The Pleasure of Work: What I Learned from Alice Waters

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Monday, at last.  This morning it was time to get the house back from a busy weekend.  By ten o’clock, I had fluffed the couch pillows, folded and put away all the throw blankets, stripped the beds and began washing the sheets.  I’d dusted and vacuumed, opened the upstairs windows and swept the tile floors.  For the past thirteen – plus years this is what I do full-time.  I’m a “stay-at-home” mom taking care of house, husband and children and I enjoy what I do.

I need to clarify that last statement….I enjoy doing what I do when I give in to the infinite nature of chores, more specifically the infinity of work.  Because we all know that “work” is never done, there is always more to do.  Let’s also agree that for some of us our work keeps us from the finite amount of time left for pleasure.

Last week, I had the privilege of being in the same room with Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse and the pioneer of California, farm-to-table cuisine.  Ms. Waters mentioned that for her, work and pleasure are one in the same.  “I love to sweep,” she told a room full of journalists at the University of Wisconsin.

She spoke about how she also loves to wash salad, with her hands, rinsing each leaf under cool water, really seeing the colors, feeling the textures– then laying each leaf out on a towel to dry.  This can be a very mundane, Oh-my-God-I-might-shoot-myself kind of monotonous chore.  But not to the person who gives in and says, “I am here.  This is what I need to be doing right now.”  When you don’t feel like work is keeping you from pleasure, it’s easy to simply enjoy or at the very least appreciate the task at hand.  Same can be said for doing the laundry — the whites you just washed, dried, folded and put away last week.  Here it all is again — back on the floor of your laundry room, waiting for your attention.

I’m not saying I feel this way all the time and be sure if I were to give my husband and children a voice on this right now they would recall more than one occasion where my behavior was a little less Mary Poppins.  Where words and phrases flew off my tongue like jetliners greasing an already slick runway, “Alright!  Everyone better pitch in and help me out around here!  I’ve had enough!  How many times have you worn those pajama pants?  Once?  And they’re in your hamper?  Come on, people!” And my favorite?  “How did this happen to me?  When did I become everyone’s maid?!”  Spit. Spot.

But what I’ve noticed is that when I resign myself to what needs to be done, right in front of me — a pile of clean laundry sitting in a basket that begs to be folded, a salad that needs to be prepared before the lettuce begins to wilt — when I just do it, instead of calling a friend to complain about it, the work gets done and I feel calm.  Order has been restored.  I have started at the beginning of things, again.

This is a simple approach to living.  And when I can remember to tackle work with a little love and attention, I am better for it.  Alice Waters (and Julia Child before her) has taken a simple approach to preparing and eating good food that begins with slowing down and enjoying the “work” it takes to bring a delicious offering to the table.

Which makes me think, maybe before I try another recipe for a salad dressing, perhaps I should first learn how to wash my greens.  Before I attempt to build a four-course dinner, I should learn how to prepare and enjoy a poached egg.  Simple.

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This week’s Education of a Home Cook is How to Poach an Egg from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking:

Pour 2 inches of water into a saucepan that is approximately 10 inches in diameter (I used a saucepan that is that same diameter and 5 inches deep).  Add 1 tablespoon of ordinary white vinegar per quart of water.  Bring to the simmer.

Break one of the eggs and let it slip into the simmering water (I broke each egg first into a small bowl and from there let the egg carefully fall into the water).  Immediately and gently push the white over the yolk with a wooden spoon for 2-3 seconds.  Maintain the barest simmer and proceed with the other eggs in the same manner.

After 4 minutes, remove the first egg with a skimmer (I used a slotted spoon) and test with your finger — the white should be set; the yolk soft.  Place the egg in a bowl of cold water; this washes off the vinegar and stops the cooking.  Remove the rest of the eggs as they are done and follow the same instructions as with the first.

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Voilá!

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Work: What I Learned from Alice Waters

  1. Kathy, have been meaning to write, but I have been reading, and reading all your posts, and enjoying every quiet minute where they take me. Lovely! Looking forward to your contributions to the magazine now too! Signed, Miss You in Jersey, Annette

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    1. Hi Annette, and thank you. Honestly, all those family meals in Long Branch, how they appeared to take shape so effortlessly, as well as the laughter around the table, the stories and impressions — gave me a sense of belonging and an unending warm welcome.

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