An Onion in My Pocket

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

by Deborah Madison

I didn’t think deep nourishment was what I was looking for when I began this book but it is what came up

in the end: food that nourished with kindness, thoughtfulness, care, simplicity, and generosity. And it had

nothing to do with the food itself, whether the food was vegetarian or not.

Here is one of those nourishing meals.

A Significant Lunch

I did get to go to Europe with the writer Nancy Wilson Ross. It was my first trip abroad. Tears

seared my eyes when our taxi went under London’s Marble Arch; I hadn’t known about old things, really.

We stayed at the Ritz and ate at the Savoy Hotel where even the carrots and peas were amazing. Then we

went onto Scotland and toured about in a tiny, borrowed car. It was November and it was cold.

In the midst of a seriously chilly drive across a barren heath, Nancy and I had a case of the

hungers. Not the peckish, “I could go for a little something, could you?” type of hunger, but that ravenous

appetite that made us antsy and on edge. We were crossing a vast section of land, a heath that was far

from any town and it was well after one when our hopes for lunch, which had been dismal, were buoyed:

We rounded a curve and saw a weak thread of smoke rising from the chimney of a low, whitewashed

stone building. We parked, unbent our chilled limbs, stumbled to the door and slowly pushed it open.

Immediately the low murmur of men talking came to a halt and we walked in silence to the bar. We were

the only women in the room. The barkeep came up to us and suggested— kindly— that we would

perhaps be happier if we would drive just a few hundred yards down the road. There, surely, he promised,

we could have a drink and perhaps food, too. We thought we’d be happier as well, so leaving the men to

resume their chatter, we did as he suggested and drove onto a small inn just, as promised, a short

distance away.

We opened the door and this time stepped into a silent, chilly foyer. No one was in sight, but we

could hear the clanking of pots and pans, doors opening and closing, the bangs and thuds that were all

familiar kitchen sounds. I gently pushed open the kitchen door and there stood the cook.

“Hello!” I called to her. “ Would it be possible to have lunch?”

“Oh no, dearies,” the cook replied. “ I haven’t any soup!”

While soup would have been as welcome as a hot bath, its lack hardly mattered. It was possible

that the cook mentioned the soup to discourage our stay, but then she graciously agreed to feed us after


“You’ll have to wait a bit, though, if that’s all right,” she warned as she led us to a small parlor.

Waiting was fine now that we knew lunch is coming. We sat on wooden chairs, fed coins to the

heater and sipped from a flask of whisky (now those flasks made sense!) until the cook reappeared,

opened the doors of the dining room and invited us to enter.

The dining room was a comfortable space, neither too big nor too small. We sat near the

windows and looked around. The pale yellow walls were entirely covered with large blue and white China

platters. The tables and chairs were simple and wooden, worn perhaps, but not shabby. There was a

fireplace, but no fire was burning. Though cold and empty just then, it was easy to imagine this room filled

with people, the warm babble of conversation, the snap of the fire. But lacking that, we gazed outside at

the remains of the summer’s garden. Most of the leaves were withered and brown. Orb spiders had

joined various branches and stalks of plants together with their gossamer threads that were now

decorated with baubles of mist. At first glance it didn’t seem that there were many prospects for food in

this garden, but as we continued to look at it we gradually detected cabbages, their heads protected from

frost by their ample leaves, some hardy Brussels sprouts, a row of potatoes that was just partially dug,

some tall leeks, their blue-green flags somewhat wilted with cold. Beyond the garden a ways was a small

lake and behind the lake, mountains, whose flanks were covered with a plaid of dark pine squares edged

with golden larch.

At last the dining room doors swung open and the cook walked in, nestling one of those big

platters in her study arms. She smiled, set it down in front of us, then apologized once again for the lack of

soup, and retreated. On the platter were two fish from the lake perched on a soft bed mashed potatoes,

cabbage and leeks, surrounded with a necklace of Brussels sprouts. Our lunch was the mirror image of our

view. Given its innate goodness and startling simplicity, seasoned so well with our hunger and the

kindness of strangers, this meal tasted better than any meal I could recall eating. Its close relationship to

the garden and the lake established for me what became the template of the good meal that has lasted

my entire life: eating food in its place and its season. It is simple, but hard to find. This rare meal gave me

my one true constant, my north star.

It was l976, the day before Jimmy Carter was elected president and decades before words like

local and seasonal were used in connection with food.

Excerpt from An Onion in My Pocket.

Available September 29th from Collected Works and

DEBORAH MADISON is the award-winning author of fourteen cookbooks, including The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Vegetable Literacy. Her books have received four James Beard Foundation awards and five awards from the IACP; in 2016 she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. She lives in Galisteo.

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