Cooking From Memory ~ A Recipe Journal


Stories From the Kitchen

Holden Bread

I remember the first time I threw out potato water. 

It was the also the last time. 

Thanksgiving Day started early for the cooks in the Holden Kitchen—always an extension of the playground; a place where people laugh and play, dance and talk, argue and negotiate, explore and create, cry and sing, listen and pray, a place where names are spoken and grace is given—a place of feasting and forgiveness.

Holden Village, a year-round ecumenical Christian retreat community nestled deep in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State was preparing for a day of feasting for nearly two-hundred guests who had come to be part of the mountain retreat community for this holy day of giving thanks.  The kitchen staff had been busy since about 5:30 that morning preparing the ‘Foretaste the Feast,” the Thanksgiving Brunch before the Thanksgiving Dinner—the feast itself.

I must have been distracted.  Even as creative as people might think they are, no one in their right mind ever throws out potato water.  Even if you don’t end up using it (oh, but you should), the very act, even the movement of tipping a stockpot-full of the thickening elixir of freshly drained, carbohydrate-rich, potato water into anything as terminal as a sink ought to set off some kind of alarm (oh, but it didn’t), I must have been out of my mind. 

At some point between mixing dough for the caraway seed dinner rolls, prepping savory hors d’oeuvres, boiling potatoes and making stuffing for the turkey, I looked up.  Snow had begun to fall.  It was extraordinary. 

Standing in the baking area of the kitchen shaping dough into dinner rolls, I looked up and out through the two large windows at the west end of the kitchen.  Normally, from the west end of the building that is the Dining Hall and Hotel, one would have had an extraordinary view of several mountain peaks—with Bonanza, bookending Railroad Creek Valley to the west.  But this morning there was none of that.  Even from there, the peaks to the south—North Star, Dumbbell, Copper, and Buckskin; and Martin’s Ridge to the north were all veiled, wrapped in winter’s thick white mantle. I could barely see thirty yards beyond the bakery windows to Lodge 1. 

Through the thick, moist and now freezing precipitation, layers of snow were softly, quietly piling up in Railroad Creek Valley.  On this early winter morning, snow was falling, indeed, as the poet once wrote, “…snow on snow on snow.”  Implausibly enormous snowflakes—the largest I’d ever seen, made even more unforgettable by their presence on this day of thanksgiving were simply enchanting.  This was the first of more than seven feet that would fall by the same time one month later and the beginning of nearly twenty feet that would finally settle in Railroad Creek Valley that season.  Increasing in size, of course, with each retelling, and over time, saucer-sized crystals of snow were floating down and coming to rest as if, by some other hand, they were being arranged and ordered in just the right places.  People gathered at windows to watch these immense snowflakes make their way to their appointed locations and positions. 

But I must have been distracted.  Even as creative as people might be tempted to think they are, no one in their right mind ever throws out potato water. 

The ovens were full.  Nearly twenty turkeys were roasting, filling the kitchen and dining room with that enchanting mix of herb and spice, aroma and remembrance. An hour before the feast was to set to commence, the vegetables were ready for roasting, the potatoes had been hand peeled and ready for mashing, the stuffing, a rich blend of corn bread, chestnuts, raisins and savory seasonings, together with the rolls were ready for baking. 

I stepped to the stove, turned the burners off and with hot pads in hand, hoisted the heavy pot of potatoes and turned toward the sink.  In one deliberate and careful motion I tilted the pot toward the waiting colander and let the water drain as the potatoes tumbled into a pillar of rising steam.  With the water drained, I moved the pot to the large mixer where they’d be mashed.  Moments later, returning from the walk-in cooler with butter, sour cream and buttermilk, my cooking mentor, Peter, asked me to bring some of the potato water over to the stove where he was making “gravy for two-hundred.”

There was a pause.  It was more of a halt, really, than a hesitation.  At that one particular point in time, in a day where, from the earliest moments, there was an endless stirring of both festive people and steaming pots, everything seemed at that one instant to come to a screeching stop. 

“Hey Gauche, can you bring me the potato water…”  Peter said.

It was more a statement, really, than a question.  Nowhere near the end of that sentence did Peter’s voice go up—at all, indicating that there might be even a hint of a question or, for that matter, that any response other than to just bring him the potato water would suffice.

I looked at Peter and said simply, “I drained the potato water into the sink?” 

It was more of a question, really, than a statement.  Somewhere near the end of that sentence my voice did go up, as if with a sense of apology asking a question.  In fact, I was.  And even more than that, hoping against hope that the response to my rhetorical yet profoundly lame—of not hopeless question might be, quite implausibly, “No!”  That someone somehow had saved the potato water; had intercepted it in the ancient system of plumbing in this equally ancient kitchen!  That someone mysteriously and beyond any understanding or effort, reason or intellect on my part had saved and redeemed not only my lost and condemned potato water, but me right along with it—saved and redeemed me from this lost and broken moment full of my own condemnation.

Again, there was a pause; just a moment.  And it was quite a moment.  In what seemed like slow motion, we, both of us seemed to watch his words meet mine in mid-air and linger there awkwardly for just a moment.  Like the snow filling the air outside, floating, wafting, gently falling from heaven to earth, the words lingered for a brief moment and then simply dissipated into thin air about as fast as the potato water had disappeared down the drain.

But then there came a third moment.  It was a moment of movement into grace.  It was a surprisingly pardon-filled moment in which Peter simply spoke my name.  “Gauche,” he said, with a bit of a lilt—making it sound more playful than convicting.  Speaking my name and for a moment it hangs there in the air.  From somewhere down deep, out past his lips into the aroma of Thanksgiving morning, my name is hanging between heaven and earth.  There it is: my name, attached to both the gravity of sin—gravy that will not be, and this marvelous movement of grace.  There it is, my name, spoken, floating, blending, and mingling with the flavors and aromas of this Thanksgiving Day.

I must have been distracted.  Even as creative as people might be tempted to think they are, no one in their right mind ever throws out potato water.  But in the midst of that, a friend spoke my name, and at that moment had my full attention.  I looked up into a face full of grace and in the midst of mistake, found mercy; in the midst of calamity found kindness, in the midst of embarrassment found embrace.

The kitchen, always an extension of the playground; a place where people laugh and play, dance and talk, argue and negotiate, explore and create, cry and sing, listen and pray, a place where names are spoken and grace is given—a place of feasting and forgiveness.

One Response to 'Stories From the Kitchen'

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  1. Ruth Felix said,

    Paul,
    RIch sent me this link.
    what a special story~so full of flavor, which I am sure your dinner was as well, even without the precious potato water!
    I especially like your last paragraph and am looking forward to experiencing some of that “fare” in the kitchen that RIch and I will share.
    may you be blessed in the work of your hands,
    Ruth


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