I don’t sleep much these days. In fact, I’m posting this at 3:37 am.
I have a daughter who is an eager breast feeder and a reluctant snoozer. I have a big, lovable, needy dog who insists he can’t sleep in his own expensive dog bed and can only get warm under our covers – that is until his kidney issues force him to paw your head in heavy big-dog thumps to go outside again. I have an ordinary-size, lovable husband hooked up to a groaning CPAP machine. And I have two very sassy cats. All packed into a rather petite house.
Plus I have what I call a loud head, though others might just say a lot on my mind. This loud head is not so much voices from another planet as a running orgasm of ideas that I can’t shut down. Always has been that way. I am the last person you want around if the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man were taking over the city.
In my very early days as a graduate student, I couldn’t stop writing inside my head even after I’d turned out the lights and hunkered down for the night (or rather the remaining hours of the morning). Until I developed zen and that art of pie crust.
Visualize a pie crust on your counter, rolling pin in hand. Roll to twelve o’clock. Now three o’clock. Then to six … and on to … nine… back…to…tw…el…vvvvv. Typically it takes a few more go rounds and bit of picking up the crust and turning to prevent sticking. (I’m a nut for details even in my sleep). The repetitive motion is like counting sheep for culinarians.
Many years later, during a series of unfortunate events, I used to force my bed mate to play a variation on “going on a picnic” with me. But for each letter, the answer had to be really good. Something clever and specific. Not just apples, beets, candy, and a Danish. But Alsatian onion tarts, braised lamb shanks, caramelized onions, and Dutch apple pancakes. On really bad days (usually his) we’d go round twice. When I’d had it though, I’d fall asleep mid-cant of green…gage…pl…zzzzz.
But dealing with the shock of my mother’s sudden death 18 months ago, sorting out so much paperwork and my own emotions while starting a temporary life in a city 5 states north, the loudness was kicked up several decibels and running ideas sprinted from one devastating and overwhelming thought to the next. I needed to give my brain more difficult food problems to solve at night to keep it from veering off into derangement.
What is the most difficult element of cooking? Architecture. Not like tall food and stacked desserts but moving through the space of that room you love most.
I began to design kitchens inside my head. Having rehabbed our own kitchen over many years, we then found ourselves with a retro museum piece from 1980 in our rented digs for the year. And I hate leaving things a mess. So, I mentally moved walls, changed gas lines, added islands, tore down wallpaper, removed ceiling tiles, pondered several work triangles and considered every possible cabinet front. I added work lighting, installed interior fittings in drawers, and imagined people arriving for dinner and how they would enter the space. All inside the privacy of my own head. Until eventually, sometimes while choosing door hardware or arranging my cookbooks on the shelves above the workspace, I … would … crrraaashhhhhh.
What works for me now is to create recipes until I zonk out. Because if I don’t, I just brainstorm podcast program ideas until I’ve worked myself up and need to hop on the computer and start emailing guests and picking dates and digging into books and writing show notes and and and AND!
The recipe game works a lot at bedtime like it does any time of the day. Pick an ingredient. Something in season, something you saw on sale, something you need to use up in the fridge, something you know your guests coming on Saturday really love. (Works especially well the night before the farmers’ market.) Now brainstorm ideas for how to cook – roast, braise, slice, dice, puree – and what spices, herbs, or other fit the flavor profile. Visualize yourself cooking it in the very circumstances you will have to – home late from work, nothing to do on Saturday, a big family wanting to get involved. Consider the range of international cultures – would Parmesan help raise the salt and nuttiness? Is udon the right starch? What about a touch of cardamom to play of the Scandinavian heritage of the ingredient? Scroll through your memory bank of perfect restaurant meals with ingredient X or reminisce about that time a friend did it so simply with so little effort.
It’s magic somehow because just as you’ve sorted out a recipe, you are falling asleep, so you repeat it to yourself over and over so as not to forget in the morning. And thus begins a delightful night of delicious food dreams.
You could also listen to Eat Feed. One younger listener once told me that the lulling sound of my voice helps her with her sleep issues. (Insert exclamation, question mark.) I have to go roll some pie crust so I don’t stay awake worrying about the compliment.
How does food – literal, literary, or metaphorical — help you sleep at night?