Three Studies in Virtuoso Home Cooking

FEATURE-March 2011
By Dennis Gilbert
Photographs by Kristin Teig

This story begins and ends at home. Rural Maine, 1950s: in a kitchen powered by counter-top appliances and a dangerously bipolar four-burner electric, my mother practiced a culinary sorcery that would have been any hungry kid’s dream come true. Homecooking—one indivisible word describing not only what we ate but how we lived. The present story is about people similarly afflicted with an inability to separate the domus from the queen of domestic arts.

 

Paul
Paul Heroux paid his way through art school doing scullery work at the Window Shop in Cambridge, entering the kitchen proper at Sally Scoville’s nearby Le Bocage. Le Bocage was small, bistro style, and au courant at a time when Americans, already looking for a new experience at the table, were being gently guided into the age of the celebrity chef by, among others, Julia Child.

Unlike the tradition-bound, classical European cuisine at the Window Shop, Le Bocage’s tended toward variation and interpretation. It favored breaking dishes down to their basic structures and building them back up again. You became broadly literate in the properties of foods to uncover new affinities and improvise new marriages. Paul’s kitchen craft and aesthetic date from here.

An accurate first impression of Paul is that his physical strength is greater than his physical size. Slight and delicate of feature, his appearance belies the density of substance embodied by his work, notably his garden water bowls and large jars. The other impression—of delicacy—is reflected in his art as well: across their undulating surfaces, his forms are inscribed with astute abstractions of the natural world.
That his cooking and art have influenced one another is clear from the similarity of process they share: first you build a form, and then you explore its sensual and decorative possibilities. In ceramics, the supporting structure is a three-dimensional object; in cooking, it’s a standard template—say, a fruit tart. There is a similarity of dynamic as well: as a painter, he favors a canvas of three-dimensional surfaces because some part of the image is always waiting to be revealed—very much as the flavors of a dish open up over time, and the sequence of a menu at once redefines and anticipates as the procession of courses moves forward.

In her An Alphabet for Gourmets, M.F.K. Fisher offers a cardinal rule for the perfect meal: it should be enlivened by “a modicum of astonishment.” The rule’s teach-a-man-to-fish corollary—that the cooking itself should be enlivened by the unexpected—is the foundation of Paul’s practice in studio and kitchen alike: nothing happens in advance, “in here,” but “out there” where the marks—and the food—are being made. The pleasure of watching him cook is observing the methodical execution of a well-laid plan that also makes room for coincidence—enter the novel idea.

I met Paul in 1976 at No Tomatoes in Auburn, where with generous patience he trained me as sous chef before he left the kitchen in my still-uncertain hands to follow his art. The most important lessons I learned from him were not technical but dispositional. The process of stripping a dish of externals and resurfacing it requires a talent for improvisation, something that isn’t so much acquired but unlocked. Unlocked, it feeds on its own freedom, stimulates the imagination, and opens the mind up to receive the lucky accident, the unexpected aromatic winking at you from a corner of the pantry shelf or garden.  Something like this: would the pineapple tart, already besotted with rum and ginger, be made more astonishing by a modicum of mint, or of basil?

Liv
I can’t think of a more propitious place to meet a culinary kindred spirit than a farmer’s market, which is exactly where we joined Liv Rockefeller one sunny September morning in the full bloom of the growing season. Liv was already getting down to serious business when we arrived, gathering the makings of a lunch that, as we followed along, became more and more appetizing with each acquisition.

You can learn a lot by watching someone shop. Without being actually voyeuristic, it is more than a casual observational pleasure. Liv’s earnest commerce with the purveyors made it apparent that theirs was not a habitual, congenial rapport developed over time. A quiet excitement implicit in mutual attentiveness marked the exchange of money for goods as a transaction between people who shared true aficion—true passion. For Liv, discovering what new tips or treasures they had brought to market was secondary to this important social contract with the people who empower her to take practice to the level of vocation.

The marketing done, we traveled out into the Camden Hills, up and farther up, until, surprisingly soon, we had arrived at the apparent top of the world. This spectacular prospect was offset by the raw earth of a temporarily dormant construction site flanked by two buildings of sibling resemblance. One was the house Liv and her husband, Ken Shure, moved into five years ago, completing her homecoming to the mountain she grew up on; the other—now nearly finished—was a library to house their collections of books, art, antiques, ephemera, and mementos. One day soon, the two dwellings will communicate with one another by a courtyard of terraced gardens and fruit-tree-shaded stone pathways.

The centerpiece of Liv’s lunch was pasta Genovese. She and Ken had returned from Italy the day before yesterday; today’s menu had begun at the Genova Saturday Market with the purchase of pignoli nuts. Liv described the meal as an ode to Liguria. Taken as a whole, it demonstrated literacy in and love of the regional Italian milieu; in its parts, it was a perfect balance of domestica and exotica, expressing equal fidelity to the origins of the dish and the origins of the food—the green beans and tiny fingerling potatoes from the market, this basil from the garden. “Between voyages, those Ligurian sailors wanted to eat the fresh and abundant herbs and greens of their mountain home,” she explained. She might well have been describing herself.

In appetite alone, Liv may be the most voracious cook I’ve ever met. That she still identifies herself as “a novice” is a paean to the undiscovered pleasures of the world’s gardens, for which she has an insatiable curiosity. Her cookbook library, numbering in the hundreds of volumes, is roundly complemented by travel. She follows a purposeful wanderlust: her quest for food is also a quest for knowledge, as “the cultural and historical idiosyncrasies are revealed most effortlessly in the kitchen and at the table.”

The awakening of the aficionada in Liv Rockefeller dates from an encounter with one of the most noble and humble of foods, leek-and-potato soup. When she was working as an au pair in Paris, her employer, Madame Bernier, was scandalized to find that she didn’t know how to make one of the most basic foods in the French lexicon, something the children ate for dinner at least two days a week.

“Madame Bernier’s outrage at my ignorance and subsequent tutelage opened a door that never closed,” she recalls. “This was a great triumph, to create a dish so delicious and nourishing from such humble and limited ingredients. To meet the leek, in itself, was an event, and when joined with a bit of butter, potato, water, and crème fraîche…wow!”

Sandi & Rick
Fall of 1968: Rick Lawrence gets a lead on a feral farm for sale on Fifteen Mile Stream in Benton, travels north, walks the boundary lines, likes what he sees, and makes a down payment of a hundred dollars. When a teachers-union strike puts him out of work a few weeks later, he and his wife, Sandi, decide to relocate to Maine and raise their two sons in the country.

While the farmland itself was reverting to wilderness, the farmhouse was becoming a catastrophe. But the sheer decrepitude of the dwelling was mitigated by the back-to-the-land wholesomeness of the venture. And it was in this spirit of pluck and promise that they all set to work.

The first capital improvement was the purchase of an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub, which was brought into the house through a window. The nonfunctioning summer kitchen was torn off, and a proper bathroom installed. The first garden was planted the next spring. A shed became a wood shop and laundry and then, years later, a living room and library. Next came a barn with a loft, which was first a greenhouse and later a knitting studio, and after that a freestanding wood shop and detached wood-boiler circulating forced hot water through a system of underground pipes. New cedar shingles and a gleaming steel roof were cosmetic, practical, and cultural, bringing the dwelling into step with current Kennebec County fashion. A screened-in porch running the length of the western wall expanded the leisure space. An ell was added to the north side to provide a ground-floor bedroom and a second bath for their visiting parents, who by now had joined the ranks of the elderly, for it was over a period of decades that this farmhouse earned its rustic elegance.

The domestication of the farmland meant restoring its diversified agricultural productivity. After establishing a dynamic center—the chicken houses—reclamation expanded outward to include a succession of vegetable gardens, a plum and apple orchard, grape vines, hops for beer, a sprawling thicket of raspberries, self-propagating seed poppies, and a woodlot to power the iron cookstove in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, from educational exchanges and professional assignments, their sons, Tim and Quil, brought home cultural and culinary treasures from Russia, Greece, South America, the Middle East, and North Africa. As the family grew and the kitchen required more table space, room was made for Turkish mezes and Moroccan spices, and among the most revered of discoveries, ajiaco.

Quil brought ajiaco back from Colombia. It is a treasure of Bogota in the way that leek-and-potato soup is a staple of Parisian cooking. Its basic structure is a robust chicken stew enriched by the reduction of the broth, thickened with potatoes, sweetened with corn, and given extra extravagance by the addition of capers, cream, and avocados. This richness is counterbalanced by a blast of freshness from the aji, a verdant condiment made of scallions, chilis, onions, and cilantro. But the secret and soul of the dish is guascas, a dried plant of the daisy family unlike anything found in the European herbal. The addition of the guascas to the bubbling broth is transformative. Breathe in the vapors of ajiaco just as the guascas is blooming, and you’ll grasp as never before the true meaning of umami.

The inevitable depletion of Quil’s guascas cache prompted research into other sources, which in turn revealed that Galinsoga parviflora was known in the local vernacular as “gallant soldiers.” When consulted on the subject, a botanizing neighbor identified it as an invasive pest and offered “as much as you want!” As it turned out, they already had it in abundance themselves.

Even though the guascas/gallant soldiers discovery involved a voyage beyond the equator, its rehabilitation from reviled invader to valued foodstuff was as much an act of attentiveness as an accident. As such, it’s emblematic of the style of homemaking Rick and Sandi have been practicing since settling in Maine: their reclamation of the farm has been a careful process of stirring up the domestic history of the locale all along.

While we marveled over our first ajiaco, Rick paid tribute to the fine creature who had provided its fragrance, flavor, and flesh by telling us the history of the place where it had lived such a long and happy life.

The two old brooder houses were already fifty years old when Rick brought them, dismantled, from Albion on a flatbed. For four decades, they have been home to scores of generations of today’s most iconic culinary celebrity, the free-range chicken. Laying hens, roosters, and capons have thrived on the garden weeds and fertilized the soil, providing eggs and meat for the table and much good humor with their avian shenanigans. Since his retirement, Rick has devoted an enormous amount of energy to conservation projects including the restoration of alewife ladders, the protection of the Unity Wetlands, and the expansion of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust. At present, he’s working to get the Albion Cider Mill up and running in time for folks to bring next year’s apples in for pressing.

But to be a true steward of the land, a farmer needs livestock.

About the chickens, Sandi is somewhat philosophical. She thinks they have too many. She likes their eggs, but they are a convenient excuse: “for staying at home,” she says.

Rick and Sandi have their favorite places in the world—Turkey, Hawaii, and especially Scotland, the land of finnan haddie and peaty Caol Ila. “But everything Rick ever wanted in the world is right here.”

And the chickens do need to be tended to.

 

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