A Primer on How to Pay Attention

It’s been a month since the news of Anthony Bourdain’s sudden death landed in my inbox. When I heard the news on a Friday morning in June, I was shocked by how little emotion I felt. Certainly I felt sympathy for his family, but I mostly trudged through the rest of my day thinking very little of it. It was only recently that the slow, dull ache of sadness set in as I reflected back on his work and how it shaped me as a cook, a writer and a person.

I recently listened to this excellent interview with him and Marc Maron from 2011 and his incantatory voice lulled me back to a place of deep reverence and appreciation. The way he describes the places he visits through their food landscape is a beautiful manifestation of that age-old Brillat-Savarin quote: Tell me what you eat; I will tell you what you are. Reading and listening to him embeds in me a great sense of urgency to Pay Attention. After all, cooks are story-tellers, and their dishes and the techniques they use link together in a way that can tell the story of entire group of people. All it takes curiosity, a pointed question or two and a willingness to listen to unearth that juice.

Toward the end of the interview, he described how his relationship to food and the act of eating has evolved. When he eats something now, he said, he thinks about the story behind it: Who made this, and why? Where did this come from, and why was it made this way?

He gave the example of coq au vin, chicken stewed in red wine, and explained how that dish was probably “invented” by a poor farmer who didn’t have much to eat besides a really old hen and some farm wine. So he threw them together in a pot and left it over a low flame, hopeful that when he came back eight hours later he would find something edible to eat.

So many of my favorite Italian dishes were similarly born out of scarcity and a quiet desperation to transmute nothing into something. With that context in mind, reading a recipe for pappa al pomodoro becomes an experience that’s both didactic (this is how you make tomato and bread stew) and narrative (here is a story about a group of people who struggled to survive war, food rationing and dictatorship).

Indeed it is food and the rituals we create around it that define our humanness. I am so grateful for this man’s voice and the stories he brought us about food and our shared humanness. I will miss it tremendously.

***

I thought about what Bourdain said as I stared at a pile of garlic scapes in my vegetable drawer. Farmers snip away these shoots from the garlic plant so they don’t rob the plant of vital nutrients. Who thought to cook with them, and why?

I never know what to do with the scapes, but I love the way they look, curly and gnarled like a tangle of long, arthritic fingers. I remembered reading somewhere about garlic scape pesto, which makes total sense. I used this recipe from The New York Times as a guideline. Take care to trim off the flower bulb toward the top of the scape and just process the long, thin stalks.

I used walnuts where the recipe suggested sunflower seeds. Pistachios or almonds would also work. There’s no need to toast the seeds, as that would likely muddle the subtle, inspired garlic flavor.

Spread liberally on toast, eat with eggs, dollop over a bowl of warm beans with yogurt, or eat it straight from the jar.

Garlic scape pesto

Adapted from The New York Times

Yields about 1 1/2 cups of pesto

  • 1 cup garlic scapes, roughly chopped
  • ¼ C raw walnuts
  • ½ C basil leaves
  • Zest from 1 lemon
  • ½ C olive oil
  • ¼ C grated parmesan
  • Large pinch of salt

Pulse the garlic scapes and nuts in a food processor to fine pieces, 30 second to a minute. Add the basil and lemon zest and pulse another 30 seconds. Stream in the olive oil in and puree to a chunky paste.

Transfer the paste to a bowl and fold in the parmesan and a pinch of salt. Before serving add a squeeze of lemon juice.