For many years now, I have taken a photo of every plate of food I’ve cooked, a practice that extended, during the homebound years of the pandemic, to lunch as well as dinner. I do not share these photos on social media. They are meant only for me, making up a visual diary that I often revisit. Lately, I have been looking back at what we ate during that first pandemic year. The photos reveal a surfeit of decidedly atypical luxury items: truffles, sea urchins, an inordinate amount of caviar. A chanterelle omelet for lunch could be followed by rabbit paella for dinner, or a biryani rich with saffron and lamb. The uncertainty of the times must have compelled me to splurge, to treat every meal as if it were a valedictory feast. Not that I didn’t, like many Americans, feel the back-to-the-homestead impulses that led to the obsessive preparation of homemade breads, macaroni and cheese … comfort foods. Fitting squarely into this category: kasha varnishkes.
In the summer of 2020, I came across an essay in Saveur magazine in which Phillip Lopate described that modest concoction of buckwheat groats, farfalle, caramelized onions, and chicken fat. (Only after I got married did I learn of this staple of the Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen; it was a childhood favorite of my wife’s.) So beautifully did Lopate elevate that humble dish into lofty, noble realms that I knew I had to make it that night.
Lopate’s essay appears in his most recent collection, A Year and a Day. It is one of the few pieces in the book not to have been first published by the Scholar. In 2016, Lopate wrote a weekly blog for our website, and I was his editor. It was always a pleasure to see how this great practitioner of the long-form personal essay would negotiate the constraints of a weekly deadline and a relatively short word count. Recently, he and I discussed his book before an appreciative audience at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. We caught up in the greenroom before the event, covering a wide range of subjects in only 15 or 20 minutes: Washington Irving, Adolf Loos, and of course, kasha varnishkes. I told him how much we would love to have his work in our pages again, and I was delighted to hear that he would send us something soon.
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