“I like my sugar with coffee & cream.” – The Beastie Boys, Intergalactic
I once saw this bit of graffiti in London, which was a Henry David Thoreau quote:
And some bright spark had come along and…corrected it:
And I’ve tried to live by this ever since.
Except when it comes to food, a subject that holds infinite fascination for me. It’s a universal experience (*everyone* requires nourishment on some level), and you get to do it (at least) three times per day. More if you are lucky.
I spent a fair portion of my 30s training to be a pastry chef. But, I don’t have a sweet tooth. At all. I’ll happily choose salt over sugar any day of the week (in my people and the things I eat). So it then begs the question: Why train that hard for it? Why give up three years of your life learning it, punishing yourself for not doing it well, much less perfectly? Why work that hard solely for the exchange of knowledge instead of money? Why subject yourself to having a level rested on your perfectly glazed Opera Cake (ruining said perfect glaze) simply to prove that it is perfectly level?
Well, for the swagger. Naturally.
I love being able to approach a subject that most chefs are afraid of with confidence. I adore being a double threat. I really like walking into any (and I mean *any*) kitchen and picking up either (with obligatory double click test) tongs or an offset spatula with equal “I will kick your muthafuckin’ grill station ass, guapo so just get the fuck outta my way.” attitude, and knowing that it’s true. Never cooked the dish before? Pfft, whatevs. It’s not just gonna be pretty, it’ll be mind-blowingly fucking beautiful, cabron.
But because of that graffiti, not a lot of people see this side of me. Only a few people get to see the tiger in the trees, unless you are the next white jacket down the line, or on the post-apocalyptic survival raft (that’s a whole other post). Because flying another person’s standard into the world instead of just your own is not a choice, it’s a simple thing that just is, but results may vary and complication is sure to ensue. And to be anything other than humble about what I can do devalues…me. And the cook next to me, who’s worked just as hard to get to where we are at that moment in time.
And it’s misrepresentation of who I am. Do I like the above, and have I cultivated it to some (or a huge) degree? Sure. Absolutely. But at the end of the day, what I really want is for you to be happy. To be nourished. To have gained some perspective. To see what I see in you. The good, the bad, and the ridiculous without asking for change or alteration. Because that would devalue you. And the myriad things you have worked as hard as I have to achieve.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually doing the right things in this search for simplicity, and whether or not my day to day is good enough. And in one of those moments got some unexpectedly apropos advice from someone I’ve come to expect this from. Because he’s made of amazing. And it wasn’t really even advice, but hit me like the graffiti did above. “You already know how to be good at something, now you just need to apply those same principles to this.”
And I am good at something. Actually, a lot of things. Which doesn’t’ change the fact that there are some things I just plain suck at:
Having a hidden agenda: You’ll always know *exactly* what’s up.
Doing anything at a level lower than “Fuck, yes!” or “No.” I go to 11. There is none more black. In for the rough and in for the easy. Enough said.
Being on time. Usually about 15 minutes, but sometimes it veers into 30. Sorry.
And when I get more wrapped up in the things that I suck at than the things that I’m good at, I want to touch base with that simplicity. And nothing is more simple than simple, which is what chefs refer to when what they want is simple syrup. A 1:1 ratio of sugar to water, you could not ask for anything more plain in cooking. You can use it for a million different things, but I recommend that you put it to work in the purest of pure things: Lemonade.
There is a balance in lemonade that I find truly lovely. It’s sour. It’s sweet. It can be swayed any number of ways with spice or herbs or nostalgia. This might have been a better post if I could write about memories of a childhood lemonade stand, but in truth my youth + lemonade = Countrytime out of a can while shouting the lyrics to some Doobie Brothers song in the waaaay back of the family limo (a 1970 something VW bus) with my sister as we rolled through some NorCal backwater sans seatbelts (because 70s). But I can give you this. The lemonade you wished was yours as a kid.
Spicy Ginger Lemonade
Adapted by me from The Kitchn
1 lb. fresh ginger
2 cups sugar
8 cups water, divided into 4 & 4
2 cups freshly-squeezed lemon juice (from about 15 lemons)
Peel the ginger and chop into roughly 1/4-inch pieces. Combine the ginger, sugar, and 4 cups of the water in a medium pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer (I mean just simmer – do not boil this or you’ll wind up with a pot of ginger caramel and have cleaning nightmare on your hands) for 30 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temp. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the ginger with the back of a spoon. You should have about 3 cups of syrup.
Combine the lemon juice and remaining 4 cups water in a large pitcher or po (add more or less water depending on your taste or application – stronger if using for a cocktail – or use bubble water if you want something designed for a porch on a hot day). Stir in all of the ginger syrup. Chill before serving or serve over ice. And don’t forget the garnish (a nice lemon slice, a little bit of mint in the pitcher, etc.)
And by the way? I saw this not too long after that first one. Somewhere on Brick Lane, within the sound of the Bow Bells, where Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were forged, the fog is ever present, and the tea tastes of the Thames.
Peace would be nice. Balance is better.