“The fairest thing in nature, a flower, still has its roots in earth and manure.” – D.H. Lawrence
Roots were a part of my diet for as long as I can remember, a part of my heritage. Feet slogging through mud or kicking up dirt, my ancestors carried baskets filled with grime-covered potatoes, beets, onions and other things of the earth, cheap, filling, nutritious, through the shtetl and home to cook. A poor man’s feast.
Eventually, the family was uprooted, yes, pulling up roots and flitting across lands and over oceans to start anew, plant their roots in a new country, feed and nurture those roots until they created a firm and steady base and had sprouted tall and fine, branches reaching high up into the stars. The branches spread and we moved apart, climbed the social ladder, moved far away from who we were in so many ways.
Yet we still dine on those roots, partly in remembrance, partly in order to maintain our connection to that past, of who we are, what we are. We thrive on those roots, the foodstuff, yes, but the strong sense of family, of heritage and history. Dining on those roots, the potatoes, beets, onions, carrots, radishes, the knishes, kugels, soups, cholent, tsimmis, we remain solidly rooted.
There were two trees in our front yard, the white-barked paper tree and the one with the forked sitting branches closer to the house in front of my parents’ bedroom window. Both grew and grew as the years passed, grew in tandem with four little children, branches, arms and legs growing long and lanky yet strong and certain. As the years flew past, the children’s roots pushed deep into the earth, attaching them steadfastly to this spot, this home and they would wend their way back constantly even as they moved farther and farther away. Roots run deep.
The trees' roots grew long and thick, hardy and rugged. But in the Florida dirt, all sand, sitting just atop the water, those roots grew outwards rather than down, creating bumpy, gnarly hillocks and craters spread out star-like around the trunk of those two trees, splayed out towards house, sidewalk, driveway, lamp post. Bare feet and sneakers stepped gingerly around and over those roots, walked them like tightrope walkers or stood balanced, arms stretched out, wavering slightly back and forth. Those roots were stools for young readers, a mysterious storybook forest for picnics, the perfect spot for a jimmyrigged tent.
But over time, the roots began pushing under the house, lifting it up, cracking the support. Over time the roots edged too far under the sidewalks and made it impossible to mow the lawn, keep the tough, prickly Florida grass and weeds at bay. And so dad had those two trees, branches, roots and all, pulled up and they disappeared. The grass grew in, the shade disappeared, the mystery and beguilement of that extensive map of roots ceased to exist, and a part of our childhood faded into memory.
Carrot and Leek Soup
Ever since I married my Frenchman, ever since I remember, my mother-in-law has prepared and served the exact same thing every single evening for every single dinner without fail. Le souper, she called it, the old-fashioned term for supper. But also to sup… on soup (la soupe). And soup it was: carrot and leek soup. Carrots fresh from the earth, brushed off of excess soil, peeled and chunked and tossed into that ancient aluminum soup pot. She would swipe down the leeks, trim and slice thickly and add to the carrots. Water, salt and pepper, truly a poor man’s soup straight from the country, her own family’s roots. Boil, boil, boil and simmer until the leeks have disintegrated and fallen into paper-thin, translucent layers and long strands floating elegantly in the liquid somewhat like Ophelia’s hair waving on the surface of the lake. It was cooked until the carrots were more than tender, quite near mush on the tenderness scale, and the cooking liquid dull and murky yet fragrant, smelling of the garden, redolent of roots. And purée; she would stand at the stove, in front of the pot and stick her emulsion mixer straight into the soup and whir and buzz until all that remained was a watery orange liquid.
We would pull up chairs to the table, the news blaring from the television, as she placed serving platters of cold meats leftover from lunch, cheeses and fruit on the table. She would bring in a box of biscottes, those typically French dry toasts usually smeared with butter and jelly and dunked into our morning coffee until softened and then slurped up before the soaked biscuit dropped, plopped into the café au lait. She would serve each of us a large bowl of the carrot and leek soup. In the wintertime, we would cup the bowl, curl our chilled fingers around the ceramic or glass for warmth. And we would place a biscotte in our bowl of soup and watch it float atop the surface, slowing soaking up the carrot and leek liquid, the carrot and leek essence before pushing our spoon into the bowl.
She peeled potatoes, turnips, carrots, all root vegetables, with the same old paring knife, tip long broken off, the wooden handle worn, faded and cracked from time and years of use. She would grip the handle and begin her short, sharp, vigorous movements, the flick-flick-flick of the knife against the outside of the tough roots, bits of peel in orange, browns, or creamy whites smattering in a large glass mixing bowl or a spread of day-old newspaper or onto the cheap vinyl tablecloth, the pattern long scratched and faded from constant scrubbing.
Roots were a common food in that working class house ; potatoes boiled or cubed and sautéed, potatoes hand cut and double fried in oil for crispy frites; potatoes mashed with plenty of milk and butter, the leftovers pressed and rolled into balls and fried in margarine until blackened and crunchy on the outside, boulettes, the children’s favorite. Carrots cooked in pot au feu, blanquette de veau, poule au pot. Radishes, pretty little red and white-tipped French Breakfast just barely trimmed and crunched on raw, eaten dipped in a bit of salt, eaten with fresh bread and butter. Turnips tossed in stews, leeks, garlic, onions, cheap, hardy, kept in crates in the garage or out in the shed all year round.
The root of all evil. Those damn silver roots veritably glowing against the blackness of my hair, age twining her crooked fingers through my tresses.
A cutting placed in a clear glass filled halfway up with water from the tap. Visit it daily, top off the water, peer into the glass and watch, wait for something to happen, a sign of life. Toss out the murky water and add fresh, carefully holding the tiny plant away from harm. Roots push downward and grow like children, long and lazy and self-absorbed. Roots swishing elegantly in slow motion through the water like medusa tentacles.
For five years husband and I searched for our roots, dug deep, getting our fingers dirty, breaking our backs. Each tiny sprout, each root exposed excited us, inciting us to dig faster, farther, deeper. And we threw ourselves into it more furiously, more intensely, body and soul. Like searching for buried treasure. He exposed his roots to understand what he was running from, trying to detach himself at least to a certain extent, and recreate his future, not bound to the earth of his ancestors yet replanting himself, sowing new seeds, cultivating new roots a step away from the old, a new growth. I uncovered my own roots to more firmly hold onto what I came from, follow those roots to the source, strengthen the foundation, grow closer to the past in order to reinforce my present.
ILVA'S LEMON BRAISED CELERY ROOT WITH SAFFRON COUSCOUS4 servings
1 large celery root, try to get a heavy one when you buy it
juice of one lemon
400 ml/ 1,7 cup uncooked quinoa
400 ml/ 1,7 cup water
1 pinch of saffron powder
extra-virgin olive oil
Peel the celery root and cut it into thin sticks.
Braise the celeriac with the rosemary in some olive oil. Squeeze as much lemon juice over as you like and add salt. Go on braising until the celeriac is soft and golden, if needed add a little water.
While the celeriac is braising you prepare the couscous: put water and a tbs olive oil in a pan, add salt and the saffron and bring to boil. Add the couscous, stir and leave to absorb the water under a lid. Add the chopped chives and stir now and then.
Either make couscous 'pucks' and top these with the celeriac or mix both together and serve thus.