Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What if Jesus brought a basket of fish tacos?

Don't quote me on this, but the word taco isn't in the Bible. Sure, fondue is mentioned in the Iliad or a reference to melted cheese in a goat's stomach with wine. Of course there are many references to beef in the 8th century Irish poem, The Tain, and as you might imagine, The Inferno has limited if any references to food. Despite the lack of edibles in epic poetry, it doesn't make them any less epic, just less epicurean. I have been wanting to have a series of cooking classes that pair literature with food, but haven't quite figured out what we would do--besides sit around and eat and talk about books, which frankly sounds good enough to me.

People often assume I went to culinary school since I run a cooking school. It's a logical assumption and one that I quite often feel shy about clarifying. I tell people I have my M.F.A in poetry, but while working on a manuscript in Northern Michigan, I decided a way to curb my loneliness would be to spend my nights cooking. If you feed people, they are more likely to come over and fill your sparse apartment. Plus I missed food. I missed food I had had while traveling and living abroad and in Marquette, Michigan your options are limited for ethnic cuisine. Not unless you consider midwestern food such as Friday night fish fry, ethnic or even cuisine. So I cooked, fed others and learned some very elementary culinary skills.

This past month, I had a rare opportunity to share some of these skills. I was asked by a quiet spoken social worker if I would teach some cooking classes to veterans in a local group home. I went to visit the facility and the men had a garden, a communal kitchen and plenty of frozen entrees in their freezer to last through another recession. So for two Wednesday evenings, I went and taught a group of men how to make butternut squash soup with a riata, seasonal green salad with a quick ginger vinaigrette and fish tacos with an apple pico de gallo.

Picture this. Four men wearing ill-fitting plastic gloves de-veining shrimp and talking about their most memorable meal. Each of them had one. No one said they couldn't remember. One man had a memory of a salmon he had caught in the rivers of his childhood, another fondly thought of fresh marlin cooked in the Keys of Florida and another revered a bowl of oatmeal. It was amazing how quickly these men shared with me without having to go through all the social worked steps of getting people to "open up."

This happens so often around a table. People easily share their food memories without a sense of judgment and often without hesitation. And telling stories? It's a way to create collective intimacy. In a few short hours, I learned a lot about these men from injuries to ex-wives and of course, their fondness for food. And maybe this is why teaching cooking is as rewarding as teaching poetry, you get to show people the beauty in being able to feed yourself. Either your stomach or your soul. And maybe on rare occasions, you get to teach people how to feed both.

I'm not sure if I changed any of these guy's cooking habits or interests, but that's okay. It doesn't matter. What matters to me is that for a few hours these guys laughed, told stories, learned how to de-vein shrimp and how to hold a knife and mince an onion. But most importantly, these guys got to feed themselves. And without referencing any crochet quotes about teaching a man to fish or being too cliche about helping others so they can help themselves, really, it's just real. It seems far more realistic for a group of people to sit around and eat together and chat than to sit in folding chairs around a circle in some basement and confess fears and frustrations. Sometimes it's good to get everyone involved. Maybe this is why Jesus brought food to all his gatherings and shared it. Just think if he had brought fish tacos.

Here's a simple pico de gallo recipe with apples that's great with fish tacos this time of year.

Apple & Avocado Pico

1 apple, cored & minced (Gala or Fuji work well and even Honey Crisp)
1 avocado, sliced
1/2 red onion, minced
1 lime, juiced
1/2 bunch cilantro
Dash or two of hot sauce
Salt, to taste

1. In a bowl, combine ingredients and salt to taste.

Here are a few tricks. Cut an avocado in half. Lay cut side down on cutting board. Slice avocado in half again. Peel off skin with your fingers. Slice avocado to desired size. It's easier to slice an avocado outside of it's skin. Also, with cilantro, hold bunch of cilantro in the opposite hand you hold your knife. Shave cilantro leaves with you sharp knife. Yes, shave cilantro. It's much easier to shave herbs like cilantro and parsley since you can eat the stems than it is with picking each individual leaves.