Friday, March 18, 2011

Art, Comfort and Cheese Toasties

I don’t know about you, but I had been feeling pretty good about the world. 

It all began with a courageous Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the everyman who made a  desperate stand against intimidation and tyranny when he was slapped by a petty bureaucrat.  The world paid attention to his mad, heroic, galvanizing self-immolation and reacted with one united voice, NO MORE.  The tumbling dominos of dictators began falling from Tunesia to Egypt and Yemen and we heard a hallelujah chorus celebrating freedom from decades of despotic greed.

Taking their cue from the demonstrations in the Mid-East, the state workers of Wisconsin woke up to the fact that ‘little people’ were being played against one another by a smirking cadre of billionaires like the scenario in that great Twilight Zone, “The Monsters are due on Maple Street”  (see it HERE).  The workers protested that billions in tax deductions for the rich were behind the budget shortfall, not worker’s bargaining rights (yeah, if you make $250, 000 an hour you pay less than half the tax rate a teacher does… that’s fair, right?). 

When it got to Muammar el-Qaddafi, we all thought… about time, this was the craziest mother of all.  But the joy stopped. It stopped dead and then started stumbling backward. He would not go quietly into that good night and had stolen and stockpiled billions of his country’s oil money to insure his rabid jaws would remain firmly clamped on Libya’s throat. 

That feeling of elation gave way to the rumbling indigestion of dread.

Hasegawa Tōhaku, Pine Trees, one of a pair of folding screens, Japan, 1593  

Then came the earthquake in Japan this weekend.  I love Japan. I know those places.  I walked those streets and felt the warmth of its people.  My heart is breaking in solidarity for their loss.  As I write this I have a creeping terror that there will be another tragic shoe to drop… the nuclear shoe.  I am praying that I will not have to change this particular paragraph.  I am praying that the sure hands of providence will return that shoe safely back to its tabi-socked foot and nuclear holocaust will be averted.

When the world is mourning, art can provide a refuge for a broken heart.  Art is light and life and gives comfort.  If we all had a deeper connection to it on this little planet… there would be less suffering, less war and brutality.  All of the hearts that are frozen over and blind to art and beauty make the world a cruel, cruel place.  Art is the reflection of the greatest of what we are.  It can open hearts to the voices of others.  It joins us.

We sent out the space probe Voyager with the secret hope that any alien race that found it would want to meet us, or, should they have thoughts about training a weapon on the mess we have made of our water-world Earth, they would hear those strains of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and be moved to forgive us our trespasses and let us live a little longer.  It would tell them we are capable of greatness… there is something worth saving.  There is hope.

Still Life with Cheese, 1585 by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten

Megan at Feasting on Art proposed cooking directly inspired by art this week, in this case Dutch artist Floris Gerritsz van Schooten’s A Still Life of Cheese, painted in 1585.  For me, food and art provide comfort at its best…and hopefulness.  We all need a healthy serving of that this week.

Haarlem Kitchen Scene by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten

Floris Gerritsz van Schooten (1585-1655) lived during a great time in Dutch history. The Dutch East India Company was trading with the world and brought that world back to Amsterdam.  Their world was more expansive because of this trade and exploration and their society flowered with new knowledge and the rise of a new middle class (surprised that openness and prosperity raises all boats, brothers Koch?).  The Dutch were the first Europeans to establish trade with Japan and brought Western culture and science there in 1609 (and the only westerners allowed to trade with them until 1854).  You see, it’s all connected -- all you have to do is find the thread. It was a Golden Age (1568-1648) for the Dutch in so many ways. Rembrandt and Vermeer touched heaven working magic with faces and light.  Gorgeous still lifes celebrated plenty and the promise of a full stomach as if to express joy in bounty as if to say, after generations of privation, look what we have, we are blessed.

Breakfast by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten

I suspect man has always equated comfort with plenty and a full stomach.  It was half of the formula for survival, the other half being a safe place to live.  As civilization bloomed we expected more from the formula… comfort and deliciousness.  When disaster strikes the formula gets re-set to the basics.  When we triumph over tragedy we use food to celebrate and bring us back from the darkness of want and destruction.

Still Life with Cheeses, Candlestick and Smoker’s Accessories by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten

In this time of sadness I wish I could spread comfort and warmth like stardust from my magic wand.  The only way I know how to come close to that is with an offering of food  (and one of my favorite food quotations).  MFK Fisher wrote in Gastronomical Me : “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. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one."

Cheese Toasties have often warmed me after long drives through dark night winds and drifting snows. I always thought the recipe was from Ms Fisher but it is not. It was a gift from the gods of deliciousness that has changed very little since I first made it – small additions of cognac, chili and mustard.  They fill the air with the smell of toasting bread and cheese with a little spice – a smell that makes you feel all is well with the world for at least a few moments.  I hope you will enjoy them and feel comfort and security, love and gratitude. 

Cheese Toasties for 2


1 c grated cheddar cheese (I have used whatever I have on hand many a time, cheddar is my favorite)
 ¼ c mayonnaise
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 t to 1 T chipotle pepper in adobo (or pickled jalapenos if you don’t have chipotle)
1 t rum or cognac
1 t Dijon mustard
2 large slices bread (or 6 slices of baguette)

Toast the bread.  Mix the rest together and spread on the toasted bread.  Put under the broiler until brown and bubbly. Cut into ½ or ¼ size pieces and eat with gusto. 

Be prepared to make more.

John F. Kennedy said in 1963: "The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state," Kennedy said. "... In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having 'nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope." (Thanks to Bill Moyers for this quote)

This blog was mentioned on The Kitchn!  Thanks!


Lora said...

Beautiful thoughtful post. Thank you.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

So many good thoughts here. I realized while reading, that I am probably most happy when I am wondering through a museum. And, my first stop is always the museum in a new city because it's a touch point for the heart of that community. I am in awe of the MFK Fisher quote. "Of course, of course," I find myself saying. Wishing us all peace, and particularly those who need it so desperately right now.

Kathy Walker said...

Loved your post. Cheese toasties are wonderful. I am going to try your recipe. Love your photographs...even the toasties are art!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

A wonderful, heart-felt post! It's true art has the power to allow us to escape during stressful times. So does cheese :) Your toasties sound delicious!

Claudia said...

It's been days and days of a heavy heart - alleviated by love. Aided by breaking bread together. And comforted through art. Lovely posting.

Diane said...

I am feeling pretty good with life because I am returning to France next weekend, but I am very sad when I look at all the devastation in the world caused by nature. Also this time I am worried about leaving Nigel as he really is not bouncing with health. He has much stress in his life and he has peripheral neuropathy (inherited!) which is causing more and more problems.
On a lighter note Cheese toasties with cognac have to be good :-) Diane

Ana Powell said...

I have told you many time most likely how special and wonderful your work is.
Your posts are so well written, your photos breathtaking and your recipes so delightful.
Wishing you a great weekend ♥

Serena said...

Oh yum! Cheese good. & they can be veganized ,as well. :) I just had really good cheese toasties (vegan cheese that MELTS) the other day in a restaurant in Cornwall called Peasouk

La Table De Nana said...

Have I told you ..that I think you write beautifully?
My heart goes out to japan also..and I too hope you never change that paragraph..
Your cheese toasties? W/ the cogans added reminds me of Ju..but you ahve added all that gooey comfy cheese mayo chipotle:)

Great old world charm photos again.

I have a neighbor/friend across the artist..I am at such peace in her home w/ her beautiful huge canvases in her art room..her palettes.. her brushes..her antique frescoes..(Sp?) her paintings..and music..
She is just like that.Calm.
I love this post..because you are right.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

our cheese toastie is just perfect! Beautifully said Deana! Having lived in Japan I'm at a loss for words. I know I have met and known people that have passed or been injured and I just don't know what to say. Y

Fresh Local and Best said...

There has been an unusual array of significant geopolitical events these past few months. I'm glad to see you record your thoughts as they happen, you shouldn't change it, they are precious and real records.

Comforting with a splash of sophistication is how I would describe these cheese toasties. Totally fab!

tasteofbeirut said...

Your thoughts resonated with me and I especially liked your conclusion that art or art appreciation would save humanity; the problem is how many people are receptive to art, or beauty?
these cheese toasties remind me of what my mother used to fix often while we all lived in France; she would throw all the leftover cheeses in a big pot and melt them with some milk or cream and they would go on the baguette for some toasties. Love your idea of adding cognac now that makes it festive!

Barbara said...

Cheese toasties are definitely comfort food...something we all had as children and serve to our children. Quick and delicious, especially when you've added some lovely extras. Mine was always a good piece of bread, good cheese and chili sauce on the side. Yours is rather more the British version...with the mustard. Yum.

The falling "dominos of dictators" is a good thing; one can only hope that whoever comes after is an improvement. It worries me.

The world is not simple and nature is not predictable. Japan is suffering and all of us are suffering right along with them. Much as I love art, In doubt those who war are much interested and nature goes its' own way. We are insignificant, really, and can only try our best to keep our spirits up and hope alive. If art helps us in this regard, I am thankful.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

AMEN. AMEN to all that you have so eloquently expressed on my comments page and HERE, in this delicious post that helps us survive the uncertainties around us. A dear colleague with whom I have worked for 8 years, a young man, was diagnosed with terminal cancer last week. In light of all the doom, LOVE, shelter and food is what we need to live in this life and prepare us for the next....your words here and art are again an art of INSPIRATION and food for more reflection that brings us together as the humans that we need of nourishment of the body and soul. You are a wonderful friend, Deana.....happy Saturday dearest. OH, one day, I need to direct you to my other team blog NOWHERE, where my husband wrote a hilarious ODE TO CHEESE, and I drew our character TEA would chuckle......Anita

Sarah said...

Not only are you a wonderful writer but you are a wonderful thinker.

Megan @ FeastingonArt said...

This is such a lovely post, the writing is beautiful and the recipe combines two of my favorite things, chipotle chili and burnt cheese. Thank you so much for participating.

Quay Po Cooks said...

I enjoyed reading this post. Very thoughtful and the cheese toasties looks very delicious. I love the photos too. Lovely!

Plu Tien said...

I really truly wish more people like you existed in this world. It would be much more a beautiful place to exist in. Thanks for posting this.

Lucy said...

Lovely conforting thoughts and gestures. Beauty and food can be a solace and a strength to get together what it takes to prevail and rebuild in a better way.

Chef Dennis Littley said...

there is so much going on in the world these days, from the problems with Kadafi to the condition of Japan, it does make you wonder where we are headed and what another race might think of us Earthlings.
Lets hope we have done enough good to justify our being...
You really are a treasure, and thats not even taking into consideration those lovely cheese toasties, which would be welcome at anytime of the day or night.

Thank you for such a wonderful post!

Mary Bergfeld said...

What a thoughtful, timely post. The toasties warm the stomach but your words warm the soul and spirit. Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings

a frog in the cottage said...

Your photo is unbelievable, incredibly artistic !!

Anonymous said...

I loved reading your thoughtful post and would love to have a few of those comforting delicious cheese toasties! They sound so good with the addition of chipotles too!

Unknown said...

Cheese toasties are totally one of my all time favorite comfort foods, but you have totally kicked yours up a notch. I'll join you gobbling these up. I'm in need of a bit of comfort food too!
*kisses* HH

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

I enjoyed reading this. I'm still in awe at what's happening in our world (trying to avoid apocalyptic thoughts) These are really comforting and what is better than melted cheese! I too love art (studied art history in college), could read and talk about it forever... :)

Jonny said...

Lovely post, both in spirit and prose. I might suggest that the Dutch, during the period you mention, were experiencing some of the same things you attribute to North Africa due to their ongoing 80 year conflict with the Spanish Empire. The newly formed, well-armed, organized and confident United Provinces then struck out for the New World/s. If for no other reason than their spreading the gospel of gouda to such diverse places as Indonesia, Mexico and South America, we should all be grateful that they did.

Linda said...

Sweet truer words spoken or written...I so agree with all you have said!
Love to you...

Tasty Trix said...

Your post gave me chills. I am generally not very good at writing sincere and heartfelt things, which doesn't mean I don't feel them ... and so it is good to read something so thoughtful and eloquent from a great writer and thinker like you. And you have chosen a dish that is perfect in its elevated simplicity and comfort.

Anonymous said...

my heart has been heavy for so many different reasons. i happened upon your blog this morning, through a friend of a friend of a friend. this is why i love the www! lovely, eloquent writing. thank you so much. what a gift to stumble upon this today.

Peter said...

There's not much better than melted cheese on good bread. Though given my Italianate leanings, I almost always try to sneak a little tomato (fresh or paste) under there before melting it. The pine tree screen is one of my favorites, and I say that as someone who thinks Rembrandt was the greatest painter of all time.

BigAppleNosh said...

Beautiful post!

El said...

We do live in a mad world and Kennedy's words are beautiful and inspiring. Lovely post. I too take comfort in the toasted cheese.

Needful Things said...

Loved your heartfelt post as well as the beautiful photos!