By Roberto Ontiveros
Photography by Duane Osborn
For author Sarah Bird, food is as much a matter of time as it is taste. “I may not be good, but I am fast fast fast in the kitchen; I can sling the victuals like a short-order cook,” she says. “I’ve never thought convenience foods were either convenient or food, so a lot of my timesaving in the kitchen goes back to my mother’s ‘Vast Tub’ philosophy. Whenever I do cook, I make immense, freezer-ready quantities.” While the vats bubble away on the stovetop, music, NPR or a beloved television show often provides the background hum.
“My new favorite thing to do is watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report on my laptop while I chop, peel, sauté, caramelize, sear and enucleate,” Bird says. “Multitasking makes cooking a high-enough-yield proposition that I think it’s worth the time.”
Coming from a large family definitely shaped Bird’s views about dinnertime. “Here’s the truth,” she confesses, “Mealtime in my family of six children was pretty darn feral. The word that comes to mind is ‘competitive.’ I was well into adulthood before I learned to eat without one arm curled around my plate.” And inequity was alive and well in the kitchen. “Any sibling who wasn’t either male, hiding out in the bathroom or faking cramps with a hot-water bottle was press-ganged into food prep.” But perhaps Bird picked up some of her characteristic wit and spunk from the process, especially from working alongside her mother, who loved to sing and tell bawdy stories about her adventures in North Africa as an Army nurse. “Food was work,” says Bird. “[Mom’s] approach was utilitarian: most grub for least effort and cost. This equaled out to vast tubs of things like macaroni and cheese and beanie weenies suitable for mass feeding and hopefully, leftovers . . . she did enjoy creating ‘art food,’ like dying coconut green to decorate an Easter cake frosted with seven-minute icing.”
Bird is a current recipient of the coveted Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship, which offers Texas writers the time and space to work on their art at J. Frank Dobie’s secluded Paisano ranch. “From my first day on the ranch, I realized what a complete hunter-gatherer I am,” she says. “I hiked around asking myself, if the apocalypse happens and we’re trapped here, could I eat that? I had this grand plan to make jelly out of these gorgeous Agarita berries and Googled recipes and talked to my super-holistic friends about how to do this. I waited for the perfect moment of ripeness, got up at the crack of dawn, went out with my basket to start harvesting and there was a very happy wild turkey finishing off the last of the Agarita berries. That berry-fed turkey will be the first to go when the apocalypse hits!”
Bird, who has an affinity for snacking when reading a great novel, definitely sees a link between putting together a good meal and putting together a good book. “With every book I start, I have to make the sad discovery that there is no recipe I can follow—even what I did last time won’t work—and all I can do is assemble the ingredients I have on hand as best I can. If I could delete, cut and paste in the kitchen, however, I’d probably be a committed chef.”
SARAH BIRD'S FAVORITE NOVEL NOSH
1 glass milk
Graham crackers to taste
1 great novel
Pour glass of milk. Open package of graham crackers. Dunk. Read.