It is confounding to sit halfway across the world, safe in my warm little office, with food in the fridge, my beloved books in their shelves, my loved ones wanting for nothing, and contemplate the havoc and terror wreaked on Japan. It leaves me speechless. All I can do is read the reports and look at the photos and grasp my head in disbelief. I cannot believe my eyes. The violent water coursing through streets, hurling boats aside as if they were made of feathers; entire villages obliterated; the newspaper saying that "one bright moment" was a man rescued on the roof of his house carried nine miles out to sea while his wife was washed away.
I look at that white plate with two baked endives sitting up there and I see so much more. A hungry, black tide swallowing up everything in its path. An old man walking along a cleared path through utter devastation, weeping. Two parents kneeling in front of the muck-slicked car that held the body of their daughter at the wheel. Nuclear reactors on the precipice. And everywhere desperately frightened people, bereft of everything. How on earth, I wonder, do you make sense of that? I can't.
And writing about anything else, about lunch or cupcakes or Paula Deen's artichoke-spinach dip, feels deeply weird. What I'd really like to do is bake a plate of ham-wrapped endives for every Japanese in need. But they wouldn't be just any old baked endives. They'd be magic endives, you see, that upon consumption would bring back the people washed out to sea. Would rebuild the houses in the blink of an eye, mop up the streets, repair the broken windows, straighten the downed power lines, make the nuclear nightmare simply disappear. And heal all the broken hearts, with just a few bites.
But I can't. These baked endives taste good, but they can't do any of the above. They can distract you while you cook, I guess, from the neverending loop of unbelievably bad news coming from the web, the radio, the television. But they can't make things right again, not even close. Stupid endives.
I don't really know what the right thing is to do at this moment. Besides donating money (please give, please). So I read about the small acts of kindness in Japan that show just what kind of a country it is, even when everything falls apart. I think about that woman washed away to sea and hope that I'll never forget her. I feed the one I love and bless the safe, flat country I live in, and give thanks for the strong walls of my apartment and the faraway ocean. I cook lunch and dinner and breakfast, over and over again, in gratitude for all that I have. That is, to paraphrase Ruth Reichl, my own moral responsibility.
And still, I wonder about devastation and tragedy, why some of us are spared, why so many aren't. In a way, it makes me marvel at humanity. How we keep going in the face of the kind of news - from all parts of the globe - that makes your knees buckle and your heart break, over and over again.
Baked Endives with Ham
Adapted from this recipe.
4 Belgian endives, halved vertically
Juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk, room temperature
4 slices Black Forest ham or cooked ham, up to you, halved
2 ounces grated Gruyère cheese
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the outer layers of the endive, trim the bottoms and cut out the cores. Put the endives, cut-side down, in a large skillet. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with lemon juice. Add 2 cups of water to the pan, cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Drain.
2. Melt butter in a saucepan. Whisk in flour and cook, stirring constantly, over low heat for 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, whisking all the time, in increments. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is thick and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Lightly butter a baking dish big enough to hold the endives in a single layer. Wrap each endive in a piece of ham and place, seam down, in the baking dish. Spoon the béchamel over the endives. Sprinkle with the cheese. Bake the endives for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese has browned. Serve hot.