Celebrating Animal Love
On this celebration day for the sweetest spirited saint in the roster, I’m reflecting on how much my family loves our cat companions and the enormous cultural changes the pandemic brought in its wake in such a short time. For many people, the enforced isolation brought new appreciation of the bond that can form between humans and our beloved animals. Animal adoptions rose steeply during the times of shut down pauses and millions of people learned how deeply soul satisfying it can be to share your life with a critter. Pretty much everyone cradling a purring kitten or getting a friendly face wash from a wriggling puppy for the first time falls in love instantly, just as holding a newborn human infant creates an immediate bond.
Although the world has become increasingly urban, animal love is deep in the human psyche. While historians tend to focus on ancient human/animal relationships in terms of hunting and animal domestication, cave paintings made thousands of years ago reveal an intense admiration, even love, for animal beauty that transcends mere appreciation of usefulness. As a student in Italy, I often visited Assisi, home of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. I loved hearing stories about Saint Francis that illustrated his love for birds and beasts as well as humans. Indeed, many of Francis’s reported conversations were with or about all sorts of birds, bees, pigs, lambs and sheep, donkeys and dogs, even wolves, and his aim was not just to try to control them, but to appreciate them for what they are.
The Simplest Love
Animals as pets are supposedly a recent development in human history, but those stunning Lascaux cave horses were clearly drawn with the eye of love. I imagine that animals of many species have befriended people since time out of mind, probably even before dogs started hanging around human camps and cats began picking off rodents near human grain stores. Archaeological evidence shows that humans and dogs have lived together for at least 15,000 years, so small wonder that during the pandemic, millions of people adopted a dog or cat and found love. Even without a pandemic to keep us anxious and shocked, animal love is therapeutic. I’ve lived with cats, dogs, birds and bunnies, gerbils and guinea pigs all my life, and always found them as enriching to daily life as my human interactions (truthfully, often more so). As a very young child, I carried a pocketful of baby white rats around, doting on their adorableness (a concept not widely shared, I learned). To this day, nearly everyone in my family lives with cats and/or dogs, and most of us have had only brief periods of living without animal friends.
These days, my daughter and I share our home with two older cats, our dear companions, though not especially fond of each other. Right now, Lexi and her skittish cat, Eowyn, are curled up companionably, comforting each other even in slumber. For those who find human relationships difficult, animal friendships offer a simpler path to love. If people are capable of unconditional love, I’m pretty sure animals are as well. Our pets trust us to provide for them and they in turn offer love and even protection from perceived danger (maybe not so true of goldfish or gerbils, but definitely true for dogs, cats, horses, and even birds).
Since the pandemic began, many of us stopped sharing meals with family and friends. That not only changed the nature of holidays for us, but also the nature of daily living; without those frequent interactions, isolation replaced conviviality. Now, deep into our second pandemic year, many of us have made adjustments and have restored, at least somewhat, our friend and family ties. We learned to develop “pods”, limiting casual social interactions and investing more in meaningful relationships. The joyful relief when vaccination made it possible to enlarge that initially tiny pod to include neighbors and friends I had sorely missed seeing. Standing across a street and bellowing at each other through our muffling masks really didn’t deliver the same satisfaction as talking or knitting together around a table. Given our counties increasing rise in covid19 cases, most of us are still wearing masks, but by now we’ve all found comfortable ones that
Though some folks spend many pandemic hours in finesse cookery, I quickly lost any interest in what came to feel like fuss rather than fun. Others’ social media food posting felt like boasting. My daughter prefers to eat alone, and without others to share meals, I focused even more on making food that’s simply delicious. I always find it amusing when people tell me that my recipes for quickly made, tasty food seem too simple to be any good. While it’s true that very simple recipes are only as good as the ingredients, home grown vegetables, fruit, and herbs tend to be far better tasting than anything store-bought. I once wrote about a French version of potato leek soup that ordinary French families eat almost daily in soup season. Made with plump, pungent, local leeks and newly harvested golden potatoes, this extremely simple soup is both satisfying and surprisingly delicious. Made with elderly leeks and potatoes that may have been stored under less than ideal conditions, then shipped half way around the world, it’s no doubt pretty meh, but rather than adding cream and lobster or whatever (as several people told me they did to “improve” this recipe), try making it with fresh local ingredients and see what you think.
Working Class French Soup
Simple as it is, this recipe is a classic because it makes a filling meal and tastes wonderful. Many potato leek soup recipes rely on butter, milk, and cream, but this home style version ranks high among my personal comfort foods, tasty, easy to make, and cooks without fuss while you enjoy a glass of wine. Don’t be tempted to use commercial broth instead of water; the heavy, greasy off-flavors will overpower the earthy richness of the natural flavors of well grown, local organic vegetables. This soup is served almost daily in French working class homes and I understand why. I use avocado oil to give this dish a rich, buttery flavor that’s especially satisfying, but a fruity olive oil works fine as well. If you have a food processor, use the slicer disk to make this soup in minutes. It reheats beautifully and the rich flavor gets even deeper after a night in the fridge.
Home-Style French Potato Leek Soup
1+ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3 fat leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
3-4 medium potatoes, quartered and thinly sliced
1+ tablespoon avocado oil or olive oil or butter
few grinds pepper
Combine 2 quarts of water with the salt and bring to a brisk boil. Add leeks and potatoes and cook until potatoes are quite tender but still mostly intact (30-40 minutes). Add oil or butter, taste for salt, and serve, with a bit of freshly ground pepper. Serves four.