Ceci N’est Pas Une Recipe— Domesticity at the Bottom of the Bag
It’s nine o’clock on a Monday night and my hands are wrist deep in a brown mush that smells like the apples at the bottom of the twenty pound sack you hand picked nine weeks ago. Somehow I don’t think this will be the last time.
My boyfriend Jay has subscribed to a weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) since before I met him. Indeed, this may have been some of the appeal. A New York City male in his mid-twenties who went out of his way to secure and cook sustainable produce every week? And not even something that he shared with his roommates, who as far as I could tell subsisted entirely on Seamless, sometimes going so far as to order delivery sandwiches from bodegas mere blocks away. This is the city we live in, making Jay’s individual commitment to preparing his own meals, not to mention supporting farmers, all the more unicorn-esque.
Once or twice a week we would make dinner together, sometimes at his place but more often toting certain elements of the weekly bundle down to my apartment, where I would supply some sort of protein. In the morning he would pack the snack he had brought from the fruit supplement he added on to his basic weekly package. This was usually an apple or maybe a tangerine in the winter. Once he brought persimmons, which we decided to freeze in order to be able to eat them like popsicles. They are, for the record, still in the freezer.
I would pack up the leftovers and encourage him to take them for lunch. This is how I lost all my tupperware. Thankfully, over the course of three or so takeout orders, one can completely replenish one’s supply of re-usable containers.
My experience in the food industry led me to experiment with various techniques to elevate our meals. The greek yogurt in the fridge was seasoned and swooshed under pork sirloins I purchased with my discount at the grocery store component of the restaurant group I work for. Herb garnishes abounded. Everything went to the table “plated”. Even grilled cheese and tomato soup had to be fancy— pickled jalapeños on the sandwiches, truffle oil and oregano to finish the soup.
Now I look back on this as the golden days of the CSA. I got to pick and choose the most desirable items, with Jay left to find some way to work turnips into his lunch every day. I’ll never know how many of his solo dinners consisted of whatever was left at the bottom of that bag after I’d mined the upland cress, meyer lemons, and eggplant.
Today I am paying for it.
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) are an ancient fruit, indigenous to southwest Asia and southeastern Europe. Small and brown, they look like something between a crab apple and a rose hip. In France they are sometimes referred to as “cul de chien”— dog’s ass. The old English name, openærs, is not any more suitable for polite company. Three weeks ago, we received a sizable container of these charming nuggets in our CSA fruit package.
A little research revealed that medlars must be bletted to consume— a process that basically means letting them rot. When they smell like you should throw them out— and only then— can you begin to think about what to do with them. This association with decay made them ripe (ha) for literary symbolism. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” Chaucer invokes the medlar to lament the passing of time:
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
Shakespeare references the medlar several times. In As You Like It, Rosalind makes a complicated pun mocking Orlando and his love poems, concluding
“for you’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that’s the right virtue of the medlar.” In Timon of Athens we see the medlar used as an allusion to rotten character, with a potential pun on “meddler”.
Personally, I think I first became aware of the word as part of Mercutio’s barb to Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (II.i.34-48):
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop'rin pear!
Here he jests about Romeo’s love for Rosaline. However, when we analyzed this passage in Shakespeare class in grad school, somehow the discussion turned immediately to the Elizabethan proclivity for anal sex, and the significance of ye olde fruit faded into the recesses of my consciousness.
I now find myself with more medlars than literary allusions thereto, and they are definitely— ahem— bletted. So I have to do something with them before they go from good rotten to bad rotten.
Do I want to eat them raw? Not particularly. They taste like uber-natural apple butter, and while I could spread them on toast, I’m not sure Jay and I can eat quite that much medlar toast quite that quickly.
The internet says to make them into jelly, jam, or something known as medlar cheese. Which, I guess, is not actually cheese, but another form or preserving fruit? All of these options require tools for making jam, which I don’t have. Additionally, most of the recipes I find seem to be for advanced makers of jam, mentioning by name techniques I have never even heard of, let alone mastered. I also find a recipe for medlar ginger cake, which sounds good, but again, I don’t have the necessary tools.
Finally I come across something called a medlar loaf, which seems simple and, perhaps, even fun and Christmassy! I set to work.
First, press the insides of the medlars through a sieve. Next, weigh the results and mix with an equal amount of sugar. I don’t have a sieve but I figure a colander will work, right? And yeah, we definitely don’t have a scale, let alone a culinary scale, but I’ll… eyeball it.
I realize quickly that I don’t even need to slice the pods open— I squeeze and all of the goop oozes out in a brown paste. It feels like I’m popping alien eyeballs, and I try not to think too much about the scene in Blade Runner where Leon casually dangles the disembodied replicant eyes on their inventor. Once all the innards are extracted, I begin to push them through the colander, pulling out the large seeds as I find them.
After a few minutes of this I examine what has slithered into the pot below: nothing. Just some protrusions that look like play dough spaghetti, and one alarming squiggle on the bottom of the pot that puts me in mind of a small dog’s intestinal distress.
Combing through the goo for the seeds with my hands, the contents of the colander diminish rapidly as I discard the inedible elements. Just now Jay pokes his head into the kitchen. I’m caught medlar-handed, and embarrassed at the obviously low yield of this crop we didn’t ask for: “I don’t think this is going to be much of a loaf.”
I scoop all I can salvage into the pot, to which I add sugar, heat, and a lot of butter. Once combined and relatively uniform in texture, I pour this into a small container and freeze. “I just made it into butter,” I tell him, slightly defeated. “That’s a great idea!” He’s ready to get cracking on the venison steak his dad brought us from a hunting expedition, and I have sauce to make out of the cranberries from last week’s CSA.
In September, he moved in with me in the apartment I’ve occupied for the last four years, my entire time in New York City. We moved the CSA pick-up location to my neighborhood— now our neighborhood. He brought his bed, his records, and all of the items at the bottom of the vegetable bag I never used to see.
True, we’re cooking together more often, and our greater stability allows for more efficient meal planning, but late fall produce sure does keep us on our toes. Gone are the days of lush greens and tomatoes. I was thrilled that the radishes lasted as long as they did. But when squash arrived in November, I knew the sunchokes were just around the corner.
While the cost of the CSA is probably about equivalent to, or even less than what we would spend at the grocery store (with the added bonus of making sure we don’t eat like college students or cavemen), this only holds true if we actually use everything. With me working three nights a week, one or both of us having evening band practice, and the regular impulse to go to a concert or gallery opening, we don’t necessarily eat everything the week that we get it.
So I do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of the bag. I’ve become an amateur pickler (the sunchoke pickles, in case you were wondering, are a work in progress). Surplus plums and tomatillos were turned into pan sauces. The next step is an immersion blender— sunchokes are less despicable in puree form.
After years of working in the restaurant industry, food begins to feel like, well, work. When you see so much of it go to waste, especially after the time you know it’s taken to prepare… when you associate it directly with your livelihood, which is not guaranteed, because you work for tips… honestly, the longer I work with food, the worse my eating habits become. Weeks when my anxiety is high, I can’t even look at it as something to be consumed— I’ll live on smoothies for days. Plus why buy food when you’ll be fed family meal before your shift every day?
Now I’m responsible for somebody else’s nutrition, and the opportunity to show off my creative chops has actually made cooking— and eating!— fun again. But the result is that I feel terribly domestic. While I’ve always been interested in food and cooking, I didn’t exactly pickle for one. The planning is by default somewhat spontaneous, because each week our produce selection is a surprise, but it’s still a habit. Like a mutual bed time, or watering our growing number of house plants (more effort than feeding our fish), or attending to a shared laundry hamper.
The last time I tried to cohabitate with a significant other was five years ago. We had a roommate. I was in grad school full time, and somehow still wound up doing all the cooking. We got bored and felt prematurely old. I moved to New York and became extremely silly, very fun, and a little drunk. He… moved in with his new girlfriend. And hit the repeat button.
I feel significantly better prepared for this second stab at living with a partner. Partially because Jay is quite literally the most well-adjusted person I have ever met in my life. Like, creepily so. But also because, at twenty-seven (as opposed to twenty-two), while I don’t have the tools to make jam, I do have the tools to be in a mature relationship. Part of that is seeing the value in experimenting with the grab bag that is a weekly CSA, as opposed to a set grocery list that invariably becomes one person’s responsibility. Who’s individual skill set makes them the ideal candidate to dissect the four pound squash, while the other person researches quince crumble recipes?
As it turns out, the bottom of the bag is where a lot of the fun is hiding. The creativity required makes cooking dinner together more of a date night activity, and less of an act of pure sustenance. It’s also a training ground for our communication skills, which I never doubted, but they’re only getting stronger. Not to mention the intimacy and choreography fostered by our very small kitchen.
The next day I tried the medlar butter on toast, and you know what? It was pretty good!