Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Short, but Complete, Story.

Every cook must have stories, tales that pop into mind during mundane kitchen tasks. These instances usually attack me when I'm least expecting it, flooding my mind with moving pictures of things that happened long before my birth - but things that have woven their magic into my psyche. The stories become my stories, I become a child of the Great Depression stretching the last of the sauce, weaving the fabric of the tales and changing the pattern into my own.

I have not a stitch of Italian ancestry, but this afternoon when I transferred what red sauce I made to a storage jar I thought of all the stories that I claim as mine. I heated my red pot with the olive oil in it, thin slivers of garlic heating up with the oil as Marcella Hazan recommends. Nearly every time I start a sauce, I do it her way to coax a silkier, less bitter hot garlic into being. I feel like I came to this country with my Husband and did not speak a word of English. That I stood in the supermarket looking at packaged chickens in plastic wrap and wondered at the lack of connection between these Americans and their food.

When I grated a peeled carrot into the pot, I remembered my longtime ex-boyfriend's mother, a tremendous cook and baker. She was not Italian either, but sweetened her sauce with carrots, and tamed the sweetness with a splash of red wine which bubbled up vinegary before she added her tomatoes. No matter what vegetables I try to sneak into my sauces these days, I add the carrot and red wine for her, thinking of all the meals that she shared with me over the years, the implements in my kitchen that came from her endless rummaging and thrifting, her generosity that still holds fast in my heart even though things were not to be with her son.

My sauce finished, I sliced and fried some eggplants cut into circles, wondering all the while if I could convince my Kiddo to eat it. I was not a picky eater, and neither were my two brothers. When one brother and I visited my Grandparents in the "city" (now, Stevens Point does not really seem so urban...) as small children, my Grandpa would try to coax us into finishing our breakfasts by telling us of the park bench in our bellies. I still see this cartoon bench deep in my stomach, a full glass of orange juice sitting there with a smile on it's face just next to a strip of wavy bacon, also smiling. Yes, the pancake is there too, the same silly smile plastered on his face. Hardly a breakfast goes by when I don't think of that time when I honestly believed that there was such a thing as a park bench in my belly, and that I shouldn't waste what is on my plate since the food already waiting on the bench will be lonely without company. I have already employed the story of the park bench, and I wonder if little eggplants with smiles on their faces will join the glass of milk and corn on the cob in my Kiddo's stomach when dinner emerges from the oven...

After assembling my Eggplant Parmesan, I used the ladle already in the pot to transfer the leftover sauce to a jar. After scraping most of the sauce in, a brief thought of washing the pot without scraping every last bit out crossed my mind. Did I really want to dirty a spatula to get those last tablespoons? The story that immediately came to mind was one that was told to me second hand by my Mom. When my Gram was newly married and living in Chicago, she went on a picnic lunch with my Grandfather. They brought hard cooked eggs, didn't eat them all and rather than pack them up, they left them in the woods. A day passed and they were hungry and remembered those eggs. They went back to see if they could find them. Now, my details of this story are fuzzy, but when it was first told to me I wondered, "Who goes to look for eggs that were left outside a day later?" "They were hungry, I guess..." I remember my Mom telling me.

I grabbed my spatula and scraped the pot, nearly a quarter cup of sauce appearing magically from the bottom and sides. A quarter cup I imagine my Depression Era Gram stretching into a meal somehow, and the portion I now remember to be thankful for.


  1. Beautiful post. Scraping the pot always makes me thankful, too.

  2. Lovely story. My mom's that way about the last grains of rice in the pot.

  3. I hear you. I just read Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, and she talks about how well-known chef Andre Soltner would swipe the inside of eggshells to get every last bit of clinging white -- he said it was how his mother got thirteen eggs out of a dozen.

  4. Deena, I started that book and loved it - but it was a highly requested library rental and I got too busy to finish before the due date. Had I read that part, it surely would have come to mind :)

  5. What a picture you paint! Yes, my mother arrive in Australia not speaking a word of english and missing her family and her country. But she made a life here with her husband raising her family until her untimely death at 44. She left me with a wonderful legacy of someone who made the most of life and what she had.

  6. Nicely Done, Orla. I love you!

  7. Love the stories. My mind wanders a lot during cooking, too. I love how food transports us.


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