Plucking thyme and time

Plucking Thyme, Time, or Words to that Effect.

Gavin Wren Food Opinion Pieces, Writing

Time. Our most precious commodity and one which we have utterly no control over. It sets its own agenda and we’re largely at it’s mercy when it comes to finding out when it ends.

Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys.David Bowie 'Time'

That might sound a bit heavy and bleak to start the week with, tackling all of life, death and everything in between. But it seems to have particular relevance to cooking. Yes, really, I’m serious. Yesterday, I was making a dish for the blog which involved some delicious sweet, rich, roasted red peppers. They were silken strands of slithering red, orange and yellow capsicums, swimming around in a simple dressing and my mouth is watering just thinking about them. I hadn’t roasted peppers for a long time and it reminded me of the sweet beauty of flavour that roasted peppers have, along with the sheer knife edge of fury that attempting to peel peppers brings into balance.

It’s one of the jobs where the exertion required seems to be utterly disproportionate to the outcome. The amount of work and time required to complete the task just doesn’t balance with the benefit which the act of peeling them precipitates. As I sit here in reflection, it made me think of a few jobs in the world of the cook that are equally irritating:

1) Removing thyme leaves from their stalks.
2) Peeling roasted chestnuts.

Herding Cats.

I was once recounted a story by an acquaintance who was at dinner in London and overheard the tail end of a conversation being held by some rather drunken fellow diners. The gentleman he could hear was recounting a story to his friends and the punchline, which had them all falling about laughing was “it was like trying to put an oyster into a parking meter”. I’m in no position to suggest what the context of his story was, because I wasn’t there, however, from my recent experiences, there’s a perfectly good chance he was talking about trying to peel the skin from slithers of red pepper. It’s about as easy and satisfying as herding cats.

It’s one of those tasks which is like a visit to the dentist. I know it’s good for me and the greater good of my life at some point in the future. There’s even a good chance that I’ll be fine if I didn’t go, but I dread the process, I worry about it, I’m anxious during it and once the mess is all cleared away, I have very little to show for what’s just happened. As is the case with peeling peppers. There’s an abundance of time, mess and frustration involved in achieving a small outcome, that might not even be necessary. It’s ridiculously fiddly and awkward yet it merely makes the peppers taste only slightly better.

Take your Thyme.

Thyme leaves. Now, just before you say “Ahhh, this is easy, you just slide your fingers along the stalk, against the grain of the leaves”, I need to point out that the thyme offered in local supermarkets is of the variety which has thin, flexible stalks that if “rubbed up the wrong way”, simply snap. This leaves the only option being to pick individual leaves or clusters of leaves from the stalks one by one. As it’s inevitable that time is not the most abundant of resources when cooking, this process drives me insane. It’s so slow. It’s tedious, repetitive. It could be a meditation, or it could also be a punishment served up to the most tyrannous of criminals incarcerated within our criminal justice system.

As I write this I’m thinking “ahhh, but Gavin, surely you’re a reasonable man, you can plan to allow time for these exercises and then exhibit some angelic patience and complete these tasks with gentle, loving humility”. The other part of me is forming a fist in my stomach, thinking of the wasted life spent completing arduous, unnecessary tasks.

It brings to mind a quote I once heard by John Dryden “Beware the fury of a patient man”. I see this as saying that patience is nothing more than repression. It’s nothing more than the denial of anger and when people feel anger within them, but deny or repress the feeling, such as under the guise of patience, it will bide it’s time then come out at another moment in life. This delayed reaction could be enlarged, or grouped with other angers and also appear at an entirely inappropriate time. Hence the fury. Maybe there’s a higher state attainable whereby loving patience can be exhibited in all aspects of life, such as peeling peppers, and I’m sure that a monastic retreat on a hillside in Tibet may help to achieve it, however I’m not sure that I’ve reached that zen-like position quite yet. Maybe tomorrow afternoon.

Take your Time.

Believe it or not, I have a moral beneath all of this. In the David Bowie song ‘Time’ which I quoted at the top, he also sings the line “Take your time”. My interpretation is that he’s not saying ‘do it at your leisure’, as most people commonly use the phrase. He is actually saying ‘take ownership of the time you have’, in the sense that you should take the time you have and use it effectively, do not waste it.

Which is why I didn’t bother peeling the roasted red peppers. I tried one and then said “fuck this”. Instead, I began my photoshoot at least 15 minutes earlier, I was unhurried and consequently took some of the best photos I’ve ever captured to date. The same with thyme, I now try and use whole sprigs, to be removed before the end of cooking, because I’ve decided not to spend my time plucking thyme. Instead, I took my time and put it to good use by furthering my creative skills in one of the areas that I want to succeed in life, food photography, rather than battling furiously with an oyster, a herd of cats and my patience.

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