Filling up the Pantry
It’s one thing to write about food: the making of, the context, the eating. But to capture it in the blink of an eye - or a shutter - is to see it in the way that we experience it. Visceral, pleasurable, and immediate.
When I saw my blurred hands in the frame, it all strangely came into focus.
It was the first day of shooting for my upcoming book, Pantry and Palate. My photographer, Noah Fecks, had arrived the day before from New York, and we were settling in at the location for the shoot. Bags upon bags of fabrics, plates, utensils - and more paper towels than you would ever think you would need - were strewn about the kitchen.
Noah and I were working on shots of ingredients for the book. I wanted people who may not be familiar with certain ingredients to know what they should look for, and I also wanted them to see a certain kind of beauty in the ingredients themselves. Even the most humble of ingredients can be well packaged, let alone quite striking on its own if you look at it in a new context.
But we only had a few days to shoot. The list of shots was long, time was short. Today’s last ingredient shot was for salted onions, a condiment/seasoning used in a lot of Acadian cooking in southwestern Nova Scotia. “Tell me how you would make this, and what it would be used for,” said Noah. I explained how it was used to season soups and stews, and even went into the history of salting herbs throughout much of french-speaking Canada. “Yeah, but I want you to show me how it’s made.”
I had tested most of my recipes - and sent them to others for testing - but this was a recipe I had yet to make. I grew up in a household where every summer, bunches upon bunches of green onions would be collected - either grown in the backyard, or occasionally bought - and the salting of the onions would begin. When I was a kid, I thought it was a horrible smell, a harsh sulphuric haze that hung in the kitchen. My parents eyes would be slightly misty from the incessant chopping, and the windows would be open to air out the place.
And then there would be salt. What seemed like an obscene amount of salt would be poured over the onions, covering them in a fine salty snow. They would sit overnight in that dry brine, their moisture leaching slowly overnight and pooling at the bottom of the big tupperware containers that held them. The next morning there would be more salt poured over them, and then they would be packed into jars, to be put up for the upcoming winter and fall. Later in my life, my mother told me a secret that if I were to freeze the jars, that the onions inside would keep their vibrant colour. “It just looks better than the dull green that it turns into,” she would say.
And so here I was, chopping scallions, waiting for Noah to tell me when to stop and go so he could get the perfect shot. I joked that my knife skills are less than stellar, and he kept on clicking. I grabbed a large wooden bowland scraped the chopped scallions into it.
I had written down the recipe, as dictated to my father, as it had been told to him. “Add salt, and then more salt. And when you think you have enough, add some more.” I called him once again, just to make sure. “Yup,” he said, “that’s the way to do it.”
Even though I had never done this, my nose told me what to do. As he clicked away, Noah noted that I wasn’t joking when I'd said that I would be using almost the whole kilogram of salt for what seemed like a paltry amount of scallions. I repeated what my father and grandfather had said. “When you think you have enough, add some more.”
We started setting up another shot, this one of me tossing the mixture together. Noah stood over me slightly, holding the camera at an odd angle. “I’ll tell you when to start,” he said. My hands hovered over the bowl. I wanted people to see what this looked like. I wanted those who had never done this before to feel confident, and that they too could make this. And cook with it.
When we were done, Noah pulled me aside to look at that day’s shots. There were shots of salted fish, molasses, a very large blood sausage, and even a pig’s head. But there was something about the tossing of those scallions. A little life. A little history A little pride.