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…vernacular…

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It’s a term first introduced to me in architecture school, and I absolutely loathed it at the time. Maybe, I wasn’t equipped to understand it, or didn’t want to. Or maybe I did understand it, and it simply had no real appeal… Sometimes I wonder if I was a little too full of self importance, rife with a cadre of delusional fantasies that I might become some better version of Frank Lloyd Wright. For all intents and purposes, I was my own vernacular. It didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, what I was around – none of them influenced me in that sense. Ideas of time, place or circumstance were, at best, fuel for my own sense of improvisation, redefining the rules. Other times I wonder if it was laziness, a convenient means of surviving on my own bullshitting abilities, feeding my own sense of grandeur, rather than dealing with things honestly. I still suffer from that malady, though to a lesser degree…

I’m being a bit critical of myself, because I know now something I never really grasped until I began writing this; it’s the natural state of being for the optimistic and artistic to want to dismiss, or at least go beyond, the vernacular – to address, cater to and work with things not just as they are, but to introduce something new – things as they might or could be… It is the role and only true function of the dreamer.

For the unaware; vernacular usually refers to a language or dialect that evolves over time, but the professors used the term with some creative license to refer to a sort of natural, ‘folk art’ version of architecture – forms that came about from local materials, methods of construction, most often in direct response to the conditions they might face. Think adobe bricks in the desert, or log cabins with steeply pitched roofs in the mountains, or the plan forms of Arabic houses built around a courtyard with functions following a diurnal rotation, always seeking the shade…

It happens equally as well in the culinary world; cooking with a wok – borne from having small amounts of fuel to burn with limited quantities of any particular food to cook with. The treatise by Waverly Root, The Foods of France, organizes the distinct regions by virtue of the types of fat they used to cook with (lard, oil, butter). Techniques like a confit, or rillettes, items salted and packed in fat to preserve them before refrigeration was possible. Cajun cuisine – how the French (Acadian) influence of the mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot), evolved into the ‘trinity’ (onion, celery and pepper), how a roux is often cooked into a deep chocolate brown color for flavor alone instead of only thickening…

I’m hung up on this concept because I’ve long been thinking it’s the only real point of the cookbook I’m working on – the whole reason to cook, or understanding cooking is to develop ones own vernacular. I still believe in it to a certain degree, though perhaps in a different way than I initially thought. There is something utterly appealing about cooking this way because there’s honesty in it, a true reflection of ones identity in any given place. In fact, I think it’s the only thing I’ve ever strived to discover, why I cook differently wherever I go. Lately, I wonder if the real quest is simply trying to see if there’s some reflection of who I really am. I sometimes think it’s an unattainable quest – looking to establish or divine some form of truly genuine culture and cuisine in the middle of a world where groceries come wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays, where any produce item is available anytime of year, is seemingly impossible…

I am, I realize, a blank slate. I know people, have read books about and by others who cook, seen the origins of their own love of preparing food and it’s amazing. They all seem to have come from some tradition somewhere; a grandmother toiling in some kitchen, ready, willing and able to hand down all the techniques of growing and canning vegetables from the garden, what to do with the rendered fat and drippings, how to make bread. Somehow I missed that, and am making it up as I go along. Maybe it’s a blessing, in that I’ve discovered it all on my own simply because I wanted to.

The grandmothers were there – early on – cooking things like swiss steak in an electric skillet, or frying a chicken which had been cut up and brined in buttermilk the night before. ‘Papa’ was there, too – my grandfather on my mothers side – eating slices of raw bacon, smoking Old Gold cigarettes while making dumplings. I loved them all, the smell of them; bacon fat, a hint of nutmeg, simmering chicken stock and cigarettes; beef, pounded flat, dredged in flour and browning while the element gave off a strange metallic flavor of ozone above a bottomless vodka martini; the incredibly wholesome aroma of chicken frying in lard, stale and cold coffee, tinged with Lava soap, as I washed up for dinner.

Somehow, it all got lost along the way. The days of family meals drifted away into some netherworld. I never got to know it better than some series of heavily scented memories…

Life is like a wave often times, I think. You go along, and you’re gathered with others into some sort of form; you buy into the illusion that you exist as a part of something much larger, curling up and over with a power of mutual congregation, feeling rather invincible, especially when you’re young and optimistic. You think that nothing can, or ever will, break that rhythm. And yet it does break. Like a tide crashing on some shore, you find suddenly you’re simply sinking into the sand, anonymous and formless – scattered into a foamy surf on the shore of somewhere else, pulled back out into the sea again to regroup with some new set of others, to ride all over again…

That tide has crashed once more. I am formless again. The span of a month yields such changes; a lovely companion, even if she was a dog, sent to heaven; a marriage, which we’ve both agreed has long since ended, if it ever even really began, on the cusp of being dissolved…

Rituals I cling to, the things I’ve clung to, in the hopes that they’d hold the whole thing together or make life become something I’ve dreamt of, I question those now more than ever. Maybe I’ve read too much Joseph Campbell over the years, believed too much in the power of transformative myths and rituals, thinking that the more I put into something, eventually it would create the thing I’d been wishing for. It isn’t always true. Life has a shape of its own. Maybe I’ve simply gotten lost in it all, trying to make something of a normal life for myself, all the while knowing that normal just won’t do for me…

In part, there’s also the blunt and cold realization that what led me to cooking was trying to make a family, a home, that was never going to be. Trying each day to do something more instead of less. Seeing that every failure made me try harder, put more into it, clinging to some hope that someday it might amount to something meaningful, that the food, the memories, all the wonderful smells and discoveries might simply be a backdrop to something even more… Knowing it wasn’t… Knowing that I was more intrigued with possibilities, chaos, and the the unknown than comfort, that cooking wasn’t going to ground me – it was only going to make me more willing to take a dare or challenge myself.

In the last week, pondering this post; I realize only now the elusive quality of the vernacular, the fact that it can’t be authored by merely going through some motions, that it can’t be created or projected backwards simply because you do things a certain way. Realizing how utterly upside down I’ve gotten some things in life. Even though modern culture and circumstance don’t yield any particular form of it; you can’t create one out of intention alone… You cannot tether yourself to something that is less than what you are, or let things keep you from growing.

Maybe it’s the reason I’ve always loathed the concept of the vernacular, even while I’ve tried to embrace it. Vernacular speaks of survival, a resignation to a particular fate, a way that things should be done. It’s a concept I have never, and will never be able to buy into. In spite of being formless, I’m happier now than I can ever recall being. Through all the years, all the circumstances that found me enduring, surviving, hiding in plain sight, I’ve always found times and places for humor and beauty and sought some thing to elevate me – if only even a daydream. Perhaps, that is my vernacular, the reflection of why I cook the way I do, what I’m always striving for. I only ever want life to always feel astounding and boundless. Maybe, after all this time, I finally realize my imagination, creativity and optimism is the only vernacular that will ever feel genuine to me.

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