Years ago I dated a charming woman who took me home, for Sunday dinner, to meet her parents. Upon hearing that I had been a chef, her mother immediately scrapped the mac and cheese idea and put out her best meal: Turkey, stuffing, gravy, the works, in July. I remember that she sat nervously, watching me as I took in my first few bites. Now I am going to stop the story here. What happened next makes no difference at all. If you do not believe what I am about to tell you, then ask any cook or chef that you happen across and they will same the very same thing.
I love it when someone else cooks for me.
Here in lies the mystery and magic of cooking. As a child I was inspired by the food my mother prepared for us every night. My young body was constantly famished and there were only so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I could consume in a day to offset each growth spurt. My lovely mother, and you may recall my telling you this before, could burn water. Yet . . . I sat patiently at the table every evening, participated in voicing our family’s gratitude for the meal before us and almost always went back for seconds, even the liver and onions.
I grew up wanting to go grocery shopping with my mother and would ask her to wait until I got home from school so that we could go together. Funny thing, when we got there we always began by going down the right side of the store first. That was the produce aisle. Then we weaved up and down each remaining aisle until we had filled the cart and the list was finished. When I take friends shopping with me now I automatically repeat this routine with the invariable question being asked, “Are we going to walk every aisle?” “no . . . yes.”
The first, and most vivid memory, I have of those shopping trips was walking into the Lucky store immediately heading off toward the carrots and what-nots. “What’s on the list?” I would ask. “Go get some lettuce,” she would say. With apologies, I must stop the story again to share with you, what I recall, was the frame of reference for this 8 year old boy. In school, I can remember learning about objects and categories. Food is a category, a Snickers bar is an object. Lettuce is a category, (you pick your favorite) is an object.
“Go grab some lettuce,” my mom would say. “Which one?” I replied intelligently.
“They are all the same.” And they were. Picture this in your mind. The entire wall of the store was covered in open front refrigeration. The same kind used now to hold, display and sell produce. The first full half of the wall was Iceberg lettuce. Row upon row upon row. They were all lined up perfectly left to right, top to bottom, and only one layer deep so that when you took one that funny green plastic grass they were sitting on was exposed. In my mind I still see close to three cases of pale green Iceberg lettuce heads sitting there waiting, just waiting, nothing else.
Mystery and magic.
I also loved to help my mother cook and come the holidays, or anytime we visited grandparents, I would sneak into the kitchen and ask if I could help. Occasionally I would be allowed to peel potatoes in the corner, most nights I was sent out to go play with my cousins. Still, I would tip toe back to the doorway and watch as my aunts and grandmothers would go back and forth about how much salt to add or did anyone put butter in the potatoes. The smells alone were intoxicating. By the time the meal hit the table I could barely contain myself. Patience, Grace, ladies first, politely ask for seconds. These times together are still my favorite memories. I could not have expressed it at the time but it was then that I decided to become a cook. Watching all the madness and bickering in the kitchen. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to deliver those amazing smells and tastes because I love it so much when someone else does that for me.
My parents and grandparents have all crossed the rainbow bridge, and I am long past being an 8 year old boy. But something happens to me every time I am invited over for dinner to someone’s house. That same little boy shows up flaring his nostrils, breathing in the goodness, and waiting for permission to have seconds. This holiday season there is a good chance that you will cook for someone whose food you admire or vice versa. Trust me when I tell you that the messy kitchen, the turkey that did not cook in time, the hair brushed back by a flour covered hand, the patience, Grace and politely asking for seconds, that is the mystery and the magic. Cooking for, and sharing a meal, with people that you care about, that is everything.
Until next time,
Eat Well and Smile Often