For Leitha Matz, meals don’t just exist at instantaneous intervals. There is a clear current of continuity between one and the next. The story of any given ingredient extends far beyond its existence in her pantry, and this came across in the flavors, textures, and aromas evident in her cooking, an epic story that unfurls on an ongoing basis.
Leitha couldn’t have chosen a better meal to communicate to us her approach to food than the soup she prepared completely from scratch. Most weekends, she engages in a cyclical culinary routine comprised of overlapping phases, where time and patience are as important elements to the dish as any. Throughout the week, she collects vegetable scraps and leftover bones, storing them in the freezer until Sunday rolls around. “Most of the work is passive so it’s perfect for the weekend; the process is like magic to me.”
As the homemade stock boiled, you could catch distinct aromas arching clearly from the enveloping scent of home cooking wafting from the hearth—leek, tomato, chicken, black peppercorn. These humble components, which most of us would simply discard do, indeed, transform in the boiling water, revealing complex, powerful flavors.
“Really, the first step of the recipe is just an ongoing habit. I think of this as the sustained process of soup.”
Leitha’s cooking consists of a lot of blending and repurposing, where ingredients continually reinvent themselves from one dish to the next. As the broth neared completion, for instance, she enhanced it by adding half a mason jar’s worth of homemade salsa, canned last summer. It was the remainder from the dinner she and her partner ate the night before. This kind of dedication to resourcefulness is a staple in her kitchen, proving time and again the versatility and potential of even the humblest elements of a dish.
Of course, having the initiative to incorporate these habits into her daily routine involves intention that goes beyond a desire to achieve certain flavors. “I find that soups are a real source of nourishment, and also I probably do translate love through food. So, one of the things that I generally do when I make a soup is I store a jar of it in the freezer because, you know, life happens, and you can give somebody soup. If it’s homemade soup, particularly, it’s really nice… it just feels restorative.”
Leitha’s rootedness in the rational and simplistic has persisted through the many different stages of her life—including a childhood spent on a family farm in South Dakota, culinary school in New York City, and work as a cook, followed by ten years as food blogger. Her early memories on the farm undoubtedly shaped her passion for locally sourced ingredients, and studying to become a chef gave her the tools she needed to get in tune with the natural rhythms of the cooking processes she uses. Nowadays, as Leitha’s story continues, living in Germany has made it easier to align with the food values she’s accumulated thus far.
“I like food that’s easy to understand.”
“Things just make a lot of sense when you eat the foods that everyone else is eating at the time when they are eating them. It helps you to connect to the culture and the place that you’re in. One of the things I really enjoy about living in Germany is the way that at the start of spring it’s spargelzeit! Everyone is eating asparagus, and the next season is strawberries. Suddenly, there are these little strawberry huts that are popping up all over the city. One of the interesting things I find about Berlin is that it’s all kind of uniformly agreed upon by everyone.”
Each Sunday soup is preceded by a trip to the market the day before, an equally important part of a broader routine that syncs with local producers and cultural currents. Coming to buy meat and produce from the same individuals each Saturday at the farmer’s market has fostered ongoing relationships with people in her community as well. As she spoke about this, it became clear how crucial this sense of reciprocity was to her health and wellbeing, at least as much as the food itself. The farmers even save the bruised and damaged tomatoes for her because they know she loves to can them. Of another farmer she explains, “We buy his yogurt, his milk, his cheese directly, and we’ve been out to visit his farm. It’s an Økodorf [eco-village], and they have an annual festival in the autumn. It was pretty idyllic and yeah, I feel really great about getting my food from there.”
She considers integrity to be at the foundation of what makes a given food nutritious. People have different ideas about what healthy food is, and for Leitha, it is derived from fresh, ingredients that have, by the best of her judgment, been raised correctly. She remarks that there’s a lot of bad information out there regarding what we should be eating. “There’s lots of food promises, especially surrounding packaged foods, and ‘superfoods’ are no exception. It’s almost like fashion, where people switch ingredients each year due to market campaigns.”
“My formula for healthy food is, what have people been eating for a long time?”
Leitha’s own food journey of trial and error has taught her that discerning what makes her feel good extends beyond the physical. There is a strong ethical component to her approach to eating, and she aims for her food to provide psychological and emotional sustenance as well. “I look to the power of fruits and vegetables and fresh, well-raised meats for nourishment–especially things where I can ask about where they come from.” For her, this comes in the form of getting closer to who raises her food and what she’s able to communicate with others through the things she creates in the kitchen.
She views discerning this as an ongoing affair, something that requires patience and paying careful attention to the body. For her, the path certainly hasn’t been without its bumps and detours. Just as with the cooking processes themselves, Leitha takes an approach to life with diligence, and flexibility. In so doing, she advises the rest of us, “Do the best you can. Find what makes you feel vital. At the end of the day, how well I eat affects my entire life.”