Monday, January 20, 2014

Cousin Libby's Yellow Rice

There were a few wake-up moments during my snoozing childhood in suburban Long Island in the late 1960's and 1970's - an era when no one gave a damn about food - where something passed through my mouth and provided revelation.

Even just the notion that eating could be a sum-positive experience was mind blowing for a child growing up in a home rife with canned Green Giant French-Cut String Beans (over-boiled, then served lukewarm). But there'd occasionally be a glimpse of so much more. I gradually came to realize that life didn't have to be grim and plodding. Ordinary moments lack extraordinariness only because we care too little to make them so. The most insignificant things can spring to life and inspire and delight.

I had my cherished childhood chow; Eddie's Pizza in Fort Salonga, Hamburger Choo-Choo in Huntington, potato pancakes at Ratners, and a few other favored spots where my parents occasionally indulged my finicky caprices. They recognized the deliciousness, but they just didn't understand why it mattered so very much - or, for that matter, why I'd been rejecting those ghastly string beans. My dad dubbed me (with no small disdain) "Charlie Gourmet".

But let's roll back the tape to the very first enchanting bite. Ponder with me the tender, saffrony, fluffy, buttery yellow rice cooked by my father's cousin Libby. I pined for it, lived for it. It was my Proustian madeline. Really, all my subsequent chowhounding was an effort to reclaim the radiance I'd first experienced from Cousin Libby's yellow rice.

Such passion was ignited in me, back at age 3 or 4, that it powered my life, my career, everything. I never understood - and can't understand, still - how anyone could experience transcendent greatness (in any realm) and not want to devote their lives to transcendent greatness.

That passion proved contagious, first as a writer, as I built a cult following of kindred spirits who were also out there searching for life-altering hyperdeliciousness, and then as I attracted a critical mass of users to Chowhound. Everyone has their analog of Cousin Libby, their analog of yellow rice, but some of us instinctually worship at that alter. And this underground religion eventually went mainstream. Today, teeming hordes of people seek out peak experiences, in food and other realms. And it seems like it was ever thus. We forget how dryly complacent things were up to just a few short years ago.

I certainly don't claim credit for the change, even in food. It was a zeitgeist, which is why Chowhound attracted a critical mass in the first place. But if my passion contributed to the nucleus around which it all condensed, then it's worth noting where that passion came from: Cousin Libby's yellow rice.

It's always been all about Cousin Libby's yellow rice for me. If you've been reading my food writing, you're a child of that rice, as well.

It's not that Libby was some brilliant chef, or had developed a shimmeringly unique recipe, or uncovered channels for acquiring special saffron. None of that. Libby had lots of projects, and cooking barely rated. Her rice killed simply because she cared. She invested herself. She poured herself into the task, just as Libby poured herself into all tasks. Libby cared a lot about everything...often too much (anxiety's the bain of deep-carers). And that's how extraordinary things come about. That's what hooked Proust himself.

I'm an ardent believer in Nano-Aesthetics - the notion that the raw divinity of human beings is most purely expressed via tiny things, which most often go unnoticed. If that seems overblown, consider the trajectory of a few pots of rice cooked up in a small suburban kitchen back in the primordial 1960s, with little apparent reaction apart from one swooning toddler. Libby cared about the rice. I ate the rice. I felt the caring, and it made me care. And everyone who's been affected by Chowhound - or been affected by anyone affected - has been changed by this single dab of caring. Libby's rice changed the world.

If Libby had tried to change the world, she'd surely have failed. Pond ripples don't amplify into oceanic tides via the desire to be an oceanic tide causer. Such aspirations yield oppressively selfish ripples rather than inspiringly generous ones. If you simply sweat the small stuff, sans self-consciousness or aspiration (just "because!"), angels will sing.

The care, the love, the discipline and thoughtfulness we invest in our most prosaic actions changes absolutely everything. That's how the future is perpetually created. I tried explaining all this to Libby once, but she never quite fathomed it. Libby Hildes, who died last week at age 89, wasn't one for grand esoteric concepts.

I recently got hold of the recipe, and, as I might have predicted, there's absolutely nothing noteworthy about it (and, no, my opinion at the time wasn't colored by childish naiveté; knowledgeable adults have confirmed that my various youthful faves weren't so capricious after all; I apparently always appreciated the best stuff).

So don't imagine that this recipe will conjure up yellow rice like Libby's. As with Von's magical cookies, an unreplicable ju-ju made the magic. And the ghost in the rice has at last been set free.

Cousin Libby's Yellow Rice

2 cups raw rice
1/4 lb. butter
saffron (according to taste)
4 cups chicken broth

Cook rice in butter on low heat in a heavy pan till golden in color, stirring with fork as it cooks. Add remaining ingredients. Mix well and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until broth has been absorbed - about 15-20 minutes. Serves 8.

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