“Phyllo and anxiety go hand in hand, ” says S., as he plunges his fork into a bountiful piece of spanakopita. I am told by the other guests at our table that he is a very good cook, especially of dishes which use phyllo dough.
We are at the Grecian Festival in Watertown, Massachuestts. It’s a yearly event, complete with crowds of extended families, music bands playing a hybridized version of Greek music, eager sellers of jewelry and other ornaments, and dancers waiting for the food frenzy to die down and the circular movement to begin.
But most of all, the Grecian Festival is about food, and lots of it: From the delicious lamb gyros topped with yogurt, to the chicken kebabs, to the stuffed grape leaves (vegetarian), and pastries, the festival is one long loud celebration–and consumption–of food . And in the midst of this carnival of the senses is phyllo dough which may be the stuff of S.’s anxiety but whose leaves are also the portals to the most delectable dishes your taste buds have encountered, from spanakopita, to baklava, to prasopita.
I know what S. is talking about, and it has nothing to do with his true profession: he is a musician who is, I suspect, more at home with the abstractions of notes and pauses than the caprices of this most fickle of food stuffs, this dough whose thinness is no sign of flakiness, whose lightness to the touch is a ruse, whose clear surface is a trap set by the gods to ensnare us, needy mortals. I know. I too have been subjected to its unruly whims, its sudden curls at the edges, and its renegade resistance.
It was my dear friend, P., who was once married to a Greek man and learned all the secrets of Greek cooking from her then-mother-in-law, who first showed me the way to break the anxiety hold that phyllo may have on some of us. I should have known before the beginning of my plaintiff’s song to her about the difficulties of phyllo, but I was blinded by its utter transparency; I was taken by its buoyancy; I was mistaken, and not for the first time.
“Darling,” said P., “Phyllo dries fast; you need to cover it with a wet towel, and you need to work very fast with it.” I knew about the wet towel, but somehow had missed the speed factor.
Which, for me, meant: don’t worry about the perfect triangle or just the right amount of the spinach and cheese, or the combination of butter and vegetable oil. Don’t worry about any of this. Your task is to keep an eye on the dough itself, and not take it seriously. Her advice was right on–don’t take it seriously– and not for the first time. P. is a wise woman of the world, with a huge laughter and a chest that houses a heart of many chambers.
And so, it goes with phyllo dough. But even if you master the art of not taking it seriously, or being a bit sloppy in the way you fold the triangles, there is still the step–the pre-amble– whose importance you learn after you have become skilled at working with this most beautiful, seductive and slippery of things. Never, ever make shortcuts in the thawing process. If approach is all, and by now you know that I believe it is, then follow the thawing instructions of your package, and this from someone who has made a cause out of resisting cooking instructions, has messed around with recipes just for the thrill of going against orders, however minor they may be.
Because you don’t want to open your package, and find either a soggy dough or something which is hard as a rock. You don’t want to be faced with the extremes because they are the real source of anxiety–the elongated package sitting there, on your counter, and you helpless, unable to act. These extremes are the places where mind and heart and hand hit against a barricade, crash at their limits–and you don’t want that. It will lead to obsession, and obsession is the estranged sister of anxiety.
Not for the first time, and not for the last. Tender but not malleable, resistant but not stubborn, playful but not fickle, quiet but not silent, beautiful to touch but not illusive–that’s what you want. That’s your desire, and however hard you’ll work at it, you know, as do I, that we are always less than what we want; our grasp falls short of our reach.
So, too, with phyllo, the food of the gods, who laugh at our folly; hold festivals which celebrate our hubris; sing songs of derision for our longings. In the end, it always comes back to appeasing the gods, even with phyllo.