Maybe I just needed the words close to me.
Bread. Wine. Chocolate. Slow. Loss. Food. Love.
All words that speak to my heart. Words that I dance and sometimes wrestle with in my own writing and life-ing. Words that make me pay attention.
When I saw a Facebook post early in the fall about Simran Sethi’s book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, I knew I had to meet it. Maybe, on a deeper level, I knew I needed it. That bringing her words closer to me would feed me, could heal me.
As with good food, good books feel like medicine to me. Curative. This book certainly felt like that.
I should clarify. It felt like medicine, not in the sense of terrible cherry cough syrup or a sedative to knock me out. It felt like medicine like homemade chicken stock with rosemary and ginger and garlic, or thick hot chocolate with chili pepper, or lying on grass or sand and listening to wind and water, or a long hug from an old friend on a bad day. That kind of medicine.
When I started this column in October of 2013, I deliberately called it “For Here, Please,” with the tag line, “Sustenance you can’t pack up in a Styrofoam cup, meant to be enjoyed in the here and now.” Mostly as a reminder to myself of how I wanted to live my life, how I still do. Yet for the last three months I haven’t found time to do something that gives me great joy, which is write this column. Clearly, columns can’t be entirely responsible for me feeling well and whole. Neither can books.
But I’ll tell you what. Sometimes they do a bang-up job and give me a serious, steady, IV drip of salvation.
In the pages of Bread, Wine, Chocolate, Sethi writes of awareness, savoring, and wholeness, and I so desperately want to feel whole. I don’t think I’m the only one. When I tune in to the world around me, I can feel the craving among us. For a different way of being in the world. For a wake up from a groggy slog through our days. To not feel so alone. To not feel so heart-hungry.
Yes, Sethi is writing about biodiversity, about traveling to six different continents to investigate foods and drinks we drool over and even devote websites to (like this one), about the practicalities and particulars, the tragedies and triumphs of how we eat and how we might eat, but she’s also writing about a deeper, broader hunger.
I read this book over two of the busiest weeks of my life this fall, working long days into fatigue and spending time each evening before bed, treating myself to a small serving of pages. I often gobble books, but not this one. I found myself craving those nighttime moments when I knew I’d have a trusted guide into mindfulness, moments when I’d ask Mike, again and again, “Hey, can I read you a part? It’s so good.”
Reading it was like going on a retreat, attending a class with a favorite professor, a deep breath and a reminder that I belonged to life all at once. Reading it made me slow down. It made those sacred evening moments expand. It invited me to savor. It fed my hunger.
In case you can’t tell, I really loved this book, the way you love a treasure of a person who is so dear, so wise, so wonderful, that you both want everyone to meet her and also want to save her all for yourself. Maybe most of all, I loved the integrity of this book, how true it was, on all levels, to itself, which is what I want to be. I loved the way Sethi creates for the reader an experience that feels much like a tasting of wine, or beer, or chocolate, or bread, all of which she offers guides for throughout the book.
Photo credit: Cem Ersavci for Dumbo Feather
I even looked forward to touching the cover, with a visual and tangible woven texture, with the suggestion of a red wine stain, chocolate shavings, and crumbs of bread. When I see something that looks luscious to me, I often say, “I want to lick that.” That’s how I felt about the cover, but I restrained myself, and went about licking actual chocolate instead, from the crease between my index finger and thumb, where I was instructed to put a small piece of it in the chocolate-tasting guide section.
Eating chocolate with measured restraint is not always something I’m capable of, but with Sethi’s guidance, I felt inspired and grateful to be doing it.
As she shared her experience of slurping the pulp off of cacao seeds in Ecuador, I remembered my own opportunity to do that in Cameroon more than ten years ago, how the taste was nothing like chocolate, but so surprising and sweet and pleasurable that I somehow understood it immediately as the mother flavor of chocolate. I could feel how they were related.
In Bread, Wine, Chocolate, I learned things I didn’t know, like that chocolate and coffee are fermented foods. That the heat of fermentation kills something that allows chocolate to be born. That “the death of the [cacao] seed begets the birth of flavor.” Reading about chocolate and pondering the life-death-life cycle? For the chocolate-lover whose own writing life sprang first from grief, this was a big Yes, Please.
I enjoyed so many moments like this—reading about information that fascinated me, and then being invited to feel into it metaphorically.
Sethi writes, “For me, the lessons of cacao and chocolate are those of reclamation: of embracing what is wild in me, of allowing for a deeper yearning, of cherishing myself in times of lower productivity—and remembering that honoring diversity, in ways that are both real and symbolic, allows for the potential of something greater.”
That was something I could feast on. And Sethi offered still more for discovery.
Like how a single coffee plant is the great-great grandmother (my loose interpretation) of most of the cultivated coffee plants in the world.
Like the tender detailing of a traditional coffee ceremony in Addis Ababa.
Like such a lively description of Yirgacheffe coffee that made me expand my usually limited-to-dark-roast-Arabica repertoire and slow my coffee experience even more.
I learned things that were hard to know, like the cost of industrialized agriculture and the shocking suicide rate of farmers, the people who work most closely with the land.
But Sethi didn’t leave me in a place of despair. Instead, she woke me up and reminded me that none of us are alone.
Her book evoked connection, intimacy with the world. She showed how saving the foods we love is really about saving ourselves and each other, is really about reconnection. About stepping outside of our loneliness to remember—as Mary Oliver writes in her exquisite poem “Wild Geese,”—our sacred “place in the family of things.”
As Sethi expressed throughout Bread, Wine, Chocolate, this is not just a book about food. It’s a book about love and life and stories. As a connected member of this world family, I know myself to be hungry for all of these things.
I also know myself to be hungry for variety, which is at the heart of this book. As a writer and editor, as someone who mentors other writers in telling their stories, I can’t let go of wondering what happens as our diets and lives become more and more mono-toned in service to modernity, technology, and efficiency.
If everything is connected, as I believe it is, what does that monotony do to our stories? I don’t want mono-toned, over-produced food any more than I want mono-toned over-produced books, so stripped, stylized, and packaged they lose their souls.
What we feed on, in mind, body, and spirit matters, because what we take in contributes to what we put out.
This is not about snobbery. It’s not like I can’t enjoy a moment of word candy and share that moment with others. Or that I can’t enjoy some mass-produced Halloween candy and share that moment with others. Although I don’t always succeed at it, I know that it’s better to be gracious and grateful than to be rigid and judgmental.
And, when I have the opportunity to choose what I put into the world, and likewise to choose what I take into my creative or digestive systems, I want something different. I want slow cooked food, and books, like this one, in which I can taste so much care.
Sethi’s book feels like an affirmation of the life I want to live, a fuller life she’s inviting all of us to.
In Bread, Wine, Chocolate, Simran Sethi invites us into a questioning space.
She writes, “These questions start as seeds: What we do to our ecosystem—what we do to our food—is what we do to ourselves. When we talk about the depletion in soil and water, we’re also talking about something being depleted in us. When we refer to monocropping and monodiets, that monotony is a reflection of how we live our lives. If the stories of seeds are the stories of us, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What seeds are we planting—and how do we nourish the seeds we want to grow?’”
Towards the end of the book, Sethi shares a lovely story of going solo to a restaurant in Peru and allowing herself to savor the experience, lingering over deliciousness and embracing her solitude, but remembering she was far from alone.
This week I found my own such moment. After months of frenzied work and life—really, months of starving myself of the respite and nourishment I truly needed—I sat inside one of my favorite spots on the Oregon Coast, a bakery and deli called Bread & Ocean. I slowly ate a bowl of chicken-apple-butternut squash soup, accompanied by a crusty-on-the-outside, doughy-and-dense-on-the-inside roll, with butter.
I was by myself. I didn’t do anything but eat. I occasionally closed my eyes. I ate up the little pieces of chicken first because the best parts for me were the chunks of soft apple and orange squash. And the broth—sweet and savory, richly layered heaven. I dipped the roll into it, not wasting a drop. When I finished, I walked a block, sat on a bench and watched the Pacific Ocean roll in and out. I licked my lips, the taste of broth and ocean mingled there. I felt salted, sated, connected.
Your FHP activity for the week, should you choose to accept it, is courtesy of Simran, and you don’t need to be in Ecuador or on the Oregon Coast to do it. Just be right where you are.
“Taste is something we all do and have. It doesn’t just belong to foodies or sophisticates. Each of us owns and shapes this construct. What we feel about tasting and eating—what we savor—shouldn’t be discriminatory or hierarchical. Because if we operate from the premise that only certain people own taste, then there is no point in exploring. We should all just frequent the places that have collected the most promising Yelp reviews or greatest number of Michelin stars.
I refuse to do that. I refuse to let someone else define what delicious is for me. To whatever extent I can, I want to define and redefine what tastes good. I want to define what is good—for me. And I want you to do the same for you, because taste is both universal and personal. What each and every one of us cherishes matters.”
If you, too, are hungry in body and heart and mind, go get this beautiful, important book, and let it lead you peacefully through these last weeks of December. Savor the stories, the tasting guides, the information, and the deliciousness. Even if everything and everyone else is bustling and hustling around you, be the one who slows down enough to truly taste and experience what you’re eating—from the gingerbread to the company of family or friends, to your own precious companionship. Ask questions. Give thanks. Remember connection.
“Taste it all,” Simran Sethi encourages. I know I will.