Friday, October 24, 2008

The Wedding Dress Dilemma or How The Garnish Can Make the Soup

When D and I got engaged, I became all about the eco-chic. After reading the hundredth article about it, my main question was how green was my wedding going to be? Our invitations would be small because we were going to use a website to disperse the information. There would be minimal flowers and decorations and the food would be local, if not organic. My dress wasn’t going to be one of those lavish gowns worn once and then locked up in a closet until a future daughter might hopefully not sneer at Mom’s terrible taste and want to wear it at her own wedding. I was going to wear something practical, dyeable, and preferably made of organic cotton, hemp or bamboo.

I contacted a young (affordable) designer whose knitted beige dress I have often worn to other people’s weddings. Her choices of organic fabrics are urban, fun and feminine, and I loved the enthusiasm in her voice when she responded to my description of what I was looking for. We fixed an appointment and indeed met in person to discuss options. She gave me a few fantastic suggestions and requested a couple of months to come up with sketches.

Unfortunately, that was the last I heard from her. After three or four attempts on my part to get in touch, I gave up trying. Organic or not, Mohammed and the Mountain had bigger fish to fry.

In New York, I researched wedding dress thrift shops. I even tried to find “the dress” at a wonderful not-for-profit that receives all its merchandise from designers and wealthy women. The proceeds go to help inner-city children. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t stained, ripped or below size 16.

Then, despite my best intentions, I found the dress. It was everything I didn’t want it to be except puffy and lacy. It was luxurious, extravagant, a “real” wedding dress, non-transferable, non-dyable, impractical and so beautiful I couldn’t believe it was me I was looking at in the mirror.

If one is truly hell-bent on the organic, practical option, my advice is DON’T even try on those classical, ex-bloody-pensive, “real” wedding dresses. Stay away from Vera Wang, avoid entering wedding shops altogether.
That’s how they get you.

“Oh no, I’m not going to spent THAT kind of money on a dress. How dare they! IT’S ONE DAY!” you think, sensibly, following that up with a condescending “Ridiculous! I’d rather send my children to college.”

That is before you’ve tried any of them on; before you’ve felt the slinky, white fabric on your skin as you swish sexily around on your tiptoes, your former lumps now transformed into curves; before you’ve looked in the mirror and have been forced to admit that, despite the terrible hat-hair, you look better than you ever have, prettier, more feminine.

Your resolve starts to waver as you keep staring at the new you, all woman, all bride, all wife-to-be. It becomes political, philosophical, a priority – anything to make the amount you are about to spend justifiable … You think to yourself how unfair society has been to women, how far this era of combat boots and corduroy pants has driven us from our inherent femininity. But no more! The time has come to reclaim what has been squashed out of you by generations of oppression! You have to hold yourself back from raising an angry fist in the name of all the women of the world, your sisters in wardrobe, stuck in masculine suits and this close to wearing a balled-up pair of socks stuffed down their pants and a necktie to work.

So you do what anyone in your situation would: you turn to the saleslady who has waited on you hand and foot. She smiles, seemingly demure although you know she is secretly ecstatic in the knowledge that she has thwarted another bunch of good intentions, broken another girl, ripped her from the bosom of mother earth and forced her out into the open as the Carrie-wanna-be every woman really is.

“Do you take credit cards?” you ask, feeling the guilt climbing up your back and knocking on your skull as the words come out of your mouth. You pray that there is enough in the bank account to cover it, and you pray that there isn’t. You hope this won’t be what makes it blatantly clear and establishes you forever more as everything you’ve been trying to avoid: a Bridezilla in disguise.

As the jeep made its way up the mountain, I was aware of the dress draping softly over my legs. The feel of the fabric caused excitement to ripple through my skin. I shivered. Every part of me was now aware that this day was unlike any other (and not because I was going to be eating unleavened bread). My hair was done-up in beautiful curls, my makeup was as good as professional. When the jeep dropped me off, there would be a crowd of people waiting to see me. I looked out the window, inhaled deeply and exhaled loudly.

Beside me, my T and my friend DKB were silent but I could feel them as if they were clasping my hands even though in reality my fingers were curled tightly around my bouquet of flowers.

When I had put my dress on that morning, for the first time, I had felt that it was mine; that I had become the bride. Until then, it had been like putting on a costume, a costly white testament to the power of make-believe; so convinced was I that it wasn’t going to happen, that some catastrophe would bar my day from being as joyful as everyone said it was supposed to be. With the last push of the zipper, I had been transformed.

After dinner, I changed out of the dress, already regretting it as I stepped a bare foot into my jeans. I would no longer be the bride. Instead, I would be the person throwing the all-night dance party, the dress’ spell having worn off from the first tug downward of that same zipper.

When I was a child, I was afraid of monsters attacking me during the night. I slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed, and my biggest fear was that they would grab my feet in my sleep. To combat this, I convinced myself that as long as the duvet was folded over, as long as I was well-wrapped into it, I would be all right. I would tuck the covers around my feet like a cocoon, making sure there were no holes, no corners sticking out. On the worst nights, I left only the tiniest of breathing holes from where I could breathe. Tucked under pillows, folded-in like a newborn, I was safe.

The wedding dress served roughly the same purpose, except translated into adult terms. It wasn’t that monsters wouldn’t eat my feet without it, but rather that nothing bad would happen, that I didn’t need to take responsibility or make important decisions or even get involved in the petty dramas of the everyday – as long as I was wearing the dress.
“Talk to my aunt,” I had answered the restaurant manager when she had come to ask whether we should start dinner after the first round of celebratory dancing. I was the bride; it wasn’t my problem.

In my dress, the food contained no calories, even the most irritating of questions, remarks, judgments, the most rigid of expectations mattered little. In my dress, I didn’t have to worry about whether we would be able to conceive, who was thinking what, and who hadn’t heard the ceremony properly. I didn’t even have to consider how long the speeches were dragging on. Because I was the bride; and, as the bride, there was no anger, no fear, no frustration, no future, no past. Even five minutes in the future was of no consequence. As the bride, armed with my perfect white dress as weapon and shield, only that very second mattered – and then it passed. And I was back to being like everyone else, a woman celebrating an amazing event in her life, dancing, laughing, enjoying a glass of wine.

I will never know how I would have felt had I found a more eco-friendly dress for my wedding day.

Maybe none of it had anything to do with the dress. Possibly. But it will take someone else to garner those emotions without the smoothe ribbing, the flowing train (though mine was pinned up), the moulded breast cups, the hand-beaded d├ęcolletage, the fitted bodice.

In every other way, we managed to stick to our original goals. It was only the dress, the garnish if you will, that was my sweet indulgence as well as my downfall. The dress made me a bride and a hypocrite, it took me from down-to-earth to high-maintenance. The dress intoxicated me, blinding me with its beauty and how I looked wearing it. The stakes were immediately raised way beyond what I thought myself capable of delivering and yet with the dress, anything was possible.

The dress gave me the right to demand nothing less than perfection. In the dress, I could dream of a wedding beyond belief. In the dress, that wedding would become a reality.

Ironically, on the day itself, when things went differently from what I had so carefully planned, when shit actually happened, it was the fact that I was wearing the most exquisite gown that gave me the courage to laugh; and D’s tears when he saw me walking towards him, his choked whisper, “you look so beautiful”, when I finally reached him that made me feel confident enough to keep laughing. In the dress, I was invincible, and in D’s eyes, I saw clearly the main reason why buying it had been the right thing to do.

Back on earth… We returned to the blustery, grey British weather with a thankless thud after eating our way through New York, and wandering the autumn streets of Manhattan gazing at the turning leaves through our sunglasses. The damp cold was an unwelcome welcome, a sign that nothing had changed – possibly, though we felt very different, not even us.

The bills hadn’t decided to give us a break because we were newlyweds, and neither had the weather. How I wished I could wear the dress coming off the plane, arriving back in our empty home, to London, so far from so many with whom I had danced under the stars just minutes before.

On our first Friday night back, I decided to make soup. Though this sounds relatively simple and is, in theory (as well as in my regular practice), I failed miserably. There are a few reasons for this, in my opinion: first of all, I put too much pressure on myself. This was to be our first Shabbat dinner in the flat as husband and wife and I wanted it to be perfect, a meal to remember. I didn’t want Shabbat dinner to be spectacular only when we had guests over. And finally, there were two heads of cauliflower that needed to be eaten.

There are very few foods that I don’t like. In fact, other than Marmite, there is not one thing that I actively dislike. Cauliflower, however, comes damn close.

So between the self-imposed pressure and my inherent dislike of the main ingredient of my soup, it was no wonder that our first Shabbat dinner was, in fact, quite the opposite of ‘spectacular’; unless one chooses to follow that up with ‘catastrophe’.

What saved me was the garnish I improvised as a spicy counter-taste to the blandness of the veloute.

Though I ended up chucking the leftover soup – a much detested action I reserve only for truly bad food – I was able to recycle the garnish the next day by mixing it with tahini and lemon juice and reinvent it as a lush dressing for a comforting rainy-day salad.

The First Incarnation: Garnish

1 decent-sized hot chilli pepper, finely chopped
2 -3 garlic cloves, pressed
a good portion of a bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
a handful of chopped pistachio nuts
a dollop of pistachio oil
salt to taste

Combine all the ingredients in the food processor or mortar and pestle until you have a smoothish paste

The Second Incarnation: Dressing

Add tahini paste, the juice of one lemon and water to already made garnish (I added more garlic, but it’s definitely a personal taste thing)

The Salad

Slow roast 2 sweet potatoes with olive oil, sage, rosemary, salt and whole peppercorns at 150 degrees Centigrade for about an hour and a quarter (or until soft and slightly caramelized).

Lightly steam a bunch of spinach until slightly wilted. Chop up roughly

Mix the salad with the Dressing
Serve with chickpea flatbread or as a side dish.

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