Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dinosaurs and Pizza Pie


   Two and nearly weaned Arthur spends half day once a week in my mother’s care. She comes to our house and I go off to market or do the laundry, or do nothing except make myself scarce otherwise he cries and clings and her visit is for naught.  
     Most weeks they walk to Pizzatown for slices. The pizza man cuts Arthur’s slice into bitesized pieces with his rolling cutter thing while mom folds her slice dabbing excess oil. Between bites she holds a paper cone of water to Arthur’s lips then rests it in the dented metal cup holder. She sips root beer and lets Arthur have a sip. I called Arthur the other day--a quarter century gone by and asked what he remembers of this time; it is the root beer.  
     When Arthur’s face and hands have been wiped they linger by the painted horse that  sings ‘It’s A Small World After All’ and Arthur rides and asks to ride again and sometimes Mom lets him. She twists a quarter in a gum ball dispenser filled with superballs and Arthur open the little door and catches the ball and carries it back up the block grasped tight in his little hands, his hands to his heart. 
    Arthur naps, mom reads the paper, after nap they play their game. They collect all the pillows from all the beds, couches, kitchen chairs, up and down the stairs, and then Babu (what Arthur calls her) buries Arthur under the pillows on the playroom couch making sure every bit of him is covered. She waits and waits and talks about waiting and waiting until Arthur can’t stand it anymore and slowly wiggles under the pillow heap. A foot emerges, an elbow and my mother coos in quiet wonder, then roaring and gnashing his teeth, arms curled into Tyrannosaurus hooks, Arthur crashes out scattering pillows in his wake. “Oh my, oh my” Babu frights, “so strong, so brave” and then they gather the pillows and begin again. In this way they while away the afternoon, in dead seriousness, no laughter, only crashing and roaring and gnashing of teeth. 
     She let him repeat this to his hearts content whereas I would have gone crazy from tedium after two or three rounds, and every time as we are putting away the pillows while Arthur is watching a video or having a snack, she explains with delight how the game is 'separation and individuation' made manifest. “His fierceness,” she exclaims, “his earnestness, wonderful”.
     When I was little we played a game on her bed, tumbling in her pillows and covers. The aim was to kiss each other’s gillygilly, our name for bellybutton. The one being kissed used hands, shoulders, pillows and shouts, anything that would prevent the kisser from reaching this goal. Mom was stronger but still I got her, and she got me. I could play this endlessly and have hardly since laughed so hard or worked with such determination as I did during the game’s repetitions. I laughed till it hurt. This is the loudest I remember us. In the game my mother and I are matched warriors locked in battle, quite different from the hatchling Arthur on his path towards independence. I had not been encouraged towards individuation. I was rewarded for staying entwined. 
     I am remembering these games while thinking about why cooking above all engages me with the fervor of child’s play, where I want to do it over and over, never tiring of repetition because every time it is new. Of course colors, tastes, variations, gratification, but I think it is that every dish holds a promise, as if this dish on this day will be exemplary and my abilities fully realized, and sometimes it is, sometimes I do achieve that, but it doesn’t last. The next day comes and with it another dish and I am the hatchling, fiercely, bravely emerging. My joy lies in the process, in the making. I want to feel it over and over, and I get to in the next meal and the next, the food becoming my patient loving mother who allows me to emerge. 
     Writing these words I see how immature a desire this is, forever hatching, but never becoming a grown dinosaur ready for adventures, leaving my mother behind.
     My mother cooked for solace. She made affordable fresh food and took few risks. She wasn’t particularly creative, there were few flourishes, it was as if pride had no place. She made honest uncomplicated food she could count on. Today’s chicken which was as good as last week’s would be good next time too--it didn’t matter if it was flavored with lemon or soy sauce or any other variation. It was the steadiness that soothed her and it was what I came to understand as love.
     This project of cooking dishes to find her again, tasting foods I associate with her, I haven’t found the joy filled mother I long for, instead I keep banging up against her sadness. The sadness was in her, its cloud enveloped her. She couldn’t climb out of it. She didn’t explain it. She didn’t love me enough to let it go. I couldn’t rescue her.  Shame, hurt and rage got bundled together and tucked inside of me. Like mother, like daughter I suppose. 
    That banished bundle bangs at my inner door, "Let me out, let me out." Whenever I speak I am talking over her noise. If you get close enough to where I think you might hear her too, I shoo you away. Like mother, like daughter I suppose. 
     I learned from my mother that making supper quiets the banging. The rhythm of the knife striking the cutting board, the sizzle of a sear. Scent and clatter soothes that beast. 
     Have my sons bundled their hurts inside themselves too? I can pick out behaviors in each of them that tells me this is so. Making suppers soothed me, maybe helping me to be a better mother. The way I fed them pleased and satisfied their hunger and it let them know my love, but it didn’t protect any of us from sadness. Will writing these words help open our doors? 
Once my boys were old enough to navigate the kitchen we made pizza once a week. Sometimes I’d make dough from scratch but I never figured out a recipe that was so much tastier than frozen supermarket dough to merit the extra work. Another possibility is to ask a local pizzeria to sell you a ball or two of dough. In our household instead of one big pizza each person rolled and topped their own mini pizza. One ball of store-bought dough can be divided to make three or four small pies. 

Patting, slapping, rolling, Arthur mastered throwing and spinning the disc in the air to stretch the dough. Whatever your technique, gluten in the dough seizes and the rolled dough contracts. To combat this roll the ball once (on top of a well floured board) let it rest 10-15 minutes and then roll it again. We like the crust rolled as thin as you can get it, and who cares if it come out round. Cover the discs with a clean dry towel so they don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, prepare the toppings, putting each one in a separate little bowl: sauté crimini mushrooms. Sauté spinach just enough to wilt it. Thinly slice some shallots. Slice a load of garlic and sauté in olive oil just enough to soften. Slice pepperoni or better yet tear strips of prosciutto. The list can go on and on: thinly sliced fennel, sliced fresh fig (or macerated dried ones), pitted olives, artichoke hearts, grilled strips of zucchini sprinkled with lemon zest, etc, etc. You want enough choices so each person can make a truly unique pizza. The thing to remember is to not overload your pie--you want each bite's ingredients to sing--you don't want a mountain of glop. 

Pull apart a ball of mozzarella cheese, the fresher the better. Drain some fresh ricotta. Shave a hard nutty cheese for balance; Parmesan, Manchego or even sharp cheddar. I use strained, pureed imported tomatoes but pretty much any sauce will do as you don’t use much of it, just stay away from ones that are full of sugar or additives because they taste bad, or ones that are too watery because you don’t want the dough getting all soggy.

Turn the oven up as high as it will go. Let it preheat a good half hour. If you have a pizza stone, great, if not, a sheet pan turned upside down will do. Let the stone or pan, or even a cast iron skillet get searing hot.

Transfer one disc of rolled dough to a rimless cookie sheet sprinkled generously with cornmeal. Shake the sheet back and forth to make sure the dough isn’t sticking. If it sticks, add more cornmeal. The dough must be able to slide with ease from the cookie sheet onto the burning hot pizza stone.  

Take a tablespoon of sauce and swirl it on to you dough, leaving a small un-sauced boarder. This is important because if the sauce dribbles onto the cookie sheet it will be harder to slide the pizza into the oven. Lay on some cheese—one kind or all three, or maybe you want a ‘white’ pizza, in which case leave off the sauce. Same thing with whichever toppings you choose. Use restraint. Distribute them equally across the surface. Wiggle the pan making sure the pizza still slides freely. Right before putting the pizza in the oven, guild the lily with a drizzle of high quality extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and a few grindings of black pepper. 

Only top your pizza when you are ready to put it in the oven! If you top it too soon before baking the moisture of the toppings makes the pizza stick to the cookie sheet and it gets super hard to transfer onto the hot pizza stone. Open you oven door, pull out the shelf with the stone on it as far as it safely pulls out and then wriggle the topped pizza onto the stone. Don’t worry that cornmeal flakes fall in the oven, they will quickly burn up. Don’t worry about making a bit of a mess. Keep an eye on your pizza, in 5 - 10 minutes tops you will have some blistering and char. Push it another minute past that and then using an offset spatula, coax the cooked pizza onto a plate (which you should have in your other hand, right at the edge of the stove shelf… I say this because trying to balance and lift the pizza from the stone without the plate at the ready can easily lead to disaster!) Let the pizza cool for a few minutes, otherwise all the toppings slide off in a mess. While the pizza is cooling, ready the next round of dough for the oven.

The best part is using the pizza wheel to cut slices for everyone to taste from each pizza. Before cutting, toss a few whole basil leaves on top of the warm pizza, or a handful of arugula, or a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. 

This is a meal we eat standing around, in fits and starts, everyone working and eating and talking, everyone contributing, everyone sharing each others pie.

Good side dishes include salad, sautéed broccoli rabe, seared Italian sausages (cook them in a cast iron skillet in the oven while the oven heats up) etc., etc.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Ashes and Kisses

  I head home for a break from my vigil. My mother is in hospice and unresponsive. It is only a matter of time. Putting my key in the door the phone rings. It’s Joe. He just says my name, and I know, and I turn around and get back on the train. Forty minutes to, forty fro and in that time nothing dramatic, nothing anyone can see. Just a pebble dropped in the ocean making ripples in the waves. The earth suddenly different. 
     I stand at the foot of my mother’s bed. The angle of sun sets the tangle of bed sheets aglow. She lies dead still, mouth agape, waxen, all the cliches that describes a corpse. I snap her picture and put it on Facebook and later take slack for having posted it. Maybe the picture was too raw.
     Five days later, on Halloween, I retrieve her ashes. She is in a box heavier than I’d imagined. The box is in a bag slung over my shoulder. It looks like any other bag except for the crematorium’s logo which is printed tastefully in gold. The streets crawl with ghosts and ghouls ready to parade, Instead of crying I am laughing at my secret package, walking to the subway carrying bones through the crowds.
     Joe tells me when his time comes he wants his ashes mingled with my mother’s and sprinkled in the water near the base of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll honor his request though dumping bones in a public place without a permit is against the law. I’ll treat it as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. I’ll charter a boat and pray the skipper doesn’t mind. 
     Joe doesn’t consider what I might want to mark my mother’s passing. Now she has been on my bookshelf for nearly two years. She sits in her green plastic box like she sat parked in her wheelchair, wishing to be free. I think of her while cooking and writing these stories, but forget she is tucked among my books. When I remember I feel how I felt after I left home when I forgot to call on her birthday, thoughtless and rotten and for a day or two I talk to the recriminating ashes. 
     It took seven years before my brother-in-law was ready to relinquish my sister’s ashes. He too didn’t ask what I might want to mark her death, as if we weren’t blood, as if my voice were of no concern. I know now—holding bones too long is wrong.
     The day before my mother’s memorial  gathering, a month after her death, my niece and nephew and my kids were in town, and because I pushed, Paul and his second wife who was my sister’s best friend, and the rest of us trekked to the Rockaways to put my sister in the ocean. My nephew wailed as the ashes drifted through his fingers. I watched him, hoping to learn by example. I haven’t yet let myself cry. 
     The sun was shinning white gold and silver cold. Wind whistled and sand flew on its breath, stinging our skin. Ashes gone, we walked to my sister’s favorite bar.
     When my sister was already quite sick she wanted to visit our father’s grave. We hadn’t been since we’d buried him in 1977. My half sister Lisa insisted she remembered where the headstone was but all the paths looked the same. We found the office and asked for help. The man opened a wooden drawer and pulled out a yellowed index card with my father's coordinates written in ballpoint pen. He unfolded a map with faded, illegible lines that showed us where to walk. Graveside Karen and Lisa cried. I kept my distance but then took a pencil and scrap of paper and made a rubbing of his name.

     Thoughts of one death stir memories of the rest. I’m reading a stack of mourning memoirs; everyone’s grief different. One author had her mother exhumed, had the corpse cremated and flown across the country. In the last chapter she carries the ashes into the ocean. Reading her words I decide to split my mother. I’ll take half and give Joe the rest. I’ll put my half in the ocean with my sister, or maybe half my half and put the rest in my garden come spring. 
     On the night of my mother’s second yahrzeit I slit the golden sticker that seals the box and find I need a tool to pry off the lid. I’m burying my head in the toolbox looking for a screwdriver, praying no one catches me. I’m squirreling back to my bedroom and closing my door. I’m pouring ash into a brown paper bag, a little spills on my duvet.
     On that day on the jetty in the Rockaways, I’d grabbed a handful of my sister’s bones. The feel of her stayed on my hand a long, long time. No amount of washing would take away the feeling, so I am tiptoeing down the stairs and up again with the dust broom so I don’t have to touch the ash I’ve spilled on my bed, sweeping my mother into the dustpan like so many crumbs. 
     I empty the pan out the window. Her tiny spilled particles are flying towards the old Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, by whose clock in the 40s she’d gauge her rush to be on time for Shabbos candle lighting. By whose clock in the 90s I’d mark time between nighttime nursings. Tonight too, the clock’s illuminated hands tick by.

     On this day the air is brisk. It is Halloween. Mom is packed inside my bag next to a towel and we are grabbing coffee on our way to the 8:05 to Bay Shore and from there, a taxi to the Fire Island ferry to Ocean Beach. On the smooth crossing I’m filled with the joy I felt riding that ferry as a girl. The deck hands would leap to the dock before the boat stopped moving and tie the ropes around posts to secure us. We’d disembark and load our bags on a wagon and I was lucky and would climb atop and my mother would pull me along. 
     On this off season day the shops on Bayview Walk are closed, but the swings where we licked Fudgsicles at sunset on the bay are right where we left them. I am carrying my mother and we wend our way to Midway Walk, then one more block to Oceanview where wooden steps climb the dunes. 
     Wisps of silver cloud startle against cerulean sky. The sunshine is cold and pale. Jeep tracks furrow sand as far as one can see. At shoreline, seagulls stand on one leg facing the wind while sandpipers scurry, pecking. Shedding shoes, rolling pants cuffs, and wading mid-calf, the water is warmer than the air. 
     Crashing fast at random interval, gunmetal waves roar. Beached sea foam deposits pulse like beating hearts. Wind tears apart the heart and quivering pieces fly. I bend to capture this up close and a gust blows my bag, which knocks my arm, which fumbles my phone, which sinks under an incoming wave. “Fuck” I say. Maybe this is a sign to be present in these fleeting moments instead of posturing for social media. But maybe it is another sign. When I find my phone  the underwater blur has been miraculously captured. Maybe my mother has rescued my phone. The phone now baptized and still working, is ready to immortalize her ashes as they wash out to sea.  

     With a pocketful of polished purple shells and sand between my toes I am rushing to catch the ferry; buoyant, rejuvenated, relieved. I have done the right thing. I know my mother would be happy. She was not happy for so long. She would be happy now. 
     My head rests against the window on the train, I am watching low warehouses speed by. The window is overlaid with reflections from inside the car; ghosts and goblins hunching over phones. My eyes drift shut. 

     Now I am in the station swimming against the stream of commuters dashing for rush hour trains. Now I am on the subway. Now, again, I am putting my key in the door.
     The tin of Barton’s Almond Kisses forgotten on my pantry shelf jumps into focus. Of course I would see these now, my mother’s favorite special occasion chocolate and almond caramels.
     I was so uncomfortable at her memorial, put off by everyone for their unconflicted testimonial. I was tongue-tied and wrestling with emotions I couldn’t name. I busied myself in the kitchen filling platters until the crowd thinned. I missed out on the Kisses. I’d taken such care to have them there. They’d been an effort to find. I had to go downtown to buy them. Weeks later after the memorial, I went downtown again and bought another tin but the proper occasion to open them never arrived. 
     Now I am greedily opening these stale caramels. Now I am tasting the candy and realizing it isn’t special, that it’s disappointing, that I could make these better. I can do many things my mother never did, including master caramel.  
     It is a crazy tiny margin of a few degrees between soft and hard that makes the candy right. Clipped to the pot the candy thermometer is difficult to read. Its numbers clouded by steam, and only a particular angle reveals the mercury rising. Maybe the thermometer isn’t accurate. Maybe you need to learn by intuition. Sugar boils furiously careening towards burnt. Added cream splatters and threatens to boil over. It is inevitable you’ll be burned, and sticky, so sticky, and that is a joy. 

Monday, October 2, 2017


 My hands gather egg dampened potato shreds, gently compressing, flipping top to bottom to shape the pancake; like how a nona shapes meatballs, like a tortillera, masa. Calculating and adjusting and at the same time reflexive. I’m mouthing a silent prayer the latkes won’t disintegrate when they hit the shimmering oil—as if I’m not sure the recipe works and a lifetime of experience is naught—as if I were embarking on the unknown. I suppose I am. The image of my mother is fading. I see differently. All is as has been but in new light.
   It is the end of summer and latkes browning scents my house with unsettling holiday cheer. These latkes may well complete my mother’s culinary repertoire excepting for her braised cow tongue with disgusting raisin sauce I cannot bring myself to cook. I’ve spent almost two years cooking her dishes, letting the food lead me to feelings I had hardly dare explore before she died. I wanted the food to paint her portrait, all sunshine with me basking in her warmth, instead I’m standing under clouds, worring about what I’ve passed to my sons. 
   Death lingers in the air. Many of my friends mother’s are dying or have died and we are becoming the old ones. Our mother’s deaths is a topic we comb intently. They get teary. I am dry-eyed and wearying of this cooking and combing. Then along comes something simple—cradling a potato in one hand, the peeler poised in the other. Suddenly I am missing her with my heart, in my mind, my cells. The longing stops time.
   Jews make latkes during Hanukah not for potatoes but for the oil they are fried in. Here is the story--at the time of the rededication of the desecrated temple, after defeating idolater oppressors, ancient Maccabean’s found themselves with only a days worth of oil to rekindle the eternal flame. Miraculously the oil lasted eight. Miracles demand faith. What’s fried in memoriam differs around the world. Potatoes were popularized by marauding Conquistadors. Latkes here were brought by my forebears, a tasty treat carried from cold steppes. In my mother’s house latkes were a tradition, the one thing we cooked religiously year after year. Tradition carries weight, or maybe its weightless, like carrying a ghost.
   My mother used an old aluminum box grater. Helping her led to bloodied knuckles and stinging, onion induced tears. She had no recipe, only ratios; potato, onion, egg, a sprinkling of flour, then deft adjustments in the pan; number of latkes to depth of oil to the intensity of flame. Together in the kitchen we shared little talk, it never strayed to her parents or aunties. Her family fled with nothing towards the New World, she was just a baby, no one told her anything, but surely she must have overheard their dreams. Without stories there was only the two of us. I wanted our time to last forever. Only now it occurs to me to wonder what she didn’t tell. Stories are lamps in the dark. Without light it is hard to find my way. 
   Fresh from the pan, drained on torn brown paper to absorb excess oil, topped with apple sauce and sour cream, I eat the latkes out-of-hand, burning fingers and roof of mouth, one after another in rapid succession until uncomfortably full, filling something deeper than hunger, talisman against loss. I dash off emails to cousins. “Do you make latkes, did your mother teach you, did she tell you anything?” “Ah, yes, latkes” they reply. Everyone loves them, yet no one has stories to share, no one seems bothered. Alone I am twisting to peek behind myself, searching for hands at my back. I am lighting a wick, open to miracles, praying there’s oil enough to light my way.

   One of my sons embraced latke making. He’d help twist the potato shreds in a kitchen towel to squeeze out their water. Soon his strength superseded mine and he became sole twister, catching the water in a bowl so the potato starch could sink to the bottom, then the water poured off and the starch retrieved to bind the shreds we’d grated in a food processor. That is the trick of latkes, to bind the shreds without weighing them down. Soon he could form and slip the latkes into boiling oil and flip them, braving the blistering splatters. Asked what he remembers it is that each year he became more adept, his competence was praised. Latkes measured time. Only now I realize I’ve kept the recipe to myself, that year after year I proportion the batter for him, as if revealing the recipe I might lose him too.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wok Hay


     Remarried, my mother closed the door to her room which suit me just fine. Weekends, she and my stepfather drove to their country house leaving me on my own. This distance was good and bad at a time in my life of pushing and pulling. I suffered as teens do, worrying about short legs, hypocrisy and belonging. I combed my hair to hide my pimpled face, leaned forward to show off cleavage in lieu of valid ID, chain-smoked and ordered cocktails in Soho bars. To strains of Patti Smith my friends and I fretted the threat of nuclear annihilation and bemoaned the impossibility of orgasming during intercourse. And then the holidays came and I got a wok. A fabulous carbon steel vessel that occasioned trips to Chinatown for hoisin, fresh ginger and fermented black beans. The whole enterprise independent from dull prying parental eyes or fraught competitive romancing and college applications. 
      In my mother’s kitchen the perimeter of the cutting board was supposed to contain all mess. Implements and mixing bowls were rinsed as soon as they were sullied and swiftly put away. She’d pare and trim vegetables cradled in her palm. She'd mix the vegetables with hefty chunks of meat into a battered aluminum pot to slowly break apart. Inside the pot things reduced and intensified. She simmered, adjusting the flame accordingly. She kept the lid on, barely ajar. 
     With the advent of the wok I learned to make symmetrical cuts. Matchsticks or dices or diagonal slices were strewn across the counter. Seasonings and sauces filled a multitude of bowls. Who knew meat’s grain should be cut against, or that embryonic corn came canned. A teaspoon of water mixed with two of cornstarch thickened sauce to silk. Balanced on a ring above the burner, blue flames licked the bottom of the wok till it was just this side of combustion. Then, diving in rapid succession, the colorful matchsticks cried out a sizzle clinging to their identities but forever changed as they Cha-chaed in the searing madcap tempest inside the open expanse of pan. Wok hay, a Cantonese term loosely meaning ‘the spirit’ or ‘breath’ of the wok infused the food with fire and steel. 
     That September I took the wok when I left for college and rest it wobbling on an electric burner in the dusty dormitory kitchenette down the hall from my room. Late at night as tonic against homesickness, using ingredients snatched from the cafeteria, I’d stir fry rice. 
     During winter-session, jonesing for the fresh vegetables I’d taken for granted at home, I badgered the dining hall chef into letting me make a vegetable dish once a week to add to the steam table line. It was a brave new world entering his kitchen on Mondays at four. The rush of clatter, the dizzying arc of the clamp-on can-opener opening #10 cans of chickpeas to curry in the 28 qt. rondeau. Chef smugly watching, Chef’s gaze burning through the back of my skull as I struggled to heft the unwieldy pan. Subsequent weeks I brought the wok and stir-fried. 
     Spring semester came. Even though I wasn’t supposed to I moved off-campus into an apartment a few blocks from school. In my new kitchen the wok took pride of place and feasts ensued. Multiple dishes dashed in rapid succession for clambering coeds; the choreography of feeding a crowd my dance of independence.

     Arriving to Ellis Island in 1928 my maternal grandparents never learned English. My grandfather dovened with a minion of landsmen in a storefront shtiebel and manufactured menswear on the Lower Eastside. He moved his family from tenement to tenement chasing rent deals. Seven beds crammed in stuffy rooms and for extra cash cousin Marvin on the living room couch. Mom went to Brooklyn College at 15 where she excelled in math but studied education. She was shy and lived at home and took care of her mother who was dying from cancer. 
    I never heard the details of my parents courtship. They’d divorced by the time I began to wonder and then anything my mother said about my father was muttered under breath. When they met, my father was a rabbinical student. He was ambitious, fiery, flirtatious; my mother never understood what he saw in her. The answer is he didn’t see her, only himself in her dark sad eyes. Their marriage lasted 10 years and all that time he carried on. While my mother was pregnant with me he was already chasing the blonde shiksa who became his second wife.

     I graduated in 1979 and spent half dozen years juggling being an artist with day jobs to pay the rent--waiting tables and restoring folk art. Approaching thirty and trying to be responsible I took a professional cooking course, then landed a job in a hospital cooking for a medical diet study. Working with a nutritionist in a kitchen filled with test tubes and gram scales I stumbled upon my husband-to-be, a medicine fellow studying kidneys. Our first date we went to the movies. He sobbed through the film like a baby. We went to Chinatown for dim sum. He used a knife and fork to eat a pork bun because he doesn’t like to touch food. I didn't notice he was filled with rage or that anxiety had him in a chokehold that would tighten with every passing year. We married. We honeymooned in Spain. We visited Paris. We ate at starred restaurants and drank the expensive recommendations of the sommeliers. And without questioning or hesitating, as if preordained, I pushed the wok aside for the slow-cooked braises of Cuisine Bourgeois--in other words, my mother's stews. Our marriage lasted 10 years. All the while I simmered. Inside the pot everything intensified. I kept the lid on, barely ajar.
     A pot is not a harbinger but maybe it is. The way we cook, the way we organize to nourish is a window to the soul. Friends and family remind me how my mother’s eyes twinkled when she smiled. They mention her wry wit and that she listened in such a way as to make them feel special. I got a different legacy. I carry her sadness and darkness. When she is a lump in my throat I rest my hand across my clavicles and think how she pushed beyond a stifling upbringing and left a loveless marriage at a time women were stigmatized by divorce. She was brave, a survivor, but things unfolded that held her down. When she became ill it was a slow unbearable reduction. With lid ajar fleeting wisps of her escaped and dissipated. I stood by her as always. I’d like to believe she willed her death, that it was a last defiant act, but it is also true that when she died there was nothing left.

I wish for her as for myself
Lift the lid. 
Raise the flame till this side of combustion. 
Cha-cha in the tempest.

Fried Rice with Scrambled Eggs
American style fried rice loads on additional ingredients, making a simple Chinese solution for left-over rice into some kind of extravagance. Sometimes in addition to what I’ve mentioned here I’ll add cashews or switch it up with Thai basil, diced pineapple and a dash of fish sauce. Add whatever you have on hand—the sky’s the limit as long as it cooks quickly. The whole enterprise should be quick so that the rice doesn’t turn to mush and the vegetables retain a bite.

2-3 cups cooked rice (I prefer Jasmine)
3 t vegetable oil (divided)
1-2 cups additional vegetables including: scallion, shiitake, snow peas, broccoli, etc.  
3/4 cup diced cooked meat including: pork/ham/Chinese sausage/chicken/beef/shrimp or tofu (optional)
1” knob of ginger 
1 lg. clove garlic 
1 smallish knob fresh turmeric
2 eggs
a handful of finely sliced scallion greens (use the remainder as part of the additional vegetables)
salt, pepper to taste

Cut whatever vegetables you’re using into evenly sized “matchsticks” or small pieces and set aside.  
Peel ginger, garlic and turmeric, thinly slice then stack the slices and cut into fine shreds, set aside. 
Break eggs into a small bowl, mix well, set aside.
Heat wok until very hot. Drizzle 2 t. oil down the sides of the wok. 
Add the vegetables. Stir the vegetables so that the ones on the bottom come up to the top, almost as if you were flipping them. Continue stirring 2 minutes until the vegetables are barely cooked. If you are using a variety of vegetables, stager how you add them to the wok—what needs the most cooking, say small pieces of broccoli, should be added first and what needs the least, say snow pea pods, last. You want the vegetables to retain some crunch. 
Add the ginger, garlic and turmeric. Stir fry 1 minute more. 
Add cooked meat (if using) and stir fry 1 minute more. 
Add the cooked rice, breaking up any lumps with your fingers. Stir fry and additional 1-2 minutes then make a well in the center of the rice. 
Add remaining teaspoon of oil. Pour beaten egg into the well and cook undisturbed for 1 minute. Stir eggs and then gradually stir rice and eggs together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with scallion greens. If you’d like, serve with soy sauce and Sriracha on the side. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Canard á l’Orange

    Chicken, steak, fish panfried and drowned in tartare sauce, interspersed with toaster-oven pizzas or spaghetti and pennies saved. Vegetables followed seasons. There was plenty. Our ups and downs were not about food. Still, the occasional exotic dish felt inexplicable and disgusting. Calves liver, cow’s tongue, and boiled flanken with barley I interpreted as hostility. There was no place allowing my mother pleasure in anything other than what I approved.  
    I traveled by subway and bus downtown to junior high, crosstown for the orthodontist. What was important was staying up late to watch Laugh-In, or that on Thursdays after drama class my friend Julie and I would go all by ourselves to Blimpies for a hero topped  with shredded iceberg , pickled jalapeños and mayonnaise. 
     Week-ends were for sleepovers. I don’t remember the meals at my friends houses or what they ate at mine but I do remember our giggly caresses as we played ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ under the covers during long sleepless nights, drifting off, then waking near noon for French toast and bacon smothered in Log Cabin syrup.
     What changed my world was the Canard á l’Orange from a restaurant called The Library. We'd pass from the familiar lights of Broadway through a forest of fern overhanging the heavy wooden door. We’d navigate past a long dark bar to the backroom which was a maze of bookshelves holding real books. Tables were tucked between the books. We’d pick a table, pick a book, read out loud. It was a treat, the whole thing, every part. 
     How did I love thee? Mahogany, shatteringly crisp skin taught over melting flesh. Sticky sweet glaze and salty fat soiling eager fingers and lips. Gilded, elegant, French; everything my mother was not. She never made duck. With its lousy bone to meat ratio and abundant fat it was not something it would've occurred to her, to us, you could make at home. 
     It wasn’t till much later, when I’d moved downtown after college that I’d stride with bravado to the butcher shop to ask for duck. At that time ‘New American’ and lite were all the rage and I switched allegiance to barely seared Magret breasts lacquered with star anise glaze, or  infused with lemon and thyme. I fancied myself a connoisseur forgetting ducks migrate only to fly back home. My lavish cooking might not be as different as I thought from my mother’s liver or pot au feu. Maybe, maybe when she made these things it was a throwback to her mother’s cooking, but just as likely she was trying something new. Maybe she had passions and hunger. Maybe she was having fun. I am only considering these possibilities now that she is gone. 
     When she died I started cooking her food as a way to remember. I gravitated towards dishes from when she was the center of my life. I needed to feel her close. I fell for Canard á l’Orange at the cusp of adolescence. It was not the Vindaloo or platanos maduros and cafe con leche that I preferred during full on teen-aged rebellion, the duck had heralded only the start of that long push away. That it’s in my mind now is fitting. My mother is gone a year. She is slipping from my grasp. The things I never got to know and didn’t think to ask, things I have forgotten, the things that won’t happen or will happen but without her weigh heavier then she herself.
     I went out and bought a duck, available as if it were nothing special at the Key Food down the street.That duck and I slow-danced griefs’ stages; denial it was in the fridge, regret I had bought it, anger that if I didn’t get it cooked it would go bad. It was the thought of dousing the duck with all that sweetness that slowed me down and tripped me up. What was it I had liked anyway, why bring back something so long gone? Taste and memory and the person remembering changes. What is remembered isn’t necessarily what was, sometimes it is just a wish. After a week in the fridge when it was just on the edge I cut off the duck’s legs and stuck them in the freezer. I boiled the carcass and made soup.
     Later I bought another duck, cut it in half, added one leg to the legs in the freezer, defrosted the old breast and added it to the new breast to quickly sauté. The other whole half of the duck I pricked with a knife to release the fat and while it roasted skimmed half a dozen recipes for sauce. Concentrate or freshly squeezed juice and julienned zest simmered with way too much brown or white sugar, or honey, sherry vinegar or cider vinegar, Grand Marnier or marmalade. Once the dish was the sexiest I’d tasted then it became quaint, now it seems lurid. 
    Everything changes. Pieces are missing. There is no one to ask. Grief arrives regularly but what am I grieving? What is it I long for? A token really, I’d like to hear my mother say my name. 
     Busyness is soothing. Cooking recalls the past but requires attention now. At supper the crisp meltingly tender half lay by a rosy breast, au naturel, the orange sauce abandoned to memory, the meal a map, history made better having been stripped bare.   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

flour, water, salt, yeast

Jasper Johns "Bread" 1969

     After school, week-ends, every spare minute I am at the pottery throwing pots, dreaming I’ll apprentice with a stern Japanese master and my life will be set. At home in my mother’s kitchen with floury hands, palms pushing, lifting, folding, turning, I practice Japanese spiral wedging technique on warm yeasty dough. The repetitive motion burns my burgeoning triceps. I see my arms as I imagine them seen, in doing I am also posing. With each thrust braless nipples graze the inside of my sleeveless tank top. My hips gently rock. Black curls sway.
     Kneading develops wheat’s tightly curled proteins. The proteins lie dormant until hydrated and prodded by floured hands. There is no hurrying the process. Awakened proteins unfurl and tangle, weaving a lattice that traps the yeasts breath enabling the bread to rise. 
     In my kitchen now a mixer does this labor but when my hands gather the shaggy dough I feel that seventeen year old; not time’s passage but the actual girl, as if we are nesting dolls. My hands shape the dough into a crystal ball revealing widening, drooping, greying, also strength the girl didn’t yet know. And I am not sure, is that my own coming frailty or am I confusing myself with the image of mother’s deathbed repose seared on my mind’s eye. 
    The drying residue of dough makes my hands look like artifacts. I pick at the flour in the crevices of my nails and smile remembering that the most radical thing the girl-me’s hands ever held was my high school love. Such tender hands, tentatively probing and stroking until we’d swoon with desire. 
     My mother had recently remarried. They’d bought a weekend house in the countryside and drove off Friday afternoons leaving me behind. My life was in the city at the pottery and playing house, sleeping next to my lover in my parent’s double bed. The potters would come for supper on my parent’s new antique dining table. Thick soup in stoneware bowls, buttered bread, raucous chatter. We’d sip wine from hand thrown goblets that often tipped. Frantically I’d mop the spills least incriminating evidence greet my parents on their Sunday night return. 
     When the dough has doubled, punch down, pat flat, roll into a bundle to fit the lightly greased pan. It is like starting over. During the second rise the yeast ferments the dough. This contributes to the depth of flavor.
     To pass time the years I sat with my mother when she could no longer speak I’d inspect our hands side by side; hers yellowed, gnarled, curling in upon themselves. Mine are marked by callouses and cooking burns. No longer tender the skin appears crackled like porcelain glaze; the  lines tell a story. I’ve made pots, bread, love, lifted my babies, soothing or fussing. In a moment of drama I lifted a vase above my head, smashing it to bits at my husbands feet yelling “get out, get out” and he walked out the door. My hands held my sister when she took her last breath. They carried my mother’s ashes home.
     In the oven crust forms. The wheat’s natural sugars caramelize and the scent fills you with promise, the loaf becomes domed and golden. What was once dense and sticky has filled with air and grown buoyant. Turn the loaf from the pan, let it cool, let it rest.

     I’ve grasped my hurts, held them waiting and waiting and forgotten the joy. My mother did the same. Her hurts were our constant companion. She held them to her chest, stoic and silent. I do not know the half of her, yet she was my model. What now, shall I I opened my hands? This is mourning, sorrow instead of smoldering, and letting go. Maybe joy might rise, once, twice, and  from there, the chance to break bread. 


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Wave of Grief Takes Me By Surprise

Pablo Picasso, 1941

Mom didn’t trim her artichokes 
Though it might have been expected it was a nasty surprise 
When a leaf’s spiny tip pricked my finger drawing blood 
I learned to be wary
She guided my hand as I held the knife 
to cut out the tangle that guarded the heart
With her intent I do it now

After supper I cut a mango to share with my son
“Want to gnaw the pit?” “Nah, no pit”  
There was never mango in my mother’s kitchen
A wave of grief takes me by surprise
Then I remember a lifetime ago 
I mistook pit for seed and said,
“A man plants a pit in the woman to grow a baby”
My mother laughed, repeating my gaffe a million times

It’s good to remember her laughter