“I feel strongly that baking is an extension of my emotions – a way to say, ‘Here’s my heart on a plate.’” – Nancy Olson, pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern
Memory: I drag a kitchen chair up to the island countertop in the blue kitchen and climb up. David and Jamie pull chairs next to me, the three of us lined up along the countertop like little birds waiting to be fed. Mom is baking, and we stand there, watching her move between bowl, jar and mixer, hoping for the KitchenAid paddle attachment. That’s the one that ends up with the most batter clinging to it. One of us will get the paddle, one will get the wooden spoon, and one will get to lick the bowl. I always hoped for (and grabbed for) the paddle, and we were always sorely disappointed when she was only just melting unsweetened chocolate.
Memory: I’m a teenager, and I’ve decided that I want to cook dinner by myself. I select recipes out of “Fanny at Chez Panisse” by Alice Waters, and painstakingly go it alone, shoving my inexperienced hands under chicken skin to put an herb rub directly on the chicken breast. Mom watches warily from the kitchen table, taking over when we have to fry the poori in hot oil. She hates when other people cook in her kitchen. I don’t remember, but it’s likely that I ruined something.
Memory: my first apartment, senior year of college. I start to peel and chop garlic, and my roommate asks me how I know to smash the garlic clove with the side of the knife to make the peel come off easily. ”I don’t know,” I reply, racking my brain. ”I guess it just comes from watching my mother cook for so many years.”
I love to stand next to her at that kitchen counter. She’s gone soft and actually allows me to help now, chopping mirepoix for Thanksgiving stuffing or arranging lox on a platter for break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. There’s nothing that she can do that I’m better at, and I don’t bother to compete: my knife skills will never match up, and she is infinitely more experienced at time coordination. (I cook dinner, and the rice is done 30 minutes before I even get the chicken in the oven.)
Okay, there’s one thing that I’m better at: slicing cucumbers. Two years ago, Mom let me slice some of the cucumbers for her cucumber salad for break-the-fast, and instead of haphazardly making my way through I stood there and concentrated on every slice, keeping an even hand and my eye on each cucumber as it fell away from the knife. She stood next to me slicing onions, and upon seeing my perfect, even slices, handed me the other two cucumbers that had been waiting for her. ”Yours are better than mine,” she said. It was one of the greatest compliments she could have ever given me.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, who taught me how to cook without even knowing that she was doing it. All those hours of watching her put meals together gave me instincts in the kitchen that simply cannot be taught. Thank you for giving me the language in which I show people that I love them.