I was standing in my friend Alysa's back yard smelling the desert air-- with snow falling up in the mountains, and rain clouds billowing their way across the valley, the smell was electric, and cold, and wet. She'd gone to work already. I was packing up, getting ready to head back to LA, and I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia.
This nostalgia, I'm used to it. I fall in love with places and then move away, leaving communities and friends and patches of earth that I've grown very fond of. I miss the streets of London and the hills of Scotland and the desert mountains and the Mediterranean sea and not just the places but everything that comes along with them. No matter how clean a break I try to make, there's always a part of me that will miss wherever I was. Sometimes it feels like I'm even missing where I AM, because I know that it won't stay there forever.
Alysa has a Meyer lemon tree. The boughs were so heavy with fruit that they were bent over with the weight, almost touching the ground. I picked a few. And then a few more. And before I knew it I had a bag full, and it occurred to me that I wasn't just gathering fruit from a tree, but gathering a moment in time, and a specific place in that moment. I thought about how being connected to our food source isn't just about knowing who our farmers are or what chemicals are sprayed, but on being connected to a place on the earth. And that each time you eat food from a specific place you're taking that part of the earth into your body too- the raw minerals of it, but also the more subtle things about it like the wind and the light and the smells and the general mood of a place. I wondered about what happens to us on a subtle level if we eat fruit from Chile and meat from Wisconsin and Avocados from Mexico...
But immediately after that, it occurred to me that if you can unintentionally eat lots of different places, you can also intentionally put a place into your food, just as you can put your emotions or intentions into food. Maybe somehow eating food of a place means a part of you will be there always*. And then maybe, if there's a place you have a special connection to, then eating of that place can connect you to it, regardless of where you are. I've had this happen, you know-- a few weeks ago, when, I was gathering branches from one of my favourite trees, up in the Santa Rosa mountains. When I got home, I set about to process them, remove the needles, steep some in olive oil, others in honey, and by the time I was done, I was in such a dream-like state that I could have sworn half of me was back under the tree I'd harvested from, sitting against its trunk, feeling the cool breeze in my hair, smelling that mountain air.
Sometimes the weight of missing things is quite heavy. I see it primarily taking hold in the liver; it's an inability to let go completely. Sometimes it's as though it's all of time that is being clung onto, and then sometimes it just feels as though it's moments and places. Sometimes a liver will let go and relax a bit and allow things to move on, and then like a frightened cat, it will seize up again. 'Liver, my friend, you're not fooling anyone', I say to myself, absent-mindedly. Time carries on. Movement carries on. Change, it happens. As does sadness, and missing things, and death, and age. But liver reacts to emotions, not to rational thinking. A tense liver can't perform its functions properly- to filter things and break things down and make sure everything is running smoothly. A tense liver gives you headaches. A tense liver isn't really something to strive for.
I arrived home in the late afternoon. The light had started to go orange again, and as I flung open the doors and windows to let in all that light, the afternoon breeze picked up and I was struck in the head by a cloud of the scent of lavender.
It's one of the first plants I put in when I move places. Because, as far as I'm concerned, having a lavender plant by the front door is excellent luck. Having a sage plant right next to the lavender makes for protection, good health and delicious tea. But that afternoon, the lavender was licking my senses. And I smiled; nobody can be a nostalgic grouch when there's lavender on the table. This, my friends, is a little known fact of kitchen witchery. Because lavender tickles things. Not just things, but livers. Your liver. My liver. It's like rosemary's playful younger cousin- where rosemary is a little old Italian lady who smacks you on the bottom with her broom, lavender has purple hair and colourful skirts and a sparkle in her eye and just when you think you're going to explode a blood vessel because you're holding onto things too tightly, she reaches out and tickles you, and you start to forget why you were holding on to it all in the first place. It's not the weight of the world in worry and sadness- there are different herbs for that. No, it's the weight of the world in tension. It's a clenching on the right side of the body. It's fear of loss of control, and nerves that are tightly wound because of it. Sound familiar? Maybe you need a tickle too...
What happened next was a bit magical. I picked a few lavender sprigs, and they found their way into the drizzly sauce of the lemon cake entirely (ok maybe not entirely) of their own accord. Lemon juice and lavender bubbling away in a saucepan, while a lemony polenta cake cooks in the oven. It smells of the past, of the Southwest, and of distant hills somewhere in the future. It confounds your senses, and tickles your smile reflex, and although you're supposed to wait for it to cool to eat it, if you can manage such a thing then you're stronger than me, and stronger than Jam, because we devoured a quarter of it standing up, at the stove, before dinner. And what occurred to me, as I was standing up at the stove eating things from one of my favourite places and from the spot right outside my front door, was that clutching on to everything for dear life might be missing the point entirely. Maybe it isn't possible or preferable to have a clean break.Maybe the whole point isn't to not miss places, but to experience them with every fiber of your being, and then when (if) you move on it will be without regrets. Maybe the pain doesn't come from being away, but from trying to hold on to what is no longer there. From the tension created by trying to be everywhere at once instead of exactly where you are, wherever that might be. And with that in mind, with the nuances of my garden hanging out with the lemons from the desert, I understood: you can be somewhere and let go at the same time. Love it without holding onto it. And each time you do, you get just a little bit bigger. Maybe even a little bit wiser. And that, to me, right now, is what it's all about.
Lemon-lavender polenta cake
(not adapted at all from Nigella Lawson's recipe except for the addition of an extra lemon and the lavender)
200g soft unsalted butter
200g almond flour
100g fine corn flour (masa)
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
zest of 3 meyer lemons
For the drizzle:
juice of 3 lemons
2 tsp chopped fresh lavender (or 3 tsp dried lavender)
Preheat the oven to 350. Mix together the flours, salt and baking powder. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon zest. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, mixing thoroughly, then one egg. Repeat until all the flour and eggs are gone, then scrape the batter into a 9' pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes. It might not look entirely set in the centre, but the edges will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.
In a pan on the stovetop, bring the lemon juice, lavender and sugar gently to a boil. Remove from heat immediately. Prick tiny little holes over the top of the cake with the point of a sharp knife, and drizzle the syrup over the cake (strain it first if you don't want lavender bits everywhere). Try to allow it to cool before eating....
*Which reminds me of the stories you hear about the land of faerie: never, ever eat anything while you're there, or you'll never be able to leave.