Sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent: a rem­edy

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - CAILLE MILL­NER

The storms are pound­ing us, the gov­ern­ment is fall­ing apart, and I am ... learn­ing how to cook again.

It seemed like as good an idea as any this week, af­ter be­ing bat­tered around by our on­go­ing gov­er­nance cri­sis, the pour­ing rain, the melt­downs on BART and Muni. Re­al­iz­ing my most rea­son­able re­sponse to the mad­ness out­side was to stay in­side for a few days, I went into my kitchen, where I con­fronted the fact that I’d fallen into a deep cook­ing rut.

It hap­pens to all of us, doesn’t it? You get dis­tracted by life, and then you look up and re­al­ize you’ve been cook­ing the same three things for a few weeks or a few years.

In my case, even though I love food and en­joy cook­ing,

I’ve spent the past cou­ple of years work­ing on long-term writ­ing projects, chas­ing af­ter cul­tural events to feed my col­umn read­ers, and be­ing a good em­ployee/friend/lover/ daugh­ter/sis­ter/com­mu­nity mem­ber. These have been the right pri­or­i­ties, but one of the re­sults has been a diet pri­mar­ily of avo­cado toast and scram­bled eggs. That would not be enough while the win­dow­panes rat­tled out­side and the forces of dark­ness gath­ered in Washington.

I looked at my shelf of cook­books, blew off the dust, and started send­ing mes­sages to friends in the food in­dus­try. “Found any good recipes lately?” I asked.

Their re­sponses were the first sign of how far out of the loop I had fallen. No one had a sug­ges­tion that could be found in a cook­book. There were sug­ges­tions for a Brussels sprout salad on Smit­ten Kitchen, chicken recipes from Choco­late and Zuc­chini, fish recipes from Goop (“Don’t tell any­one I read Gwyneth Pal­trow’s web­site, but the recipes are good,” was my as­so­ciate’s ad­den­dum text for that one).

While I ap­pre­ci­ated the guid­ance, I felt like a kitchen novice again. Who in the world cooks from web­site recipes? My cook­book pages are splat­tered and the spines are leav­ened with flour, be­cause I bring them into the kitchen. Am I now ex­pected to make a pasta sauce with my com­puter screen blink­ing nearby?

The other pos­si­bil­ity, print­ing the recipes out, seemed at least as ridicu­lous. Who owns a printer these days?

So I shelved that idea for the time be­ing and pledged to brave the rain for the farm­ers’ mar­ket the next day. I’ll be a good stu­dent of the Bay Area’s cook­ing tra­di­tions, I thought — look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion from in­gre­di­ents in sea­son.

Well, friends, I guess it had been a while since I’d gone to the farm­ers’ mar­ket, too.

Back in my an­te­dilu­vian cook­ing days, I’d go to the Civic Cen­ter farm­ers’ mar­ket. Prices were cheap, and the pro­duce was plen­ti­ful and ex­cel­lent.

But times have changed, and so has this mar­ket.

In what must be an ef­fort to at­tract the tech work­ers who now pack the Mid-Mar­ket cor­ri­dor and haven’t cooked a day in their lives, the Civic Cen­ter farm­ers’ mar­ket is now full of food trucks, mer­chants hawk­ing pre­pared foods, piped-in mu­sic, deck chairs, etc. I walked through and looked for my fa­vorite farm­ers’ stands in vain.

“What’s hap­pened here?” I asked my­self. “If I wanted a farm­ers’ mar­ket with no farm­ers, I’d go to the Ferry Build­ing.”

It was rain­ing, and not all of the farm­ers come to the mar­ket dur­ing the win­ter. So I de­cided, mostly for the sake of my own com­fort, to chalk up their ab­sence to these fac­tors. (If I re­turn in the spring and find only two pro­duce stands sell­ing to­ma­toes for $8 each, then you’ll be hear­ing a dif­fer­ent tune.)

As I fled, I glanced at the food mer­chants to get an idea of what peo­ple who have been pay­ing more at­ten­tion to food than I have were eat­ing now. It seems that Pa­leo, which I’d dis­missed as a trend for ma­cho guys who didn’t want to ad­mit to fol­low­ing the Atkins diet, is now a full-fledged move­ment, and peo­ple think that kim­chi, an in­gre­di­ent I love in Korean food, is the lat­est vic­tim of our con­tin­ued ex­per­i­ments with fu­sion food.

I pulled out my phone and sent a mes­sage to a friend — one who is not in the food in­dus­try, but who does love to cook.

“I can’t take it,” I told her. “I need to cook some­thing easy and com­fort­ing.”

She made the best sug­ges­tion I’d heard all week. Check some Ina Garten cook­books out of the pub­lic li­brary, she said.

I turned right around, marched into the Main Li­brary just off Mar­ket Street, and hunted down two of her books on the shelf. I knew noth­ing about Ina Garten’s recipes and would have, a few years ago, dis­missed them as be­ing too ba­sic.

But that night, as the storm howled yet again, as I looked in my cab­i­nets to see if I had the in­gre­di­ents for sim­ple recipes like lentil soup and lemon chicken, I felt the buzz of that fleet­ing emo­tion: de­light. All I needed to get out of my rut, I re­al­ized, was to re­move the pres­sure. What could be more sim­ple than that?

Who in the world cooks from web­site recipes? Am I now ex­pected to make a pasta sauce with my com­puter screen blink­ing nearby?

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