[A short story, by Laylah Muran de Assereto (1996, rev. 2020)]
Laurel always loved to cook. From her earliest years, the kitchen had been her playground. When she was six it was her job to sort out the broken beans and little stones from the pinto beans her father, Joseph, would make. Later that summer she graduated to smashing and peeling the garlic. She was so small she had to stand on a chair and push all her weight to mash the clove under the flat side of the six-inch chef’s knife. Her father had developed a system of measurements for teaching her recipes at such a young age, she was too young to work with ounces, cups, quarts, tablespoons, and such, and so he divided it into “long pour” and “short pour,” “dad sized pinch,” and “kid-sized pinch,” small blue cup with the little flower on its side, and large coffee mug with a picture of the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live. Rice was one small cup of rice and two small cups of water. Mexican beans was half an onion cut in half again, four cloves garlic mashed, one small cup of pinto beans (sorted of course), two dad-sized pinches of salt, and two Conehead cups of water.
After her father passed away, Gwen, one of his best friends, asked for some of his recipes. She had been asking him for years to write them down, but he never got around to it. Laurel suspected that there was some reluctance to do it as well. Everyone was always asking him for his recipes and he rarely obliged. Laurel looked through her index cards, notebook papers, and little recipe book and found many of the recipes she’d learned to make over the years, the papers stained with turmeric, peanut oil, and roasted tomato.
Arroz Gualdo, “Yellow Rice”: Little palm-full of achiote, big palm-full of cumin toasted in a dry pan until they dance, and eight black peppercorns, toss in the mortar and grind as fine as espresso. …
And so on. All of the recipes she’d learned before she was twelve looked like this. By the time she was thirteen they had developed a shorthand that made reference to other recipes, and they frequently hadn’t written down the most routine steps, with the understanding that she would remember. It just wouldn’t feel right if the steps were skipped. That was the key, how it felt. It was like dancing; your body remembered most of it for you. If all was done correctly, the measurement would satisfy your muscles, the texture would seduce your tongue, the colors would amuse you, the smells would engage your imagination, and the taste would be enjoyable. You’d know immediately if it was off because your body would feel unbalanced. If it was wrong, the smell would tickle the back of your skull, the taste would irritate your memory, the color would be disturbing, your muscles would feel uneven.
“Gwen, they won’t make sense to you. I don’t even know what the real measurements are, it’s all written in the terms dad used with me, you know, ‘long-pour’, ‘short-pour’, things like that. I would have to make the recipe and measure everything out and write it down, and even then, I don’t know, it’s a sensory thing, ya know?”
Gwen hadn’t known. Gwen was distraught that the only thing she’d wanted from her closest friend of twenty years she couldn’t get because his daughter didn’t want to write it down for her. She wasn’t insensitive to Laurel’s position, but she was three thousand miles away, completely cut off from her connections with Joseph, and couldn’t grieve with the people he cherished. She was not comforted easily. She just wanted the recipes so she could make some of the dishes he had made, and in that way, be close to him again.
What Laurel couldn’t explain was that she was afraid to revisit those recipes too closely. The kitchen was an uncomfortable place; all the more painful because of the pleasure it had been. She didn’t cook anymore unless it was mindless, fast, uninteresting. Or she had constant company to distract her while she worked. Her body felt numb in the kitchen. She ate out now or her boyfriend, Ryan, cooked – something he also loved to do, so didn’t mind, though he missed sharing that time with her. After broaching the subject once, he’d let it go when she didn’t seem to know what he was talking about. “What do you mean? I cooked dinner last night,” she’d said with a puzzled expression. He decided not to mention that she’d cooked something fast, simple, and not really up to her normal standards. He understood what she wasn’t ready to talk about yet, but hoped she’d soon find her way back to what she loved so much.
A rash of small independent movies came out, all of them celebrating the glorious art of food. Laurel didn’t watch them. Some of her friends understood instinctively if not consciously and didn’t push it. But Ryan insisted they go to one that the critics were saying was a “visionary culinary delight that leaves you hungry for more.” Ryan was a food aficionado like herself (it had been what drew them together in the first place) and he pressed the point that it was his turn to pick a movie and she owed him for making him sit through an awful half-baked adventure-thriller the week before.
The movie was everything that she had feared it would be. Love in the form of cooking and the effect on everyone who came in contact with a true master of cuisine. The food itself was portrayed with loving appreciation by the script and the camera. It was treated as one of the main characters. As Laurel watched images of the actor-chef preparing the fantasy-feast, she couldn’t keep her own images in check.
Joseph’s hands fluttering over the cutting board as he chopped, sliced, arranged, and worked his magic on what at first had seemed simple vegetables and meats. His eyebrows would rise and fall, sometimes together and sometimes one at a time. He lightly mumbled his spells – inaudibly singing the melody to the rhythm his knife beat on the cutting board. He knowingly coaxed the flavors and aromas from the foods he prepared. Large calloused hands, moving with rapid intricacy, placed the now prepared spells into the pots and pans ready to release their power. Every now and then he would hurriedly point at the pantry, and request Laurel, age seven or fifteen or twenty, to bring him this or that ingredient. Maybe he would explain what he was doing. Maybe not.
Joseph, sitting at the kitchen table, coffee in hand, beaming love and pride at her, and laughing as Laurel, twenty-two, firmly reminded him that she was cooking; that he would just have to trust in what he had taught her. Later as he took the first bite of the meal she had prepared, his eyes closed, lids fluttering, and his hand dancing in the air as he mmmmm’d with delight. “Wonderful, just wonderful.”
Years of Sunday afternoons filled with pots and pans, spices, vegetables and meats, flavors and smells, streamed before Laurel’s eyes while the images flicked across the screen.
The next weekend and for several evenings after, she set about making the recipes she had been avoiding. She paid close attention to the measurements and translated them as best she could into traditional measurements. Occasionally she could hear, as clear as if he were there, her father’s voice. Sometimes what she heard was what he had said the first time she’d made each dish. Sometimes though, what she heard was what he would have said if he were watching her now.
“Laurel, you didn’t let the oil heat up enough.”
“That’s diced, not minced. Mince it.”
“I was just going to tell you to add the wine, you didn’t forget, how good.”
He was so tangible to her that she could almost feel his antsy desire to take the knife or the spoon away from her and do it himself. She remembered, with only a little pain, that when he’d been very sick and near the end, he had constantly hallucinated that he was cooking a large feast. He was preparing for a celebration he told her.
The night that Laurel had finished and sent the recipes off to Gwen, she made one of the comfort foods she’d learned from her dad. Something that wasn’t complex or original, just simple and tasty; an old standby that she realized she’d not made since before Joseph had died. The measuring dishes she used were her own – that conehead coffee cup was long gone – and she customized it a little for her own tastes, but the essentials were what he’d taught her.
Lap Xuong with Rice, “Chinese Sausage with Rice”: Flowered tea-cup jasmine rice (1 c.) in a pot with one Picasso coffee-mug of water (2 and 1/8th c.) – the mug from the Metropolitan museum gift shop that time she’d gone to visit Gwen in New York
Add to the pot two sausages, cut thumb-joint wide (1/2”) “fancy style” (at a sharp angle to maximize the surface space), two sliced shitake mushrooms, and one clove minced garlic.
Cover and bring to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat to low.
Slice and wash 2-3 baby bok choi. If you’ve gotten it from the farmer’s market, make sure there’s no dirt or little beetles hidden away in the white folds. Apologize to the beetles and thank them for sharing their meal with you.
Let simmer about 5 songs from that pop album you never admit to liking (18 minutes). While you wait, make a cup of tea in the flowered tea-cup – green with toasted barley if you have it – and sip while listening to the water bubble and the steam quietly gather against the lid.
Add the bok choi to the pot; do not stir. Replace the lid and let cook another 2 minutes.
Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes with the lid on.
Serve in a good favorite bowl with some sesame oil, chili oil, and soy sauce drizzled over the rice and sausage.
She took the first bite and gave herself over to the flavors, the memories, and feelings they brought with them. She let the tears fall because she could finally remember the home she missed and thought she’d lost forever. The home she could still find in the kitchen.
Categories: Short Fiction