It started with a potato.
I was away, you see, late in the summer, in a rented cabin in the mountains, 25 miles (maybe more) from any provisions, and the sun was going down. A daily occurrence that always makes me hungry. So many things do.
There were plans. A chicken had been spatchcocked and seasoned for the grill. Lentils had been picked over. A bottle of lambrusco had been released from the fridge to regain some temperature.
And there was a potato. Two, really. Yukon golds. Each just a smidge smaller than my fist, scrubbed and glistening on the counter.
When there are potatoes, it's best to start them first. They take the longest. So I put a pot of salted water on the stove, dropped the potatoes in, and fired it up.
Twenty-odd minutes later, after a few pages of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain (highly recommended) my potatoes were cooked — I knew because when I tapped one on the end with the tip of a paring knife, it fell right through. I realized, with momentary panic, that I still hadn't lighted the grill for the chicken, or even considered cooking the lentils.
Rather than let the potatoes go cold, I decided to take dinner in courses. First, potatoes. Later chicken and lentils. I was alone, such decisions were easy to make.
Lacking butter, but emboldened by hunger and the urgency of the fading light (in a solar-powered cabin, this is a real urgency), I put one potato on a plate and sat down at the table with a fork.
It was a gorgeous moment. Golden potato, mirroring the golden sky outside. A soft slice with my tinny fork through the unresisting flesh. A burst of vegetal steam that smelled of nothing but potato. (Potato, it turns out, has a delicate, milk-like aroma.) A slow, deliberate forkful delivered to my tongue, where I pressed the potato between my teeth, rolling it more than chewing it, rubbing it against my upper palate, and swallowing. It was delicious.
Another bite. Another.
There was no salt (save for what I'd laced the cooking water with, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn't bother), no butter, no sour cream, chives or cheese. No pepper. No ... nothing. Just potato.
Would my potato have been improved by butter or seasoning? I considered before my next bite. Perhaps. But I was lost in that potato, unfettered and unmasked. And I lost myself in the next one, unrushed.
After I'd eaten them both, I sat back in my chair. Satisfied. I didn't want anything else for supper at all. I poured a glass of that lambrusco and commenced stargazing.
So began my journey into one-ingredient eating, which lasted for several days in earnest, and continues more casually now. Ever made a meal of a perfect tomato — and nothing else? A lunch of a wedge of cheddar cheese — no cracker? A breakfast of a single, perfect soft-boiled egg - no salt, no toast? Try it. If you shop carefully (or better yet, grow your own) and prepare with precision, a single-ingredient meal can be a revelation.
For a potato: Pick a Yukon Gold, or another waxy potato. Scrub it carefully, but not violently, until the dirt is gone and the exterior resembles a desert landscape. Place it in a saucepan and cover with cool water. Put the pan over medium-high heat until you achieve a slow boil. Cook, covered, about 20 minutes or until the potato gives with just the slightest pressure from a paring knife. Drain off the water. Place the potato in a bowl, or on a plate. Decide whether you'll mash it or not.
Take small forkfuls and inhale the steam deeply before slathering the soft, warm flesh onto your tongue. Coat your mouth with it, swallow slowly and repeat. Articulate the flavors as they occur to you — earth, root, potato. One medium potato, or two lesser ones, and you'll be surprised at how satisfied you are.
For a tomato: Choose the ripest, most colorful, most perfect tomato you can find (if you're lucky, it's hanging on a plant in your back yard). Slice paper-thin with a breadknife. Array carefully on a plate (you eat with your eyes, remember?). Add nothing. Choose a comfortable seat. Drape a slice over your tongue and allow it to dissolve. Close your eyes. Let the tomato inhabit you. Inhabit it in return. Soak in the flavor — the fruity, acidy, summer flavor. Do it again with another slice, and another, one at a time, never rushing, savoring each until they're gone. If you've done it right, your tomato will hold you happy till supper.
For a wedge of cheese: Exercise extreme care when choosing your cheese. This involves a visit to a local cheese shop (not the grocery store) and copious sampling. When you've found one you love - in my case, a cloth-wrapped Avonlea cheddar-style cheese from Prince Edward Island — set it on a favorite plate or cutting board. Razor-thin slices (use a cheese slicer) will crumble in your hands, or if you deliver them quickly enough to your mouth, on your mouth.
Each bite will reveal another angle on the story of your cheese --- nuttiness here, creaminess there, clarity in the aggregate. About three ounces (even less) will do it.
For a soft-cooked egg: Choose a fresh egg, preferably directly from someone who houses the chicken that laid it. Place it in a pan, cover with cool water, and put the pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a slow boil for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, wait 3 minutes, and remove egg to an egg cup or bowl. Let it sit for a minute, to take the edge off the heat.
Using a teaspoon, carefully tap off the pointier end of the egg. Scoop out a small bite. Bring it to your nose and inhale the unmistakable aroma of egg. Lay it on your tongue and, rather than swallowing, let it slink through your mouth until it disappears. Repeat, taking small bites, using at least 10 bites for your egg. One bite will taste mostly of yolk — the essence of umami — the next will be an object-lesson in protein, white. Take 10 minutes to eat it, and you'll be satisfied that breakfast has been served.
For a rib-eye: Begin the process with a conversation. You and your butcher. You'll want a well-marbled steak, one that's been aged. Don't look for pink, or red — well-aged meat often has a grayness to it. Let him or her help you choose a small one, bone-in, about an inch and a half thick. Bring it home — don't refrigerate it. Instead, let it sit on your counter for an hour while you revel in anticipation. Next, open the windows. Place your favorite cast-iron skillet on the stove and heat it over high heat for at least five minutes. No oil. In goes the steak, and there it sits for five minutes. Don't touch it. When it's ready to turn, it will release itself from the pan. Flip it, 3 minutes more, done.
Remove it to a cutting board, where it will sit for no less than 10 minutes. No salt. (Just try it.) Find the grain in the meat and slice against it with your sharpest knife. Not transparently thin, but about a quarter inch. Enough to chew on. One slice at a time — directly from the steak to your teeth. Chew slowly. Chew thoughtfully. Identify the flavors: Char, protein, blood. Swallow, and move on to the next bite. After 10 or 12 mouthfuls, put the steak away and save it for a sandwich. You'll be satisfied.