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Mise-en-place

     A professional restaurant chef won’t even begin to cook until everything is gathered and organized, basic ingredients are chopped, juiced, crushed and otherwise prepared, and everything is set up at the work station. It’s part of the prep for service and it’s called mise-en-place, from the French meaning “put in place;” most cooks, even serious home cooks, are very particular about the  arrangement of their own “meez,” which might include salt, pepper, softened butter, oils, wine, citrus, parsley, herbs, or anything else specific to their menus. Home cooks like me who are making only one meal will go so far as to pre-measure ingredients into individual dishes and line them up in sequence of use. That way, once begun, I can proceed in a smooth and orderly fashion without running around the kitchen in search of the flour while the butter for the roux burns on the stove!  

     I’ve been cooking a lot lately, mostly because I’ve had a string of houseguests, but also because late spring and early summer here bring a bounty of fruits and vegetables to the table.  We’ve already harvested grapes (before they shriveled in the heat) and put up grape jelly, and we dug up enough new potatoes and onions to share with our neighbors.  Our tomatoes, those that didn’t get pecked by the birds, withered on the vine, but there are oh so many beautiful, multi-hued specimens available mostly from Mexico that I can’t be too begrudging about our own crop. And those luscious ears of bi-color, butter-and-sugar corn, at three or four ears for $1 in local supermarkets, are the best to be found anywhere outside of South Jersey in August.

     Of course, THE spring/summer star of South Texas every year is the peach crop. Peaches are plentiful in the markets, but are likely to be even fresher, and cheaper, in the fruit stands that pop up along the roadsides. We usually take a drive up to Fredericksburg in the Hill Country and buy peaches by the peck (or the bushel) to put up peach jam, make pies and peach cobblers, and of course, my fabulous peach tart (above), a Paula Deen recipe which tastes every bit as good as it looks. Why wouldn’t it, with all that butter, sugar, and sour cream! 

     Certainly, great food beautifully presented is a high art and the very best chefs, those earning Michelin stars    Bocuse, Ducasse, Robuchon, Heller and the like — rightfully gain reputations as great artists.  For most of us, though, cooking is a craft involving skills and techniques that can be learned, practiced, and improved over time. I never spent time in the kitchen growing up and was hardly able to boil water when I got married, but I loved to eat and was determined to learn my way around food preparation. Lessons with Julia Child and The Art of French Cooking on PBS, television tutorials in technique with Jacques Pepin and La Technique, and a dedication to collecting cookbooks and attending classes, including at the CIA, helped me do that. The science, the system, the precise sequences of assembling a great meal appeal to me, and I find a certain solace and satisfaction in the orderliness of the kitchen, particularly at times of stress and indecision in other areas of my life. I can count on the process; I don’t experience failure in the kitchen. But, I’m under no illusions; I am not a true culinary artist. I follow recipes and realize some pretty complicated, sophisticated dishes, but I don’t originate them or bring them to new heights. 

     So, once all my company departed, I turned my attention to another creative endeavor where I do have higher aspirations: a new art quilt project that I want to enter into a juried global exhibition this fall. The piece has to be finished and photographed, complete with artist statement and entry forms, by the end of October. Considering that I already have some travel plans in the next couple months and won’t be able to be working on this project with uninterrupted attention,  I’m already feeling the pressure of that impending deadline. 

    Sewing, like cooking, is also a craft involving skills and techniques that can be learned and, like cooking, “recipes” in the form of others’ patterns and designs can be followed and produce some pretty accomplished work. (See my Gallery and pieces attributed to other pattern designers.)  But in the world of the art quilt exhibition, the work has to be original and not derivative, meaning that the artist has to have created the original concept and pattern and then translated that into a fabric. There are myriad decisions to be made along the way, from the basic design and size, to the techniques of construction, to the selection of fabrics and elements, to their arrangement and embellishment. This is not a “paint-by-numbers” kit.

     I love art quilting precisely because of the challenge, but it requires tremendous pre-planning and multiple decisions at every step. So, after I have my design and have drawn my patterns, which is no easy accomplishment in itself, I begin construction with a mise-en-place.  I collect all the tools I will need, the markers, scissors, needles, threads, stabilizers; I gather all the possible fabrics, considering their values and textures and placements in the design; and then I begin auditioning those fabrics and placing samples on the overall pattern. Setting things in place gives me confidence, at least initially. But since there is no exact recipe to follow, the mis-en-place often requires adjustments, backsteps, re-evaluations, and still more decisions. It makes me crazy!

     Which is where I am right now, and why I’m spending so much time cooking with a reasonable shot at a successful outcome. 

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