Four years ago, I rarely, if ever cooked. But then I discovered that it was something I really enjoyed, and that it could bring me pleasure. I found cooking to be fun and relaxing, irrespective of the process or outcome.
And cooking is only one example. We all have those moments of individual discovery, of learning of a new love or skill, place or interest. Scanning the radio and stumbling upon an artist that inspires. Picking up a paint brush and finding an innate command of the canvas. Walking along the street and feeling the vivacity and charms of a heretofore undiscovered neighborhood.
Most recently, I discovered books on tape. I have always enjoyed fiction and reading. I have pleasant memories of lying awake, in bed, reading – at various times in my life – Lizard Music, The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, The Count of Monte Christo, Animal Farm, and The Right Stuff. But with time, be it the pressures of reading a book for class, or scrambling to finish a chapter before getting ready for bed and the next day of work, reading began to lose some of its appeal. The line between reading for work and reading for pleasure was slowly blurring.
Then, last month, I had enough. I had been inching along in Too Big to Fail since July, short bursts of reading punctuated by long stretches of letting the paperback function more as a paperweight. Beyond Sorkin’s book, countless others littered my bookshelf, without even the faintest crease marking their spines.
Wandering through the downtown public library, I decided to check out a book on tape. I had gone to the library to check out a CD featuring the soul musicians of the Stax Record Label, my interest having been sparked after a recent trip to the Stax Museum in Memphis. From the reservation desk, the librarian pointed me to the collection of audio books.
My last boss, my Judge in Saint Louis, swore by them. No matter how far our lunch plans might take us, the Judge would start up his car, adjust the volume, and let the narrative accompany us along our way. With his endorsement in mind, I pulled The Plot against America from the library shelf. Three years ago I had tried, unsuccessfully, to get into the book. But there was always something else more pressing.
This time, there was nothing more pressing. I was in my car, alone, inching along North-71 with all the other commuters, with thirty minutes to burn. Only this time, instead of listening to NPR or the latest Rihanna song, I found myself engrossed in the upcoming election between Charles A. Lindbergh and the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and what that election would mean for the Roth family, struggling, as it was, to survive in Newark, New Jersey.
After a week of commuting, I found myself worrying about the fate of Kathy H. and Tommy, as they sought to defer their donations and prove their love for one another, in Never Let Me Go. And most recently, I listened as Alice Walker herself, explained the torment that Celia endured at the hands of Mister, her husband, and before that, her step-father, before discovering the love and inspiration that Shug could offer her.
With each passing chapter, I found myself more and more engrossed in the story and the fate of the characters, to the point where getting stuck in traffic was no longer the frustration that it once was. With the story pacing forward, with the fate of the free world hanging in the balance like in The Plot against America, making the light was longer an imperative. With Celia’s world changing with each passing year, changing lanes now seemed unimportant.
Now, when I jump into my car, I am no longer impatient to get where I’m going. Driving is now a chance for repose, a chance to catch up on my book. These audio books, I remind myself, were a great discovery.
*These grape leaves can easily be made vegetarian, by simply omitting the ground beef. I actually made both a meat and vegetarian version, and preferred the vegetarian version!
Grape Leaves (Dolmadokia Gialantzi)
Recipe adapted from Vefa’s Kitchen.
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 40 minutes
YIELD: 30 Grape Leaves
WHAT TO GRAB:
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 pound ground beef (optional)
1 cup long-grain white rice
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup dill, chopped
2 tablespoon pine nuts
Juice of 2 lemons
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. In a small pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil, and saute the onions until brown. In a large mixing bowl, add the browned onions, ground beef, rice, parsley, dill, pine nuts, lemon juice, 4 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
2. Fill a large saute pan with 8 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Fill a large mixing bowl with ice water. Blanch four or five grape leaves at a time (about 30 seconds) then remove the leaves to the ice bath. Blanch about forty grape leaves.
3. On a large cutting board, lay out a few grape leaves so that the shiny side is face down. Cut off the stems. Place about one tablespoon of the rice mixture in the middle of the leaf, just above the stem. Fold up the lower right part of the leaf. Fold up the lower left part of the leaf. Fold in the right side and then the left side of the leaf. Roll the remaining part of the leaf upwards. (There are illustrated instructions here). Repeat this process until you have used up all the filling.
4. Line a medium saute pan with some of the leftover grape leaves. (This will keep the lower leaves from overcooking). Seam-side down, pack the grape leaves into the saute pan. You want to crowd them so that they don’t open up while cooking. You can also place a heavy plate over the leaves. Pour in two cups of water and the last tablespoon of olive oil. Bring to a boil, cover, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 35 to 40 minutes. Off the heat, allow the leaves to steam for another 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Serve warm with tzatziki sauce!