Let me tell you about the slowest, longest-cooking pot roast I’ve ever made in my long life of pot-roast making. It all started because it was a special piece of meat, supplied by Pilar Gerasimo (whom you may know as the founding editor of this magazine). Her brother-in-law had begun raising a small number of Lowline Angus/Dexter cattle on the rolling hills of their Wisconsin family farm in an effort to make it more self-sustaining. Pilar asked me to try the meat to help the family decide whether tending beef was going to be worth the effort. This was a high-stakes pot roast.
I seared it thoroughly in my big old Staub cast-iron Dutch oven, surrounded it with whole branches of rosemary from the garden, poured in most of a bottle of oaky red wine, slipped it all into the oven at 175 degrees F, and went about my day. It was 10 o’clock in the morning on what I’ll call day one.
It was a typically busy day: deadlines stacked to the sky, kids needing to be ferried to basketball and home from math team, kids needing jerseys that were in the wash or lost, and me tearing around the house in a frenzy.
I was moderating a cookbook panel that evening, so I fed the children chili — made and frozen months earlier, because I knew there would be days like this. I turned the oven off, took the pot roast out, flipped it over in its liquid, and slid it back in. My daughter asked why I had made a pot roast we were not eating and why I was storing it in a cold oven. I told her it was for tomorrow.
“You’re so weird,” she replied.
I put on my grown-up shoes and left.
The cookbook panel was fairly ordinary until an earnest woman in the audience asked how the four of us find time to cook. We offered variations of the usual strategies: Stock your pantry with staples like rice and canned tomatoes; cook and freeze big portions of easy-to-reheat dishes, like chili and soup, when you have time on the weekends; and so on.
This did not satisfy a few people in the audience, and the conversation took a strange turn, focusing on how long it takes to cook rice and how only elitists would presume people have that kind of time.
When another woman recommended premade, frozen rice, the audience was in complete agreement. Rice, they concluded, is a burdensome and unreasonable demand on our time.
Now, I realize I have privileges on top of privileges, but honestly. There’s something in our culture that prizes busyness as a badge of honor; I resent it in myself and don’t like to see it applied to rice.
Because here’s everything you need to know about making rice in a hectic world, friends: Buy a small rice cooker for under $20. Walk in the door from work, drop a cup of rice and 2 cups of water in your rice cooker, and by the time you’ve hung up your good suit, you’re halfway to hot rice.
Still, when I say things like this, I fear that I come off like Marie Antoinette, scolding from the throne, “Let them eat rice!” And I may possibly have added something regrettable during that discussion about how everyone seems to have time to binge Netflix series, but no one has the time to make rice. What a world.
Ruled by the Clock and Calendar
Karma being what it is, the next day featured an explosion of nothing but busyness and clock-driven chaos, missed school buses, rescheduled meetings, changed deadlines, and malfunctioning parking-ramp pay stations. The family that was to join us for the pot roast on day two canceled. We rescheduled.
So, since our dinner plans had changed, I sent my son out for banh mi sandwiches from a nearby Vietnamese takeout spot, and I went for a walk to try to de-frazzle myself for a few minutes.
On a good day, I walk and meditate and become one with my breath. On bad days, I go for a walk while my mind races back and forth through to-do lists, never-done lists, can’t-because-I’m-prevented lists. I may as well be wearing a paper bag over my head for all the nature I actually experience on these occasions.
I try to interrupt the bad days by listening to meditation-related lectures. On day two of the pot-roast journey, I was listening to the The Search for Wholeness by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In this abbey lecture, Merton meanders through various topics, many springing from books he’s read. I was listening to one about time: How people experienced time before clocks, by seasons and day-lengths; and then, during the Renaissance, by public bells and the church calendar; and later, as conveyed by Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time.
“Proust [describes] a somewhat different experience of time than we have,” explained Merton. “[It’s] an experience of time getting away from you. The years are fleeting, and time is going by. Each quarter-hour on the clock sort of reminds you that you’ve got that much less [time] to have fun. Not in a bad way. It’s the idea that life is getting away from you, and you have not yet grasped it, and you have not yet really lived it. And the sense of life getting away and not being lived — this is a serious concept of time.”
From the age of Proust, Merton continues, things got even worse — time became a sense of infinite indebtedness. Monday is allocated for these meetings, Tuesday for that project, Wednesday for those obligations, Thursday for other responsibilities, and so it marches into everything you can see.
“We all become, in a certain way, sharecroppers — and you know what happens to the sharecropper,” he says. “He buys things from the man he’s working for against his future wage, and he never gets any wage. . . . Everything is always on paper. He’s always in debt, and so therefore he can’t quit.”
This hit me like a bolt of lightning, like a ton of bricks. Time is not just a problem caused by our smartphones, Netflix, Outlook calendars, kids’ basketball, and intractable bags of uncooked rice. It’s a subject for philosophers.
Have you ever felt like you’re the only person in the world with a problem and then you talked to someone else who was dealing with exactly the same issue? That’s how I suddenly felt, walking alone that evening in the woods.
No Time Like the Present
Merton knew the way out. “The thing . . . is to realize the importance of experiencing time in some other way than if we just simply have to be catching trains all the time or catching planes all the time.
“When you catch a plane, you have to catch a plane; there’s nothing wrong with that. But we should be living in a dimension where you don’t have to feel dominated by that kind of thing. . . . One shouldn’t be upset with this whole business.”
Can we learn to recognize the hot breath of clock-time on our necks as merely one way of experiencing time, one that you can put away for a bit? Can we put our phones and clocks away for a morning, for an evening? They are not all there is.
The pot roast, by the way, was exquisite — trembling and tender, big and beefy. We finally enjoyed it on day five, after it had been heated to 175 degrees F for various six- and eight-hour stretches at least six times. I was pretty confident that would kill off any lingering bacteria, which die at 120 or 140 degrees F, depending on whom you believe.
I could tell you the science behind it all, how the long days of 175-degree heat melted the collagen in the meat without making it stringy, that slow-and-low is a motto of barbecue fanatics for good reason.
But mainly I’d like you to know that by the time we all got together to eat this five-day pot roast, we were pretty tired of being bossed by clocks and ambitions and busyness. We were ready for time to just sink into the background for a bit, so everything else in the world — like family and dinner — could be most important for a while.