The Vanilla Bean Epiphany

Cinnamon sticks, coffee beans, chocolateI just discovered Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen, included as the source of some recipes appended to Jeanne Ray's novel, Eat Cake. Toronto pastry chef Daley opens her 692-page cookbook with these two sentences: "My first encounter with a vanilla bean was an epiphany. Strange, perhaps, but for me it marked the moment when I realized the difference good ingredients can make." A weaver from western North Carolina, near Asheville, surprised me when she said "We craftspeople are the luckiest people in the world because we get to work with materials." I had no idea what she meant.

A year later, as I chopped a red pepper from the Lexington Farmers Market, I got it. I think I'm lucky because I get to work with ingredients. The pleasure of the real, and the satisfaction found in combining and transforming ingredients draw me to the kitchen over and over. Real eggs, butter as good as anyone can make it, clean dried kidney beans, homemade Brandywine tomato juice, long skinny green beans from our garden. Wash, chop, combine, brown, flip, glaze, stir, peel -- these and the many other cooking verbs both calm me and wake me up as I wonder what transformations dinner will require.

I grew up with fresh peas and corn on the cob, eggs warm from the nest, home-churned butter, and Dad's brown sugar-cured country ham. I have been lucky to have great ingredients close at hand my whole life. Unlike the Canadian pastry chef's life-changing vanilla bean from Madagascar or Mexico, most of the great foods in my life have come from the land where I live, or from farms nearby. These great ingredients make cooking worthwhile, and give pleasure to both the cook and those who eat the food.

Just the same, I do agree with Regan Daley about vanilla beans, and real vanilla flavor. I suggest vanilla is one of the seven wonders of the food world. I'm not sure what the others are, but coffee may be among them. Neither of those food products grows in Kentucky yet, but they enhance many of the wonderful ingredients that do come from here. Red-eye gravy, anyone?