|For years after my father’s death my mother refused to set foot in the kitchen. Hers was not an act born of grief or mourning, not an act of silent loss. It was a celebration. She would never have to listen to his complaints, sit through his tirades while he chewed with his mouth open. She was free from the slavery of hours in the kitchen, alone with her resentments and her anger and disillusion. She was done with cooking. |
So, as a healthy, hungry, teenager who had the need to eat more than just yogurt or cheese and crackers, I took up the culinary arts at home.
When I say my mother stayed out of the kitchen I mean it literally. No pausing to see if I needed help. No advice, no guidance, no comment. In the early days I ate a lot of eggs. I’d learned to make those as a kid. I would meticulously chop the onion into tiny pieces, add some peppers, some tomato, a little ham. My dad always praised me for chopping up vegetables so evenly and carefully, a habit that is still with me today. I would carefully warm the skillet, sautéing olive oil to the point of fragrance (I would have said till it smells good), before adding the gently beaten eggs. I would cook for two those days and my mom would usually eat.
I progressed to experiments in microwave cooking and the smell of red meat nuking still makes me gag. Not good. No flavor, no texture, no color, just brown stinkiness. But, I would not resort to eating microwave meals. I would not give up!
Still, no comment from my mother. She was just happy not to cook. She was just glad not to gaze upon the inside of a pot.
I learned to make rice, a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine. We don’t make rice in steamers like many Americans do, we make it in large iron pots and we add flavoring to it. It took me forever to get it right: not too mushy, not too sticky, not too undercooked. But, I finally did it. I sat down with the rice and beans I just made and I felt accomplishment and satisfaction at what I’d created. I devoured that meal.
To this day rice and beans marks momentous occasions: the first time a woman came over for dinner, first time we had friends over at a new apartment, before I had more than 1 pot and 1 pan to my name I was making rice and beans. I’ve improvised ingredients depending on where I’ve lived but there is always a sense of satisfaction whenever I make my most comforting of meals.
Bit by bit I built my repertoire, progressing on to roasts, curries, white sauces.
I am not a chef of any kind. I don’t want to be. But I am a good cook, and more importantly, I enjoy it. I am not an angry cook, a tight thin lipped cook, a crying into the sauce cook. Cooking brings me joy; feeding friends and family is a blessing.
Now, when people praise my cooking and my mom is around, she takes the credit for teaching me. And in a way she did. I learned from her example, learned how to cook and how not to live.