Bread and Water
The Greek philosopher Epicurus established an informal school of philosophy in ancient Athens that was devoted to the pursuit of happiness. For Epicurus, happiness was a life of simplicity and ease. Water was the preferred drink and barley bread the primary food. In later centuries, Epicurus' "happiness" was misinterpreted as "pleasure," hence the modern term epicurean. Today, an epicure shuns the simplicity of bread and water for the thrill of luxury and the new-- a package tour of the latest Pacific rim culinary experiments.
But perhaps the true epicure is a different sort altogether. In Honey From a Weed, Patience Gray notes, "The island Greek has the habit of going for long periods ... on a crust of home-baked bread, a hunk of hard goat's cheese, and wild pears, honey sweet, stuffed inside his shirt. He then makes the most of a providential event, a ripe fruit tree, a sudden haul of fish, or the killing of a pig."
My wife and I have an odd assortment of urban and rural friends; architects and dairy farmers, financial consultants and carpenters. Most of us would not consider the farmers epicures, but perhaps, like the Greek from Naxos, they know more about the appreciation of food than their urban counterparts. In our village, hidden high in a valley in Vermont's Green Mountains, neighbors have fed us venison steaks and roast heifer, watermelon pickles and pickled tongue, goat's milk ice cream and dandelion greens. We have even been served a spur-of-the-moment stew starring a luckless woodchuck who had been caught early that morning in a neighbor's garden.
Gourmet cooking? No, but perhaps it's a whole lot closer to the true notion of the epicurean life. The bunch of peppery watercress growing near the horse trough, the quarts of Taxi tomatoes put up on Labor Day, the still-tender fiddlehead ferns that provide the first taste of spring-- these foods are appreciated more because they are not plucked from the produce aisle of the local supermarket. Each bite has a taste of history because someone in the family grew it, picked it, hunted it, or canned it.
But simple foods are rarely simple. In developing this issue's recipe for country bread, I spent six months of weekends baking various combinations of flour, water, yeast, and salt. After the first few loaves, slight variations in the recipe took on increasing importance. A bit too much salt. A dough that was slightly too wet. A crust that was a tad too thin. I began to appreciate the subtleties of bread and the complex relationship between technique and end result. Practiced familiarity with the simplest of recipes breeds a deeper understanding of the notion of epicurean. At first glance, nothing is more basic than bread, yet with experience you find that nothing is more complex.
Many years ago I was helping a local Vermont dairy farmer during haying season. After filling up the wagon, he stopped the tractor and asked me to join him for a walk. We hiked down the dusty river road until we came to a spring running down a shale embankment. The water was stony cool and flinty, with a sweet aftertaste of fern and mint. He eased his cap back from his pale forehead, as white as the belly of a brook trout, and said "Good water."
Well, it wasn't just good, it was the best darn drink I've ever had. It was more subtle than Sancerre, more refreshing than a chilled Chardonnay, and sweeter than Tokay. It was also free for the taking. I know that farmer is familiar with every spring and brook in town, and this is his favorite-- after sixty years of sipping the local waters, his palate is fine-tuned to the subtle differences between the spring by Gene Kennedy's up in Beartown, and the taste of the Green River by the old Baptist hole behind the Methodist church. Would Epicurus have considered this simple farmer an epicure? I'd like to think so.
Maybe it is better to spend a lifetime fully appreciating just one thing than to know many things only by their first names. Perhaps that is the true definition of epicure.