Posted on June 25th, 2012
Tonight I cooked an onion. I do this almost every single night, but it’s still worth writing about because I love to do it–the whole process. I love choosing a big, round, firm onion–my onion–from the crate at Publix. The other onions in that crate have other destinies in other skillets, but I don’t envy them because I can’t imagine produce receiving a higher degree of loving attention anywhere else than in my kitchen.
I love turning the front-right burner on to medium heat as I execute my patented “no-look” twisting refrigerator-door opening maneuver. This move is only possible in a cramped condominium kitchen, and only once you are intimately familiar with your surroundings. I don’t recommend it for beginners or away games. As I slide deftly into the wedge of cold light that now emanates from my fridge, I separate my onion from his friends in the Crisper drawer and grab a stick of butter. I spin the door closed and, in a matter of seconds, there’s an onion on my cutting board, eyeing my chef’s knife, and a hunk of butter melting in my skillet.
Ah, my skillet. It holds a place of honor in my kitchen, always sitting on that burner, keeping an eye on things–that way, when I’m cooking, I can just turn on the stove and let it pre-heat. I like things that are made to last, and this eight-pound hunk of cast iron will be here long after the final meal I prepare in it. If you’re a stranger to cast iron the idea of a skillet pre-heating might sound odd, but believe me, it’s key if you want your onions just right.
I mentioned that I treat my onions with loving attention. Well, I try to keep that in mind when . . . the time comes. I skin and chop the onion as quickly and humanely as possible, cutting it in half once, and then cutting each half in quarter-inch strips from top to bottom, and separating them out, allowing each sliver to breathe and move freely. Soon, tiny bubbles of anticipation are bursting on the surface of the butter, and the onions go in.
I move the slivers of onion in a constant, swirling, circular motion as I shift from my left foot to my right and back again, moving to a cooking rhythm in my head. I’m sure to coat all the onions evenly in the butter and heat, so no one is left out. Soon I’m grinding pepper and sea salt into my skillet, and then it’s back to the swirl. I don’t drink much wine, but I always splash some into my onions. This squeezes a lot of steam out of my skillet, so that I usually turn on the fan–which does little except bring back memories of my early cooking days, when I used that fan equally unsuccessfully to dispel smoke that was the token of ruined (or quickly ruining) food, rather than a delicately infused flavor. To me that sound still indicates that something is going wrong in the kitchen–that time and food are being wasted–and my pulse is always quick, and my nerves frayed, until the onions are done and the fan is off.
I am very careful not to overcook my onions. In fact, some might say I undercook them. What you do with your onions is your business, but I only really want to cook them enough to get the flavor of the butter, wine, pepper, and sea salt into them. When I take a bite, I still want to remember that little guy I brought home from the grocery store–young, fresh, full of possibilities. I don’t want to remember cutting him into a million pieces and cooking him to death.
There are rituals to be observed after the meal is eaten as well. I lick my plate, without shame, every night. I will have a hard time telling my children to do otherwise, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. The skillet has cooled down once dinner is over, so I run my finger through the silent remnants of fat, salt, pepper, wine, and onion that have gathered there. I can’t get enough of it. Before I ‘clean’ the skillet, it is mostly clean already from this process.
The cleaning is very important. You can’t clean cast iron with soap, just very hot water and a scrub brush. Officially you can’t use soap because it messes with the cast iron, but really you don’t want to disturb the flavors and essences that get cooked into the skillet every time you use it. Soap would eradicate all traces of the cooking history that you create along with your meal, so when you put your skillet away at night it would be blank, empty, vapid. Scrubbing with scalding-hot water burns the memories of the night’s meal deeper into the skillet, creating an enduring pattern that will be impressed on all other dinners to come.
When I got the skillet (a gift from my brother), its surface was uniformly colored. Now it is a swirling and complicated landscape of browns, blacks, even reds and purples. The overall color is determined by my regular cooking routine, but the most startling features are scars, reminders of meals cooked too long, too hot, or both. In the beginning I was dismayed to see discolorations that wouldn’t come off in steaming water, but now I know that it’s those imperfections that make the skillet mine.
My brothers and I have always been incredibly enthusiastic, even fanatical, about food. And we’re not proud, either. A 3AM trip to Taco Bell can be every bit as exciting as an elegant dinner in Budapest. But we are at our best, our most glorious, when we create our own food, because there is something intoxicating about starting out with essentially the same ingredients that other people have had in their kitchens at many times throughout history, and knowing that you might take them someplace they’ve never been before. People have been preparing food from time immemorial, but there is always the possibility for reinvention and exploration, and what you come up with tonight could be your new favorite dish, or your wife’s. It could become a staple in your life, and the lives of your children, or grand-children. It is no exaggeration to say that when you turn on the burner or open the fridge, you stand on the cusp of immortality. Most of us are just too busy to notice.
Don’t believe me? What about the guy who invented the grilled cheese sandwich? I don’t know his name, but children everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude–and people who microwave ‘pasteurized-processed cheese food’ on white bread will have to answer to him before they go to their reward. I’m sure bread, cheese, and butter were around for a long time before he did his thing, but it took the right moment and the right person to bring them together. We’re talking about a man, a human being with parents and siblings and dreams and fears who was born and had a childhood and grew up and got married and died, and that simple combination of three flavors, that one moment, was the most lasting thing he ever did.
So what if we don’t know his name? If I can make something that is so simple, so elemental, so viscerally and undeniably delicious that people never–never–stop eating it, well, that will be enough for me.
Once you have this drive, this literal and figurative hunger for novelty, it never stops. My brothers and I are at the point now where we will modify each other’s creations in mid-consumption. Recently, I walked past my brother Mike as he was finishing up a provolone, roast beef, liverwurst, ketchup and mustard on white bread sandwich (we were on a lunch break while helping my aunt move). I impulsively placed an Oreo on top of the last bite. He tossed it back, and his eyes widened with excitement as he announced that it tasted like sugary smoke. Before we left that day we had constructed and demolished three more such sandwiches between us. So goes the creative process.
Even when we buy prepared food, we reinvent it–one night we breaded and deep-fried double cheeseburgers from McDonald’s. Since then we have been invited by friends and family to duplicate this monstrosity at birthdays, graduations, Christmas parties–and every time, no matter the event, it is upstaged by us, our peanut oil,
and our need to create. We’re treated like celebrities. The deep-fried double cheeseburgers have evolved into the centerpiece of an event (informally dubbed ‘Fry Night’) that has taken place annually for almost a decade at a 100-person family reunion; it is arguably the high point of the two-week beachfront affair, which is arguably the high point of the year for many of its attendees, myself included.
And you thought a deep-fryer was just a way to hasten your own demise.
My most beautiful and terrible triumph ever is probably my favorite sandwich of all time: the thick-sliced bacon, natural peanut butter, extra sharp white cheddar, and concord grape sandwich on two slices of fried bread. I already knew grilled cheese was awesome, bacon and cheese was a winner, peanut butter and jelly was tasty–peanut butter and grapes was better–and cheese and peanuts were delectable. After some careful analysis I determined that bacon + peanut butter = delicious. I threw it all together, and things haven’t been the same since.
A memorable eating experience lasts forever. It is our surest method for putting one over on Father Time, because not only are we left with our memories, but we can actually recreate some small portion of the event, transport at least our noses, mouths, and hands back to that moment which, to the rest of the world, is forever gone. When you love food, you can use it to freeze, even forget time for just a little while, because the fried bacon, peanut butter, grape, and cheddar sandwich you’re eating today is just like the first one you made back in college, and just like the one you’ll have six years from now at your brother’s house in who-knows-where.
Create food with care and attention, and you’re creating a snapshot of the world that you can always come back to, even in unfamiliar surroundings at uncertain times. For lucky people, the Meal is born and dies three times a day, but in this briefest of life cycles there is a glimpse of eternity. I feel bad for people whose dinners come frozen, whose onions are pre-chopped and dehydrated. Without the effort of creation and the pungent, varied flavors that can only come from freshly prepared food, dinner becomes a strictly biological process, and a dubious one at that.
Devoting a little part of each night to a ritual that requires focus and effort, and yields pleasure and satisfaction, is like digging a foxhole in your head. Every time you relive that experience you are sheltered, for a while, from the onslaught of time and things lost.