A Culinary Childhood in Three Verses
Posted on July 16th, 2013
I am small. The record player is large, and so are the records. On the cover of this one: a fat man at a table, his red beard as big as the teacup he holds, sipping his tea while an orange sun sets on the road behind him. The song is short and begins, “Bring tea for the tiller man, steak for the sun, wine for the woman who makes the rain come…” The tea, I know for certain, must be the orange pekoe that my dad drinks. The steak is medium-rare, the only way to eat steak, though I wonder how the sun avoids burning it well done. It’s the wine I’m unsure of, because wine is for parents and aunts and uncles and tastes like the vinegar you dye Easter eggs in. I play this song over and over, moving the needle back to the same groove. My mouth waters, and my heart leaps. I learn all the words and play it again. The song ends with voices raised, singing about children who are playing – and I am those children, I am that happy. But, something even more fervent beats at my heart: I want to be the fat man, I want to be the sun, and I want to be sitting at that table. I want to be eating that steak and that tea and that joy.
Fried bananas, sardines, and rice. Open-faced hamburger sandwiches on toast, sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce. Thin, flat chocolate chip cookies that are crispy, not chewy, just the way Dad likes them. Cheese soufflé. Maida Heatter’s Palm Beach Brownies, so full of powdered espresso that, decades later, I cannot believe how many I was allowed to eat. Pasta with chopped canned oysters, garlic, and olive oil. Broccoli leek soup. Homemade pesto. Strawberries with milk and sugar. Breaded chicken that my brother names “Chicken-O-Bo-Bo” for a reason no one can remember and sings, joyously, to his plate every time it’s served.
These are the things that my mom makes, standing at the island stove in the kitchen that looks over the field where a hot air balloon once landed during dinner and we all ran out together to see, me still clutching my fork in my hand. These are the things we eat at the round table in the alcove surrounded by windows, where the small, red, black-and-white TV plays the evening news every night and we all watch, solemnly, as Tom Brokaw tells us how to feel about the world. On the refrigerator, we make a list: these are the dinners I like to eat, these are the dinners my brother will eat, these are the things we want to try. I am the picky one. Once, when I am old enough to know better, I tell my mother I hate her cooking, that there’s nothing good to eat in this house. She cries, and I feel my stomach clench tight in a pain I wish I didn’t have to feel. And I know then that I am very, very wrong; there is everything good to eat in this house.
The cupboard smells like wood and paper and something indefinable that maybe you could eat if you could just lay your hands on it. The oven has a drawer that pulls out that you can sit in, but only when you are the right size. The sink is where my mother washes my hair, the chairs have wooden rungs that pop out of place if I tug too hard, and the counters smell like flour, soap, and old sponges. We watch birds from the kitchen windows: goldfinches, cardinals, pheasants that scare up out of the cattails by the pond, red-winged blackbirds that fly against the glass to meet their reflection. Later, when I’m older, I play Joni Mitchell on the boom box next to the sink when I wash the dishes, singing loudly, badly, but I don’t care. Before that, for a few months when I am not yet in my teens but no longer a child, I sample everything in the refrigerator and the pantry every time my parents leave the house: tiny bits of gruyere, dill pickles, a finger dipped in the cinnamon sugar, even a piece of bitter baking chocolate that I spit out into the garbage can.
In this kitchen, my mother teaches me to steam asparagus, to make hollandaise, to pop a cheesecake from a spring-form pan. In this kitchen, my father teaches me how to make a perfect omelet and eat a ripe Camembert. The room is too small for guests, but when they come, everyone crowds in anyway, leaning over pans and against counters, talking to whomever is stirring the pot, drinking wine. At the kitchen table, our family opens birthday presents in pajamas, watches green-skied thunderstorms unfold during the summer, talks about the neighbors across the field, and plans out our next meals together. A teakettle steams on the stove, my mother eats popcorn out of the bag, and the oven rings like a bell when the cookies are done. In this kitchen, I am very small, but I am not very hungry.