Guest Post: Anne Charlton
Most days after work, I’d drive home working out all the loose ends I hadn’t been able to tie up that day. I’d let my mind go through all the scenarios that could play out if one thing or another happened, if an email response said one thing or another. By the time I’d arrive home, I’d have worried myself into the next day about issues that might come up, but only if six other things happened first.
I wanted something I could figure out. Something reliable and beautiful in its consistency when life would not offer that.
Most often, in those moments, I was just as unwilling to search for that beauty as I was worried about everything I could not control. That’s a bleak place to be, y’all. I buzzed with discontent, literally and figuratively hungry for something to fill my body with calm.
But when I had enough energy, I cooked. I walked into the kitchen, pulled a cutting board, a knife, and an onion from their spots in drawers and on shelves, and I started a meal. I moved slowly, taking time to notice the symmetrical rings packed inside a red onion, little purple ribbons like the rings inside a tree. I tore a couple cloves of garlic from the bulb and peeled back their papery coats, mincing them and scraping the sticky bits from my fingers with the dull edge of the knife. Every meal began like this: onion and garlic in a pan with olive oil. It leveled my nights; it made every night, on some level, simple.
I began to look for recipes with ingredients like onions and garlic, fresh foods that would provide contrast to life’s complication. When I couldn’t figure anything out, I would pull ingredients I could count on from the cabinet. They’d bloom in my mind as familiar colors, familiar magic in bowls and saucepans.
One of my favorite recipes—if you can call it that—quickly became a lemon vinaigrette that I tossed with bright greens. I loved the sprawl of a huge bowl of salad, the way the greens filled a plate in their messy, but familiar, pile. Lemon vinaigrette is a sharp, acidic way to dress a salad—you can add sugar if you’d like to cut the lemon flavor—but to me, it tastes like what I believe optimism would taste like if you could pour it over a salad. It’s bright and new, yet somehow feels like it’s been here for a thousand years—because it has. It’s just lemons and olive oil, garlic and salt. Those ingredients do the same thing every time I put them together, the same thing they have always done, and that’s why I come to the kitchen. I find great comfort in the reliability of simple ingredients, crafted by their Inventor to do something incredible and to carry unique power.
Eating a salad with that vinaigrette represented, night after night, the possibility for simplicity over complication, for the reliability of refuge when little else would offer safety.
Lemon vinaigrette starts, of course, with a big, heavy lemon, halved and squeezed into the bowl you’ll use to toss the salad. I use my hand as a sieve, catching the slippery seeds as I squeeze the juice. Next comes thick, golden olive oil, dribbled into the bowl. A garlic clove cut only into a few chunks goes in, then salt and pepper. I tilt the bowl to the side and whisk the vinaigrette until its original ingredients have forgotten their names because they’ve come together to make something new—a slightly thickened, golden yellow dressing. Not parts, but whole. After a while, I fish out the garlic chunks, which have by now left their scent behind, and throw in gobs of lettuce, tossing the whole thing together.
By then, I’ve returned again to simplicity, to the magic that lives there, under the bright skin of lemons. I return to the kitchen nightly because, for every little thing I cannot figure out, there is an ingredient to remind me of its Creator, who is, above all, interested in offering lavish grace, beautiful in its simplicity, and just behind the cabinet doors.
Lemon Vinaigrette, adapted from Ina Garten’s Green Salad Vinaigrette
1 large lemon
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/3 cup)
1 large clove garlic
Choose serving bowl for salad. Squeeze lemon juice (catch seeds in your hand!) into the bottom of the bowl. Slice the clove of garlic into chunks and toss them in. Drizzle in about 1/3 cup olive oil. Sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste. Use a whisk to emulsify the vinaigrette. Let it stand for at least 10-15 minutes. When ready to serve, fish out the garlic chunks. Whisk the dressing together one more time, and toss in tons of lettuce (I like using either spinach, spring mix, or a combination of both. The greener the better.). Add croutons if you'd like and pile it high on a plate.
Anne Charlton is a writer based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Nashville, Tennessee who explores the grace she finds God offers in the kitchen, at the table, and among loved ones. Author of the blog A New Front-Page Sky and the newsletter Words from the Kitchen, Anne loves trying new recipes, cooking for her people, and Ina Garten. Most often, she can be found typing away with an iced coffee at her side or dreaming up macaron flavors. Anne holds an MFA in Poetry from Vanderbilt University and has worked as a teacher, arts fellow, and editor. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @anneloveswords.