The word for the day is mirepoix.
Relax. I don’t have forty-odd French cooking terms to bend into Lenten metaphors. But I do have two. Mirepoix is the French name for the “trinity” of ingredients that serve as the foundation for most soups: onions, carrots, and celery. In Cajun cooking, you substitute bell peppers for the carrots. You can also add bacon or ham for some soups. The point is to create a layer of flavors on which to build the rest of the recipe.
I love making soups. For me, the idea behind the mirepoix has been inspiration to learn to think about layers of flavor, building from the foundation on up, that create something that is both familiar and intriguing. I was talking to another chef last week about this very thing and he said, “Do you make marinara sauce?” He then went on to say, “The next time you do it, roast a couple of poblano peppers, peel them, and then puree them into the sauce along with the tomatoes and garlic and basil. It adds something special.”
I have a chili recipe that relies on a can of Guinness and a square of dark chocolate to create layers of flavor that make the chili taste even more like it should. When I make mushroom soup at work, I throw in the rinds from the parmesan cheese (we save them) and let them stay in the soup the whole time it is cooking. The soup doesn’t taste like cheese and yet the hint of parmesan makes it more intensely and intriguingly mushroom, even as you try to figure out what else is going on as you taste it.
I had coffee yesterday with my friend Claudia who told me about her experience at a Japanese tea ceremony. I have never seen or participated in one of the ceremonies, so I may be taking things out of context, but what stuck with me was the phrase she took away from the event: one moment, one meaning.
We had a good talk about the power of being present in the moment and letting it mean what it means right then and I left thinking about the paradox of existence that affirms the truth of the present tense alongside of the layers of truth that make up our lives. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story about a man waiting to hear the results of some medical tests called “Waiting Room.” One of the paragraphs said,
Time stands on its head like a circus clown. We do not move forward, only up and down. We are every age we have ever been or will be in any and every moment, as if the moments of our lives happen simultaneously, though we experience them one by one.
I am fourteen at my brother’s military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal’s office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey’s pigtail;
I am twenty-five lying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife’s funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
The meaning of the moment is magnified by the mirepoix of life, the foundation of experience that has simmered and shaped us with all that has come before and, in some mysterious way, all that we have yet to become. Whatever taste the moment leaves in our mouths is colored, at least in part, by how well the foundation was laid. In the short expanse of time in the doctor’s waiting room, I imagined the man suspended in the moment, with time stacked on top of itself, rather than stretching out in a line, each moment feeding the present where he hung between desperation and relief.
In his poem, “Live in the Layers,” Stanley Kunitz wrote:
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Live in the layers and one moment, one meaning are not so far apart. If I sink myself into the present tense, into the layers of the moment and ask, “What’s here?” rather than, “What’s next?”, I can begin to taste the flavors set down at the foundation of the world: life tastes like Love.
There is a recipe for mirepoix: fifty percent onions, twenty five percent each of carrots and celery. Peel the carrots and the onion. Pull the leaves off the celery. Dice everything small and as uniform as possible. Get the pot hot, add butter or oil, then the vegetables, and cook them slowly. I like to cover the pot to keep in the moisture that develops because I think it adds to the flavor. Though the best soups, I think, are made more from leftovers than recipes, I still begin with laying a good foundation, making sure that underneath it all is what I know is true.
“And so these three things remain,” Paul said: “faith, hope, and love.” The mirepoix of existence, if you will. (I suppose in this analogy, faith and hope would be the carrots and celery.) If I speak with the tongues of angels and have not love . . . .
For these days, I’m going back to a foundational flavor and reading again A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People, a wonderful devotional book that has left its mark on me. One of this week’s readings seems to fit here, from Why, O Lord by Carlo Carretto.
No, it is not easy to grasp that the only way to suffer less is to love more, especially in politics. At the risk of seeming weaker. Yes, at the risk of seeming weaker I shall not build an atomic bomb, I shall not give my enemy a whack in the eye to show that I am stronger, I shall not make war, I shall not squash my tomatoes and apples with a tractor to keep the price up, I shall not destroy forests to build factories, I shall not poison the sea.
If love is the rule of my politics and the thrust of my action, yes, I really shall suffer less and I shall cause less suffering in others, some I shall be loving more.
Yes. That’s how I want to flavor the world.
Yes, Oh yes. This lenten journey is richer/ more flavorful with you.
Beautiful and striking, Milton. Thank you!
Just started my “It’s A Snow Day” soup; heated the pot, added the butter, sauted the onions and carrots and celery – and had a name for it.
Faith, hope and onions.
Thanks for making this a spiritual experience for me.