A few nights ago I hosted a small dinner gathering. I invited three friends, but two others showed up unannounced and were beckoned in to sit and eat. This is the kind of house I seek to build--an open house, a refuge for friends.
During my lunch hour that day I went and bought groceries. Sunchokes, squash, carrots, parsnips, chile de arbol, fresh thyme, beets. The provisions needed for dinner that night, no more, no less.
Pickled Daikon (made and brought by Crystal Jones)
lemon, mustard seed, bay leaf
Warm Sunchoke Salad
sunchokes, cumin, pomegranate seeds, fried almonds with rosemary and thyme, shaved manchego, lemon, miso, tahini
Morroccan Root Vegetables with Spices; Saffron Couscous
carrots, parsnips, butternut squash, shallots, cinnamon, ginger, chile de arbol, turmeric, paprika, bay leaves
Chocolate Beet Cake
70% Scharfenberger chocolate, beets
The dinner was an homage to root vegetables, which arrive in your kitchen covered in dirt, homely and plain. You wash them, chop them, oil them, season them, roast them, soften them, working as a carpenter who loves his wood. They are strong and firm but not stubborn. Really, it's hard to go wrong with root vegetables; they love heat and time. With a blast of high heat, they caramelize; with time, their fibrous cells become supple and pliant. Their insides are more colorful than they dare let on. They are sweet to eat, filling and warming the entire body.
Winter heralds the uprooting of these vegetables, which have been underground for months, their woody tissues collecting sugars, fattening up. Unlike flowers, shoots, and leaves, roots are durable and hardy, not like their ephemeral aerial counterparts, which are delicate and beautiful--easy to please, but numbered in days.
The root is an anchor, requiring little attention. They begin as subterranean systems that spread wide to absorb water and nutrients for stems and leaves, growing laterally, penetrating deeply. Greek philosopher Theophrastus called the root and the stem the primary organs of the plant. Early botanists valorized roots, which they looked to as the source of drugs. Greek herbalists were known as "root-gatherers."
Root vegetables are the synecdoches of the winter season. As synecdoches help us understand the coherent whole through the characteristics of its individual parts ("part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made...cause for the effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus"*), so the root vegetable nudges us into the posture we assume as days grow shorter and darkness lingers.
We settle down and settle in. We humbly rest, with an awareness of our human limits. We pause deliberately and listen. We take note. We no longer chase down every high, every turn of the kite that beckons us to run after. We rest gracefully. We stay.
That night, as we gathered around the table, it was dark outside, and we were all tired from long days. J wasn't feeling well, and C had many things on his mind. M stopped in to banter and eat, then left in a hurry for a phone call. P came for her luggage, which had been sitting in my living room for a week. She ate chocolate cake first, and stayed to talk afterwards.
After four years of feeling like a wandering soul, of feeling uprooted and not fully belonging (it's what I wanted. I wanted to leave. I wanted the thrill of the new. I feared boredom, mediocrity, sameness.), I'm in a city I feel deeply connected to, as if the city were a friend for whom my love deepens and widens and complicates as I begin to understand its many faces. Its people, its systems, its ways of doing and going and being, undoubtedly become darker in time. Rooting yourself in a place means seeing beyond the facade of thrills, of living in the social and structural schemas that make San Francisco at once a beautiful and ugly place. That kind of awareness can be terrifying, but it's also because of this awareness that we care enough to stay, even when it's not easy.
As I've become increasingly rooted in this city, hospitality has begun to feel more like a grounding a routine than a once-in-awhile-burden. Not that hospitality isn't possible wherever you go, but when you know a place and feel settled in a place, somehow you feel that you have more to give. Maybe it's not even that you have more to give, but that you want to give more, because your rootedness has made you aware of the community around you that wants to receive love, that needs the care of a warm hearth and open heart. Because your love has grown, you're also empowered to love more. Roots spread wide, absorbing water and nutrients from the soil, not for themselves, but for the buds and shoots that will sprout from the ground, when the roots are sturdy and ready to grow something beyond themselves.
Nothing here is mine.
What I have is Providence, and what has been given to me, beyond all material possessions, is connection--to people and to this place. These strands of invisible yarn that weave themselves into the fabric of this community make a tapestry far greater than I can fathom--or make, for that matter. I can't go it alone. For what is the Divine but a knowledge that something far greater, far more majestic, exists beyond oneself?
*Kenneth Burke on synecdoche