Cooking for One

kitchen witch

my tongue craves skin, my skin
tongue.  how to eat when the only flavor
is salt? too poor for the extravagance
of a meal served to me, i recall the logic
of giving the beloved what you want
for yourself.  this woman
is her own again, my only lover
here.  In the kitchen i peel
off my clothes and wrap around my hips
an oceanic gust from the cotton bolt
i brought from Zimbabwe
half this life before
and gave to a dear one who returned to me
one yard in thanks, tiny stitches,
this skirt. heat tears through
onion silk. with the long blade
i slice gold threads of ginger. oil pops
as punjabi mc strips the carapace
and wings unfold from my hips.
roil and scrape. peanut, coconut, turmeric, cumin.
cabbage, tomato, cauliflower, honey.
masala dust clings to raw arms, ribs
sweat red clay heat. mouth gorged
with song, the feeding precedes
the eating. my tongue thrills at the naked
steam curling into its hidden cells, my skin
tilts towards the kaleidoscope
of scents. i serve my beloved
a dish and she returns to me
one  birth  in thanks, tiny bloodbeats,
this night. the only flavor
is never the only flavor. the body can taste
every texture of loss. the body can learn
to boil sugar
from the heart.


 

First Taste

collard greens 2

I tear from their stems
leaves as big as elephant’s ears,
dino kale, mustard, Russian red.
Friends came
bearing this plastic sack of plants.
I hugged close
the friends then lifted out
one giant collard leaf
and pressed it against my cheek.

These succulent greens grew
in a stark suburban yard
stripped bare of topsoil
and shade. It took a few years
and the season’s first frost
to draw sweetness up through veins
threading bitter lamina.

The tough, cold fiber
yields to a tug,
its surprising suppleness
as porous as my own
skin, as ready
to give.

I did not want
to cook something new. Dinner fuels
me, most days that is
enough.
In the pan, oil spits
at the intrusion
of garlic and broth.
The spatula’s flat wooden blade
gilds ashen leaves
and they shine with the sharp scent
of roots, ice, chlorophyll, flame.

The flavor makes my mouth
ache like when I’m close
to crying. I eat
slowly, marveling at how far the comfort
of routine has carried me
from pleasure.

It is wonderful to see you
is what we say. It used to be the other way
when sensation raced
to the side of the bed, bouncing
on its toes,
get up get up, come look.
Taking notice comes first
now. This is the shift
that marks the start
of growing up. We wake
to walls and grab
at threads of hunger,
at any texture that can mimic
or at least stand in
for wonder. We pause
still hoping for a surge
until we surrender and step out
as first light
splits the horizon and say
It is wonderful
to see
you.

We learn to lift
ourselves towards desire. We learn to proceed
with our hands
extended, feeling
through weed and loam, inviting
something to stroke our wrists
and yank us over
into the bright fat flesh
of the world, the place
all around us
where explosions as fleeting
as one leaf
against tongue, skin,
or sky can make us catch our breath
in a thrill of awakening, breaking
us open in gratitude
for a visit
from that part of our heart
that left home
we thought
for good.

 

Sugar Spun

Chef and Chicken

When you peel a peach, there’s a color right beneath the peach skin that’s hidden except for that very moment. It’s like there are all these little secrets moments in kitchen, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re missing so much in life.

“In the Kitchen with Ruth Reichl,” New York Times, September 15, 2015

Safeway, as it happens, stocks every color of Jello except blue. The big package I bought earlier at Target should have been enough but half of it ended up on the wrong side of the saran wrap and the rest of it on the floor. The last thing I want to do is visit yet another store. As I stand here in the baking aisle, the kitchen’s engine idles. I can feel its thrum as it waits for my return.

I toss the unflavored Knox into my basket and hold out hope that I can find my stash of food coloring from last year.

Unpacking my groceries at home, I root around in the back of the cabinet and unearth the stained box. I’m relieved to discover the blue tube has a few drops left in it. This leaves me now with the small issue of taste — something I had rather avoided dealing with at the store. Continue reading “Sugar Spun”

41. Things I Can Believe: Those Wise Words

We need a way to forgive others, ourselves, and the fact that things don’t turn out the way we expected. Writing our experiences, our fears and our aspirations can clear away the overload of resentment and the stale taste of remorse.

– B.L. Pike in “Write Now: Why You Really Can’t Wait Any Longer”

I ask my son to help with dinner. He snaps and stomps, tells me he’s not going to cook for both of us, he’s only going to make his own snack, and it’s not fair. For once, I conquer the urge to roar back. Instead, my voice is even as it reminds him of his options. He can either make dinner for us both by himself, or he can help me make dinner for us both together.

“Why do I have to do everything around here?” He storms into my room, hauls Biggie the stuffed polar bear off the bed, and thrashes him against the mattress. Noodle comes streaking out, head bowed, ears down.

I empty the dishwasher then check the mail.

Continue reading “41. Things I Can Believe: Those Wise Words”

15. Things I Can Hazard: Deep Fat Frying

The dog’s anxiety has escalated to self-harm. She’s not burning herself with cigarettes, although once her toes can work the lighter, all bets are off. For now, her injuries are of the indirect variety. Her daylong bouts of howling shred her throat, leaving her hoarse and coughing through the evening. Between yelps, she thrusts her head repeatedly against her crate, bending the bars and tearing strips of flesh off her snout and cheeks. We come home to bleeding gashes and hysteria.

The vet is tapering her off one prescription and starting her on another. We have the number of an animal behaviorist who specializes in unique temperaments. New approaches could take several weeks to sort out, and new behavior far longer to establish.

At the beginning of the highest pressure work month I’ve faced in five years, I’m now the proud owner of a dog that can’t be left alone. Continue reading “15. Things I Can Hazard: Deep Fat Frying”

12. Things I Can Make with Him: Classroom Valentines

The note in his backpack says the students can bring valentines. Participation is not mandatory, but you must choose everyone or no one. Bug grabs the paper and gives it the once-over. “I don’t want to.” He starts to hand it back then notices the small postscript: Students may bring a small treat to share.

Now he’s interested.

“We could make teeny-tiny slices of chocolate cake,” he says. I picture his teacher trying to pass out 25 wobbling mounds of frosted pastry.

“That might be a little hard for Mrs. C to serve.”

“Cupcakes!” He says. “With icing!”

It is already 6 pm. We don’t have cupcake cups or a carrier. What we do have is reading, homework, dinner, bath. CVS sells sticker cards and the store is just two blocks from where we’re sitting in traffic. “How about just writing out valentines? We could go get some.” My offer is tepid and he knows it. He grunts. “Okay then,” I say. “Brownies. They’re just like chocolate cake, right?”

He sits on this. We’re turning onto our street and he’s in the back trying to get the dog to poke her nose out the window. Evening is sliding fast into night night and it’s been one hell of a week at work. “You know,” I say. “You don’t have to do anything. It did say no one — ”

“Oh! I know!” he cries, “GINGER SNAPS!”

I take a breath . . .The things I can. . .  and urge a smile into my voice. “Okay, ginger snaps.”

With this “yes,” I’ve signed the contract.

After dinner and reading and homework but before bath, we pull out our supplies. Bowls, flour, eggs, cookie sheets. Even from scratch, ginger snaps are the easy baking project, the one my mother used to leave to my sister and me when we were home after school. The butter would be out softening on the counter, the stained recipe card leaning against the floral tin box. Mix the “wets” with the “dries,” form into balls the size of walnuts and roll in sugar. When Bug outgrew a half dozen quasi-food allergies around age 4, he fell in love with ginger snaps. He used to call them the “black cookies,” for reasons I never figured out. We made them together every few weeks. Standing on a stool next to me, he would hit the sweet spot between creative focus and sugar mania, plunging himself elbow-deep in the mess.

I didn’t realize he held a fond memory — or any memory, for that matter — of ginger snaps. We have something of an unspoken cookie ban in this house. I haven’t eaten a cookie in over two years and haven’t made one in even longer.

Even so, this recipe is printed right into my hands.

And although the stool is no longer part of the set, Bug is as thrilled as that long-ago preschooler to bring this delicious idea to life.

The kid wants to measure, pushing brown sugar deep into the cup. He wants to crack the eggs, taking one careful whack at a time. I ask him if he remembers the spices that go into the recipe. “Cinnamon,” he says. “And, um. . . oh! Ginger!” I let him sniff at the cloves to identify the third, and he says, “I know that one from the botanical gardens.” In early winter, he and I wandered through the sunny spice exhibit together, trying to identify and describe cumin, onion, vanilla, fennel.

He fits the beaters into the mixer and whips up a tornado that melts into a pungent batter the color of café au lait. Because it’s only Thursday, we decide to refrigerate the sugary mush and bake it tomorrow so the cookies will be fresh on Friday. He unties his apron and bounces down the hall to his waiting bath.

It’s late now, well past bedtime. I’ll be grumpy in the morning. Even so, I leave the heap of dishes and follow him to the bathroom, rolling up my trousers so I can soak my feet as he jabbers away in the bubbles. He’s well past baking now and is on to square roots and number lines.

I pour water down his hair and back. He hums and curls into the cascade, head tilted back, eyes closed.

There’s a good chance this boy will someday have a sweetie. There’s a good chance that she or he will drive Bug bonkers as he tries to figure out how to do the love stuff. No doubt I’ll be cringing on the sidelines, complying with the semi-permanent gag order he will have issued at puberty.

Tonight, right here and now, may be my only chance to have a say.

On any given February 12th, when Bug smacks his head and realizes he didn’t make the reservations or buy the tickets, he can always take a deep breath. Wander into his kitchen. Open the cabinets. Begin.

Keep Stirring

When you heat the sugar and butter, you have to keep the temperature low. Never stop stirring. This means either working backwards or having a helper handy. Ideally both. When it is time for the vanilla, you will not be digging in the cabinet for it, unless you like your caramel smoked. The candy thermometer will become goopy and steamed, the phone will ring, and you will remember you forgot to butter the pan. Do not turn around. Whoever is on the other end cannot chop the pecans for you, and that person has already bought Christmas cupcakes for her kid’s class.
 
You wanted to use your hands. This is what you get: a burnt fingertip from believing the thick taupe suede to be a solid thing, just because your tongue was fooled into longing for something it would have had anyway, given one teaspoon of restraint.
 
Nothing you buy from the store will be half as good as even your most mediocre effort. This is what you know to be true, even if the sequined and tiara-studded confections behind the glass case whisper their siren song. Keep stirring.
 
Do not check the recipe again or grab ice for your blister. You know the steps by heart. You know the hard-ball stage cannot be rushed and will never be passed – never, because the kitchen clock always moves as if treacle has gummed the gears. Turn down the flame. You should not be able to hear it roar. The only sound that will come is the low moan of the air making its sluggish escape from the candy as it roils. Keep the spoon moving.
 
The recipe card is written in your grandmother’s script. Shaky, even then. What a thing, her hand: here and also not. Perhaps alive somewhere, in its way, because of microbes and the relentless pull of decay and rebirth everywhere, even in that crimson box they lowered into an Oklahoma hilltop a decade ago. A decade!
 
This, too: she, alive and also not. The jagged flourish of her script is frozen in motion all the way onto the next line. The 3×5 card is yellowing and blotched with boiled fat, caramelized Karo, and something hard. Another dish, maybe? This recipe, caught in the holiday crossfire. Cornbread stuffing, perhaps, or the clove and orange peel glistening on the crusted pink hide of the sacrificial ham.
 
She did not stop until her heart did. But which was she? The heart? Or the girl whose powdered cheeks betrayed a heady blush as the boy whirled her across the dance floor? She kept her hands so pliable, the old lady skin as delicate as honeysuckle petals and just as fragrant. How she managed this is one of life’s great mysteries. She stood over boiling sugars and popping Crisco. She took up the catfish who’d been, just that morning, blissfully sucking mud at the bottom of Murray lake, and dragged the poor fellow through bread crumbs and egg before releasing him to his oily fate. She donned the apron and held at least one corner of that restaurant’s kitchen on the hollow bones of her narrow scapulae.
 
Even so, nothing caved in. No part of her contracted into hardness. The blisters didn’t callous and the wounds of her unplanned servitude never thickened into scars.
 
When she was in her final year and no longer venturing near the stove, she asked me to rub her hands. Beneath that most delicate tissue purpled like Monet’s garden were thick, arthritic roots delving down to the springs below, blocking the way. She ached all over. “Oh, sugar, it hurts something awful.” She had spent a lifetime trying to restrain the tears ducking just behind her voice. She’d spent that same lifetime failing.
 
I took her hand and pressed into the tender meat between the thumb and forefinger, holding back my full strength because by then, she was made of air and moonless night. Her marrow had long since leached out into the prairie grass for the copper cattle and oil rigs to pull back up when the time is right.
 
Those last years, she was draining away but age had not taken her best self, only the extra, the unneeded weight, the constraining thoughts. The only things left were softness and pain. Also those relentless tears. Also the bottomless hunger for touch.
 
They say that if luck favors us (or scorns us, as the case may be) with a long enough life, each of us returns to infancy.
 
With my fingers, I drained what I could of the useless strength in her hands. What was the use of muscle and its dedicated ache? What did she need with holding? I had taken up her place at the stove, the ink, as the bearer of a name on my own more robust shoulder blades. My only job was to help guide her back gently to the womb of a woman waiting on a hill in the morning sun. That matriarch had herself returned to forgiving clay. At last, the serrated edges were worn from her mother’s tongue.
 
In the trunk I hauled from the foot of my grandmother’s bed into my own home 1500 miles away, I find the gloves she had worn in an earlier life. The embroidered delicacies are white kid and cotton, hand stitched and studded with graying rhinestones. Also from that steamer trunk rises a gust of the same aging honeysuckle that clung to her and forever softened her.
 
This was her secret? Something so simple? The gloves do not fit over my swollen knuckles. Thick digits already leathered in the first third of my time on this planet strain at the seams (though I do try to force myself into that silken sheath. Who wouldn’t?) I put them away for a keepsake since they will never grow to envelop me nor will I, God willing, ever shrink sufficiently to squeeze in.
 
I close the trunk and wonder if her determination to stay soft was the toughest part of her. Her man may have cornered her in that crucible in the back of the restaurant. Necessity may have demanded she plunge her hands into whole chickens and dice bushels of yellow onions for the soup. She may not have had any real choice but to stir and stir those cauldrons of beef and butter beans for paying customers. Kids and mortgages greeted the young, bewildered families at the end of the war. And maybe it was impossible to buck a man built of the same stuff of stud bulls and dust bowl hickories.
 
Maybe all of this is true.
 
Also, she chose.
 
Do not be fooled: selecting from among just one option is its own act of defiance. Submission is never truly complete as long as the one doing it decides to submit. Somewhere down below even the most bending grass is one deep root that cannot be split, not even with the sharpest spade.
 
And so she stayed. With him, she stayed:
 
Soft, the most tender, and forever threatening to tremble into a watery mess. She stayed:
 
Alive ten years beyond him, then a few more. She was the one whose hands rested in the warm grip of her grown sons and granddaughters during her final months. It was her timeline that claimed a stretch in which the tears could come without reprimand. She let them come and found, to no one’s surprise but her own, that on the other side of pain, when someone finally rubs it free, all that’s left is a heap of stupid giggles, memories of first kisses and big-eared boys, and a craving for the caramels made in the cluttered kitchens of the women who taught us to keep stirring.