By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen deals in big political themes: gender and race inequality, American imperialism, white male supremacy…and food. “There are no meaningful politics that don’t deal with the food system,” he says. “Food and water are the basic issues of our time.”
Jensen can talk at length about American poet and agrarian Wendell Berry, the perils of processed food and the current threats to biological diversity. But does this translate to something as elemental as dinner? Does Jensen actually get out in the kitchen and rattle them pots and pans? In fact, yes. His wife, singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, says she depends on Jensen’s cooking to reset her body and mind when she gets home from a tour.
Road food is a notoriously mixed blessing. On one hand, it’s ready when you need it and someone else cooked it. On the other, Gilkyson says, “everything has sugar or fructose, and I’m overly sensitive to so many kinds of food. Avoiding soy, wheat, eggs, tree nuts and garlic can be exhausting. At home, I want to spend days reading and talking and using my body. I want to eat two or three basic things.”
One is rice and greens—a base of sautéed onions, cooked rice, cheese and at least an armful of greens that can be augmented, or not, with anything from olives to cumin to fresh herbs. “I check what’s there, and then I cook with it,” Jensen says. “I have a frugality streak.” Nevertheless, lush flavors emerge from his kitchen, and that kitchen is where he belongs. Gilkyson prefers growing food to cooking it—this is the basis of the Jensen-Gilkyson domestic arrangement. Neither is the type to leave the complex subject they refer to as “the equality thing” to chance.
The couple met at a rally marking the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion. She’d come to play the protest song “Tender Mercies,” and he was speaking—in a way that struck an immediate chord. “I asked [fellow musician] Slaid Cleaves, ‘who the hell is that?’ and then I was shoving through the crowd to meet Robert,” says Gilkyson. She may have been a little starstruck, but so was he.
Jensen began spending time at Gilkyson’s home, a brightly painted oasis that refuses to blend in with the rest of the suburban cul-de-sac. She’d collected fruit trees and folk art, but her inner homemaker only went so far. “She was fussing in the kitchen, and I was getting in her way,” Jensen remembers. “Finally I asked her if she liked any part of cooking…if she even liked doing the dishes.”
Good question. While raising two children in rural New Mexico during her “back-to-the-land hippie days,” Gilkyson had cooked plenty of healthy meals, but now she wanted to be out in the garden tinkering with her rainwater systems, picking tomatoes, encouraging toads to move up the hill from Williamson Creek and trying to outwit squirrels. (“You can’t shoot a BB gun in town,” she says regretfully.)
“If I never cook another meal,” she told Jensen, “it’s fine with me.”
It was fine with Jensen, too. Raised on “classically awful American processed food,” he’d become a vegetarian, then discovered “you can eat crap as a vegetarian, too. I had to overcome this idea that cooking was what other people did. It’s not an art or a science, but a craft. I don’t like recipes. I’m a slob cook,” he says cheerfully.
Gilkyson disagrees. “Everything he cooks comes from scratch,” she says. “I come off the road, he cooks for me and I feel good enough to go back out.”
ROBERT JENSEN’S BACK-FROM-THE-ROAD RICE AND GREENS
Sauté chopped onions—enough to make a single layer in the bottom of a regular-size sauté pan—and a bit of garlic in some olive oil until soft. Season depending on mood—a combination of basil, oregano and thyme or cardamom, cumin, garam masala and curry powder. Add salt and pepper. Add a layer of cooked rice—white, brown or a combination of the two. Optional: add a layer of tofu, previously marinated in tamari and fried. Add a layer of grated cheese—basic Cheddar, Asiago, most anything would work. Finally, add a layer of greens—kale is best, but anything works. Cover the pan, increase heat and cook until the greens are wilted and the onions are starting to caramelize.