of a traditional Italian meal are intended to be eaten slowly, with ample time for conversation; those entrees that have been painstaking days in the making will be savored over a glass of wine (chosen, of course, by your god of a waiter) only when the time is right, after other gustatory delights have been leisurely enjoyed in full.

When, at last, you’ve proclaimed “just right” over your vanished meal, the check will arrive…and you should refuse to bat a single eyelash. Now is not the time to think of budgets and economic downturns: this is the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, and for the cost of a subway ride and exquisite meal, you’ve traveled to Italy, been loved by a dark-eyed god, and slowly savored the flavors of heaven itself. What you have experienced is priceless, so calculate a generous tip, split the total, and offer silent thanks that in these days of budgets and economic downturns, both you and your friend are employed and deserving of occasional luxuries. Why should romantic restaurants filled with tables for two be reserved for first dates and anniversaries only? First dates are fleeting, and friendship is forever: budget accordingly.

Italian-American Band

After dinner, you and your friend will resume your rambling, stopping at any of a number of Italian bakeries where you will enjoy a scoop of gelato while buying cannoli for loved ones at home. There are no bad bakeries in Boston’s North End, so both your gelato and cannoli will be superb: the best you’ve ever had. The magic of the North End, especially on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, is that you can’t possibly find bad food anywhere. Any restaurant you enter will be the best, regardless of its name. “Best” is the only way they serve food and drink in Italy and all those enclaves inspired by her.

The first of today’s photos comes from last Friday night; the rest come from Saint Anthony’s Feast in 2007, which I’ve previously blogged. There is a reason why Catholic saint’s day celebrations are called “feasts”: despite everything you think you know about dour-faced ascetics and fasting pilgrims, Italian celebrations both spiritual and secular are always about the food.

Table with tapas

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Food, so here’s a rerun of the “table with tapas” shot I blogged after my birthday in January.

Table with a view

Although I have more than a month before my next birthday, I’ve started to think about what I want to do to celebrate the Big 4-0 this year. Interestingly, I can’t think of anything I want to splurge on. It isn’t that I don’t want to celebrate a milestone that some women find depressing; instead, I find myself so grateful for the metaphorical full plate that is my life, I can’t think of anything I want that I don’t already have.

In my Zen school, we sometimes use the term “enough-mind” to describe the sense of satisfaction you feel when things are, as Goldilocks would say, “just right.” “Enough-mind” doesn’t feed the extremes of starving or splurging; “enough-mind” pushes away from the table, satisfied, at precisely the moment it feels full, not stuffed. “Enough-mind fish never touches the hook” is one of the idiomatic phrases Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say. If you have a mindset of having “enough,” you won’t be tempted by even the most alluring bait. If you are content with what you have, you won’t swallow anything hook, line, and sinker.

Ambience

In the days immediately after my divorce, I experienced a strange thrill of satisfaction whenever I went grocery shopping. The simple act of filling my cart with food, paying for it with money I myself had earned, and then unpacking it into my own refrigerator, shelves, and cupboards felt like an unimaginable luxury. What richness there is, I thought, in having a week’s worth of food close at hand, even if that food is something as plain Jane as oatmeal.

Interestingly, I’ve not lost that sense of awed wonder in the four years since my divorce: I still feel amply and wonderfully blessed when I come home from the grocery store. Last night, as I made my weekly commute between Keene and Newton, I arrived with groceries: enough food to last the weekend and week. J and I have planned a quiet Thanksgiving: nothing fancy, just enough. It feels good to know how much your metaphorical larder can hold; having stocked that, you need nothing else. Enough is enough, and sometimes that’s very good indeed.

Veterans for Obama

I make a conscious effort not to talk politics in my classes. One of my best undergraduate teachers was a master at hiding her personal views on politics, religion, and philosophy, insisting that we students make up our own minds. Because of the lingering influence of that open-minded approach, I’ve always made a conscious effort not to proselytize my students in any way.

In New Hampshire during an election year, my students are already inundated with political propaganda. They’ve had numerous chances to meet the candidates, the candidates’ spouses, and other campaigners, and if my students live off campus, they’ve had local and out-of-state canvassers pounding down their doors trying to sway their vote. In class on Tuesday, I’ll remind my students to vote, and I’ll give them information on how to register at the polls if they’re New Hampshire residents and unregistered. But although I’ll remind them this is a historic election they’ll want to be a part of, I won’t tell them how to vote or even who I’m voting for: making up their minds is their job, not mine.

McCain/Palin

Last Thursday, however, I made a slight exception to my policy of “no politics in the classroom.” My Expository Writing class has been reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, so since Pollan has been speaking out about the politics of food during this election year–and since my students have been wonderfully engaged with his book–I shared some recent Pollan-related resources. First, I shared the three blog entries (and photos) Fred First shared from his recent trip to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, a self-described “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm” that figures prominently in Pollan’s book. Second, I encouraged students to read an article by Tom Philpott titled “Politics and the Dinner Table: Weighing Obama’s and McCain’s Stances on Food and Farm Policy,” which Pollan had recommended via his email list. And third, I encouraged students to read Pollan’s open letter to the next president, published in the New York Times and focusing on the issues of food policy that will necessarily preoccupy our next “Farmer in Chief.”

McSame - voted with Bush 90%

At the Google Zeitgeist Conference, Pollan gave a talk on “Serious Sustainability” in which he offered a 20-minute reprise of this New York Times article. In class last week, I showed my students a YouTube video of Pollan’s talk because I thought it was a great example of the kind of expository prose they’re trying to produce themselves in my class. Because Pollan as a journalist has so thoroughly steeped himself in food policy issues, he can offer a clear and concise summary of the “big idea” he explores in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as its timely relevance in this election year. Regardless of what (or whether) my students have decided about the election, I wanted them to hear one thinker’s stance on how the food on our plates connects with Washington politics. Whether or not my students agree with Pollan’s perspective, I want them to see how a book they’ve read and discussed in class can apply to the “real world” with its political debates and complex controversies.

Imagine, then, how happy I was to discover this morning that Barack Obama not only read Pollan’s piece in the New York Times, he referred to Pollan’s argument in an interview with Time magazine’s political columnist Joe Klein (full transcript here):

Hope

There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

Tomorrow in class, I’m going to point my students to Obama’s remarks not because I want to sway their vote but because I want them to see that the ideas they encounter in their classes can indeed have relevance in the larger political picture. Regardless of which candidate my students vote for, who wins, or how deeply Pollan’s remarks resonate in Washington, I want my students to know that they’ve read, thought about, and discussed a book whose ideas at least one Presidential candidate has grappled with as well. It’s heartening to think that the “food for thought” we’ve discussed this semester has influence far beyond our classroom walls.