October 14, 2012, Cleveland Heights—I’ve just walked home from a brunch held by a neighbor, and now friend, Susan Zull, to benefit the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.
In 2000, I lost one of my closest friends, Rusty King, who was my news-writing mentor and advocate when he was a copy editor on the National desk at the New York Times and I was a little scut copyboy most editors didn’t see unless they shouted “COPY!” (Rusty's fellow copy editors, @FromCarl and @EricAsimov, were also there and were wonderful to us urchins as well—thank you, guys! And where is Jeanne Pinder, who was on Foreign, and on whom I had a crush?)
So that’s why I was in a stranger's living room for brunch: Rusty. But since he died, AIDS has become a completely different disease, which is why we need to think about it differently. AIDS has gone from a killing disease to a chronic illness. We can manage it, but a 22-year-old who picks up HIV faces a lifetime of stigma and pills and family issues and sexual concerns and ultimately organ damage from the drugs, including that semi-important organ called the brain.
Tracy Jones, executive director of the task force, spoke movingly about it—and personally, about how the AIDS issue was for her, as an African American woman, the convergence of the issues of race, poverty, illness, and social justice to which she would commit her working life (she sure didn’t set out to do this work—#accidentalangel). But it was what she said to me before she addressed the group, over excellent sausage-leek casserole (recipe below), roasted red potatoes, roasted asparagus, and Bloody Marys, that resonated the most: Of the kids who contract HIV, those who fare best are the ones who have the most support from family and friends. All chronic illnesses require daily maintenance, and something so difficult requires a lot of people.
And we were there, 25 of us, brought together around food to talk about this issue, to give money, and to increase awareness of one of a million problems we face. But we face it best together.
So this is why I am writing about AIDS on a food blog. To underscore the fundamental importance of community, and the power of food to bring us together.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m with Richard Wrangham: cooking very likely made us human. Once we started cooking food, we could consume extraordinary quantities of calories in a short time (as opposed to sitting alone chewing raw veg for 6 hours). These daily calorie bombs made us really healthy, and we spread our genes with abandon (sex and cooking are good for us!). Cooked food fed our calorie-devouring brains and we got smarter.
In order to take advantage of these pleasure- and health-giving calorie bombs, we had to work together. Food gathering, cooking, and preserving took a lot of work, thus forcing us to form communities, to cooperate with one another. The French have a saying, “Tu seul, tu mort.” Alone, you die.
Food is, or should be, the center of our daily gatherings; food is a magnet that draws us together as families, as communities. Tu seul, tu mort. And the opposite: Together we live.
Thank you, Tracy. And thank you, Susan (your food was awesome). And thank you, Rusty, for helping me when I didn’t have a clue. I’m able to write this, in no small measure, because of you. God, I miss you.
Susan Zull's take on Sausage and Leek Casserole
- 2 cups leeks, cut in rings, rinsed thoroughly (I use more leeks.)
- salt and black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- 1 pound ground pork sausage (I use turkey sausage.)
- 6 large eggs
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ loaf French baguette
- 1 cup grated Cheddar cheese
- 1 cup grated pepper jack cheese
- Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high. Sauté the leeks with a pinch of salt and black pepper, the red pepper flakes, and ⅛ teaspoon of the cayenne. When the leeks are translucent, raise the heat to high and add the sausage; cook for 8 minutes or until browned. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together with the milk, cream, remaining ⅛ teaspoon cayenne, and a pinch of salt and black pepper.
- Cut the baguette into cubes and put in the bottom of a 9" x 9" glass casserole dish. Sprinkle the bread with the Cheddar cheese. Pour the sausage and leek mixture over, and then the egg mixture on top. Top with the pepper jack cheese. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
- Remove the casserole from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C. Put the casserole in the middle of the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife is removed cleanly from the middle. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
NOTE: I made 1 ½x this recipe, used a larger dish, and baked for an hour. I also used more of all kinds of pepper. Got this from foodnetwork.com, and it says, "Recipe courtesy The Neelys." Thanks, Neelys!
Redskin Potatoes with Garlic
- Small redskin potatoes (3 or 4 per person, more to have leftovers—good with eggs for breakfast)
- Fresh garlic cloves, sliced very thin
- Salt, pepper
- Butter, olive oil
- Sour cream, sliced chives, chopped bacon for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 400°F/204°C.
- Holding it in your palm or nestled in a wooden spoon and using a paring knife, make 3 or 4 gashes nearly through each potato—don't slice all the way through!
- Insert a thin slice of garlic in each "gash"—these will look like delicious potato flowers getting ready to bloom.
- Put the potatoes in a baking dish. Rub a little soft butter on the top of each potato, season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with olive oil. Bake for about an hour.
- Serve with sour cream, chives, and bacon bits.
Other links you may like:
- My post on the Fallacy of "Follow Your Passion."
- Join (RED) to help the fight against AIDS.
- Learn about the Center for Food in Community & Culture from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.