On Waiting

September 27, 2011 · 9 comments

What I waited for.

Sometime in the mid-seventies, when I was a young teenager, my parents and I stood for hours outside a movie theater on Third Avenue, across the street from the back entrance to Bloomingdales. The line stretched out the door and around the block, and snaked east towards the Queensborough Bridge, which, every time a truck drove over it, rattled and shook the very ground we were standing on, like a small earthquake.

“When can we go in?” I whined at my father, shifting my pouty, angst-ridden teenage self from Dr. Scholl’s Exercise Sandal to Dr. Scholl’s Exercise Sandal, folding my arms across my chest. I stared at the sky, annoyed. I might have stamped my foot.

“When they say we can,” he said glumly, lighting two cigarettes. He handed one of them to my mother who took a long, sweet, lipsticked drag off it as she gazed into the distance, propped in her ever-present model’s pose, her right knee bent in slightly towards her left, her hips slung down and under, like she was about to sit down on a bench.

We were on line that day to see Annie Hall, and there was a scene in the movie where Alvie and Annie are standing on line outside a theater across town, on Broadway, waiting to get in to see a documentary about Nazis. They wait there together, both of them cranky and aggravated, and when a professor standing behind him starts to pontificate loudly about modern media and culture, Alvie begs us, right through the fourth wall, for a large sock filled with horse manure.

It has far less to do with the fact that there’s this supercilious academic jackass standing on line behind him — going on about Fellini and cohesive structure and La Strada and negative imagery — and far more to do with the the fact that no one ever likes to wait. Waiting is a bore. It’s a waste of our time. But more than that, it leaves the twitchy and nervous among us feeling vulnerable and prone, like a naked, cold newborn; it leaves us helpless, and in that state, we risk absorbing all the mishegas that swirls around us, like a psychic sponge. I was once in Nice with a few friends; we had just flown in from New York and were sitting in a tiny, poolside restaurant attached to the hotel we were staying in. Our waiter brought our menus, and took his time coming back to us to take our order; when it was clear that he was operating on French time — everything took a while, by American standards — one of my friends jumped up and shouted, red-faced,




“Have you just marched through the Sahara, madame?” the waiter asked, nonplussed, before walking away.

The thing is, when we wait — on line at the DMV, or for a delivery, or for the first course to come, or for the cable guy to show up, or for a machine at the gym, or for a test result — the metaphysical car keys are snatched right out of our hands, and replaced with the fact that we’re no longer at the steering wheel: we’re out of control. This particular friend of mine who shouted at the waiter in Nice doesn’t like being out of control, even though the universe had other plans for her.

You thought the world was moving on your watch?  the Universe snickers. Well guess again, Chuckles.

I’ve heard every argument under the sun for why Americans are stuck on fast/instant/processed food, and issues like economics, food deserts, sheer ignorance, addiction, and bad habit obviously come into play. But nobody ever talks about the fact that we’re also a country that thrives, regardless of socioeconomic status, on time-saving, and speed: our oil changes are done in a Jiffy; our film is developed in an hour; movies are downloaded in an instant; we don’t have to get out of the car to use the ATM or to make a deposit; airline check-ins are done by computer; entire Thanksgiving dinners are nuked in a microwave or bought in a can. That European construct — the coffee house — where you could go and sit down with a newspaper or a friend and just have a small cup of coffee and a slice of pie in the middle of the day, has gone the way of the drive-thru: almost every suburban Starbucks now has one. It’s all rush-rush-rush, Hello may I help you, can I take your order please, thank you and please haul your Yukon up to the next window.

Americans wait for nothing; we’re people of convenience, of demand and entitlement, and the myth that it keeps us and everything around us in control. We loathe idleness, both practical and psychic. If we’re not doing ten other things—or thinking about doing them— while we’re drinking our latte or getting cash from the ATM, or heating dinner in the microwave and eating it standing up while watching The Biggest Loser, we’re convinced that we’re not good enough, or that the world is getting away from us, or that someone, god forbid, might be getting ahead faster than we are.

Recently, I was talking to a neighbor — someone I don’t know well —about our garden; he wanted to know what we we grew over the summer, so I told him.

“Some long Italian flat beans, some tomatoes, some zucchini–”

He cocked his head a bit, and pointed to one of our front yard boxes, still packed with lush, emerald green foliage.

“What’s that?”

“Potatoes–” I said, walking him over to the box.

“Why don’t you pick them?” he asked.

“Because,” I said, “we have to wait.”

“But could you pick them now? Would they be ready?”

“No,” I said again, “we have to wait.”

“But what do you do while you wait? Can you eat the leaves? Or the blossoms, maybe?” he asked, hopeful.

“Nope,” I said, jamming my hands in my pockets. “We just have to wait.”

He looked at me like I had three heads and then asked, “How about those vines, over there?”

“Winter squash,” I said. “They’re not ready yet, either.”

“How long do they take?” he asked.

“It can be months–” I said, “Broccoli, too. We planted it in early August so if we’re lucky, we’ll have it in mid-November.”

“Why don’t you just buy it?” he asked me, like I was an imbecile.

“Because it’s worth the wait,” I said.

“But who the hell has the time—” he mumbled, and walked away, late for an appointment.

That’s the thing about waiting, when it comes to food; most times, it’s a very good thing. Because the act of waiting forces something else on us which most of us don’t have a whole lot of: patience, and time. It takes patience and time for winter squash to grow; for bread to rise; for the flavors in the braise to develop; for potatoes to get to the point where you can actually use them.  Right now, I don’t have a whole lot of time, between writing my book and this blog and a slew of other articles, editing cookbooks, taking care of our house, making sure that Susan gets a good dinner when she returns home from her commute into New York every day, making sure that the dogs are walked and that they’re fed and vetted, making sure to call my mother and my cousins and my aunt and my mother-in-law, trying to get to the gym so that I don’t blow up into something that looks like the Hindenburg … it’s all a giant time suck. And I don’t have children, so I can’t even add soccer mom to that list. (Imagine if I could.)

But I find myself inadvertently drawn to things that force me to wait: I make bread that requires I be stuck in the house for the second punch-down; I make long braises that require I hang around; I grow things that have to hang out in or on the ground for a really long time — garlic, carrots, winter squash, broccoli — because I assume they’ll be a lot more delicious than the stuff that’s chemically induced  to grow quickly and assertively and in sync with some corporate supermarket’s supply chain needs. That’s not really growing vegetables any more than a CAFO is hog farming.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but in this go-go world — where everything is instant, or mechanized — being forced to wait, to slow down, to have patience, to take time, makes me feel a little less like a chicken with its head cut off. If I take the time to seriously cook down that soffrito — slowly, carefully so that it doesn’t burn but instead builds a thick base layer of flavor — I’m not going to be able to walk away from it, or get distracted. I can head into my office down the hall from the kitchen and finish a chapter, or write a recipe, but I can’t just turn my back wholesale.

This year, with a major deadline looming, and without planning to, we planted nothing that didn’t need a lot of time, and it forced us to slow down a little, and to wait. We did have one butternut squash that ripened quickly, though, and I made a simple butternut squash soup with it, and it paid us back with four very elemental lunches. Beyond that, we’re still waiting on the potatoes, and the rest of the acorn squash, and the garlic for next year’s harvest.

They’ll be worth the time it takes.



{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 debbie koenig September 27, 2011 at 11:43 am

Thanks so much for the reminder that waiting is worthwhile–I just got a mess o’ containers for our new cement backyard, and some of them came with plants (strawberries! raspberries!). Nothing to harvest for many months, though, and my 5-year-old was deeply disappointed. Now I just have to cross my fingers that I don’t somehow kill them over the winter…

2 Cheryl September 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm

In this click-here-click-there-click-away world, I love sitting down to your writing. I’ve got my tea, I relax into my chair, and I drink in your words. Of course, I wish I didn’t have to wait for your next post, but — as you point out so aptly — waiting for the good stuff is worth it.

3 Elissa September 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Thank you so much Cheryl!

4 Carol September 27, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Charming concept. Just found out we have an enormous mango tree behind the new house. Need mango recipes

5 Juhie September 28, 2011 at 12:13 am

I love reading your beautiful work! It always makes me smile.

6 Susan October 1, 2011 at 9:53 am

Ah, how timely! I often tell others to “give themselves permission to slow down and enjoy the moment”, and frequently I find myself doing the opposite. After all, when your husband reminds you that there is more than one temperature (high) on the stovetop-you know that’s a hint! Thanks for the reminder!

7 Jill October 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I read this while waiting for dough to rise. I like to think that all the instant technology in the world gives me more time to just enjoy the actually fun stuff–like baking pumpkin maple cinnamon rolls and drinking tea and reading your lovely blog on a rainy Saturday morning.
Love the Annie Hall bit particularly, and your dad’s smoker’s chivalry.

8 Elissa October 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Thank you Jill—

9 Toby October 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Do you know about the famous study- coincidentally, done in the 70s- about waiting? They studied kids for who could wait for a marshmallow- and get an extra one- and those who could not, and would get just one treat. Longitudinally, the study found those who could wait as children were successful as adults.

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