With a prolific number of recipes available to us through so many resources such as websites, cookbooks, magazines and cooking shows, it seems as though our options for dinner are almost endless. Coupled with the availability of food flown in from every region of the U.S. and other countries, the world is literally our oyster – and we no longer have to wait for oyster season to enjoy oysters, either. This phrase, “the world is your oyster,” originates from Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Falstaff: “I will not lend thee a penny.” Pistol: “Why, then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”
Globalization, massive food manufacturing and storage facilities, coupled with intricate distribution webs, provide many of us with the food we want whenever we want it. Spices from all over the world, German chocolates, Turkish dates, the list is endless… and if you cannot get all that you want from the multiple grocery stores on the Mid Shore, the internet is always open. Yet, we grow bored with our choices. After a third night of lasagna, we complain we are sick of it. We can skip the long arduous preparation of a meal with a microwave, if we wish. We can have Chinese takeout one night and Mexican food the next. This got me thinking: Have we made food so easy that it has lost its meaning? I began to think about what food is not easily available, what kind of foods would we have to work for if we really wanted them?
My answer is stuffed venison heart. Now, I found a recipe for it, but it is not something I can get at my local grocery store or have overnighted to my house – as far as I can tell. First, you would have to know how to hunt or know someone that hunts. You would have to wait for deer season, and the deer to be killed, with no exact time as to when or if you would enjoy this dish. Until very recently, this is how many people lived, and many still do today. People who live this way have to have food skills and food patience. Punching numbers on a microwave is not a food skill, or an exercise in food patience.
My venison heart experience came about when my husband, who is a hunter, remembered that I had been reading articles about organ meats and how good they are for you. In an effort to show that he was paying attention, I was presented with a stuffed venison heart for dinner one late autumn afternoon. Keep in mind, I was not on bended knee with anticipation to try stuffed venison heart, but his gesture was so sincere, I did my best to rise to the occasion. I’m not a fan of organ meats. In my childhood, my mother would cook liver and onions occasionally and it was the only meal she made that I really didn’t like. I do like scrapple, which contains organ meats, but I didn’t know that in my youth, proving ignorance can be bliss. So, with his prize laid before me, I reluctantly took a bite. I wasn’t crazy about the texture, but the flavor was good, honestly, it was really quite tasty. If venison heart was something I really longed for, my patience would have been tested while I waited. Its presentation to me would have been quite a gesture. The meal, along with a retelling of the hunt, would have been a celebration.
I believe when we wait a long time for food, it becomes more revered. Take for example the garden tomato. After watering and tending to a tomato plant for months, its’ fruit rewards with a taste never to be matched by any grocery store garden-fresh wanna be. If you are a tomato lover, that first ripe garden tomato tastes perfect, if perfect had a taste. Think also about the strawberry, available year-round. But the Delmarva strawberry, freshly picked from the fields of Caroline County in May, only comes around once a year. If you are a strawberry connoisseur, nothing else comes close to our local crop. Perhaps that’s why local strawberry festivals are so well attended. Strawberry fans have waited almost a year for the local crop, and their patience will pay off when their taste buds are dazzled.
For many years, I have heard a tale from an old friend about local Elderberry wine. As the story goes, during a flu epidemic, her grandmother made the whole family drink elderberry wine that she kept under the stairs for just such occasions. When people in her neighborhood perished from the flu, her family was spared. Divine intervention? Wine? We’ll never know, but Elderberry wine is prized in that family. Many years ago (before it was available online), I asked her where to get some and she said, “Oh you can’t buy that from the store, it has to be made with fresh elderberries.” After years of searching, I finally found some elderberries from a gardening friend. My husband and I picked the elderberries, then re-picked them, boiled them, strained them, added yeast and sugar and waited. The whole process took about three months. I gave a bottle to my friend for Christmas. She saved a taste for every single person in her family and then called to thank me – twice. Being a food explorer, it was an adventure and an experiment for me. But for her, its meaning was so much deeper. It had been decades since she had last tasted Elderberry wine. The experience was a homecoming for her.
Creating meaningful food experiences requires time, thought and patience. Slow cooked pot roast is going to be worth the five hours you put into preparing it and checking on it. With about an hour to go, when that savory beef aroma has fully permeated your house, your stomach will start talking to you. The first bite will be satiating. The experience could be raised to a new level if you knew where the beef came from, had a friendship with a farmer, and hadn’t eaten beef in quite a while.
Stuffed venison heart, backyard tomatoes, local strawberries, slow cooked pot roast, and Elderberry wine all require work, time and patience. Why do you think holiday food is so anxiously awaited – because quite simply, we only have that special dish once, maybe twice a year. If we ate it once a week it would lose its celebrity status. I find when there is longing, when there is work, when there is a story behind our food, when our patience is tested, only then do we appreciate and savor every bite.
I invite you to test your patience and create meaningful meal experiences. Perhaps you’ll hold off on grocery store strawberries until the local ones arrive, making them taste that much sweeter. Why not wait to eat corn until the local sweet corn is available roadside? Maybe you’ll plan a home cooked dinner that you haven’t prepared in a while. You could wait for the next fish you eat to be one you have caught yourself. Or, how about making your grandmother’s famous cookie recipe you dream about from time to time, but don’t take the time to bake? Testing our food patience and creating meaningful meal adventures can be a way to elevate our food experiences, appreciate anticipated flavors, awaken our senses, and give us a story to tell. Food patience can also be our escort in revisiting and/or exploring our cultural food heritage.
By the way, I’ve decided I like Elderberry wine. I planted two bushes in my side yard. It will be about three years before they produce enough berries to make wine. I’m going to enjoy the wait.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband, Chef Brian Schmidt, own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.