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Starting from ScratchMemoirs of a Wandering Cook
By Patty Kirk
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 207 Patty Kirk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGood Food, Finally
Shortly before my mother's death after a long struggle with a brain tumor, my sister Sharon brought her home from the nursing home where she had been living for some months. The increasing dementia of her last years and the nursing home's monotonous routine had dulled her. She had stopped responding to the nurses' jokes and requests, stopped paying attention to what was going on around her, stopped eating with any enthusiasm, stopped talking. The nurses no longer strapped her into her wheelchair every morning but frequently left her empty-eyed in bed. They told my sister that, in the end, Mom would become unable to swallow. When that happened, they said, she'd have to be fed through a tube, if at all. Her overall sensory lethargy made it clear that such a time was approaching.
On the evening of our mother's return to Sharon's house, where she had lived for years before the sojourn at the nursing home, Sharon made tacos for dinner. It was complicated food for an invalid: the fried corn tortillas precariously filled and hard to swallow. Just for form's sake-and perhaps remembering that tacos had been one of our mother's favorite foods throughout our childhood-Sharon raised one to Mom's mouth. She bit, looked around her as if waking up in a familiar room after a terrifying dream, chewed, and then pronounced her first words in many weeks: "Good food, finally."
I wasn't there at the time. I wouldn't arrive on the scene until a few months later to hear the story and, as my other siblings trickled in from other cities and states, to watch our mother die. Nevertheless, those words, that moment, those tacos, resonate in me as though I had experienced them firsthand. As though I had heard them. As though I had said them myself. In my mind, I crack the chewy-crisp tortilla with my own teeth with the same astonishment and delight that jolted my mom's almost mute tongue into words of gratitude.
It seems fitting to me that we eat and speak with the same organ, that we both enjoy food and communicate with the same assemblage of muscles and membranes and bones. The mouth was made for acts of appreciation, I think. To taste God's gifts. To give back thanks.
My mother's words of candid appreciation of my sister's cooking unconsciously mimic God's own words of approval in the first days, when we're told again and again, "And God saw that it was good" and even "very good." But my mother's words were also wistful, calling to notice at once the bland institutional food of the nursing home in her present experience and the distant memory of foods she had loved in an irretrievable past-before the nursing home, before the brain tumor, before my sister and I were born perhaps-back when sensory pleasures were things to be pursued, not merely happened upon, when they were so likely to be encountered that they often went unappreciated. Perhaps, in a reverie of gratitude for the crack of the tortilla and the tang of tomato and peppers, my mother's tongue was summoning the other corn dishes she had loved in her receding past: the tamale pies she had concocted for my father in the early years of their marriage, the Fritos corn chips to which she was addicted in her teenage years, the cornbread with lima beans and chow chow she ate at her own mother's table as a child.
In my mother's words, distilled, I hear the longings of my own lost past: my fading childhood, the blind flights of my later years, and the stirrings of my struggles to return home. I see myself in the kitchens of my memory: teaching myself to cook as a child, gleaning everything I could of cookery unknown to me from my parents' and grandparents' and friends' families, cooking with friends in college, working in restaurants in my years abroad, eating alone, cooking for my new husband and my countrified mother-in-law, for my demanding daughters. I see the recipes I have accumulated over the years, some my own, others given to me. Scraps of paper in piles on shelves or spilling out of folders. Cryptic scribblings in the margins of my cookbooks. A plastic box of yellowed index cards that represents one of my many failed attempts to organize the good food of my life into something accessible, repeatable, eternal.
The language of food commands a complex rhetoric. What we cook and eat is, after all, an expression of who we are, what we value, how we live. In all cultures, the meals we prepare express and comment upon our emotions. We eat to celebrate good fortune as well as to assuage misery. We cook special meals to commemorate important life events: belonging, leaving, joining, mourning. In the extremes of loneliness and longing, we remember the foods of our past lives, just as the fleeing Israelites yearned for the cucumbers and onions they had eaten as slaves in Egypt. In pain, in loss, in terror, these memories comfort us.
I have a cookbook written by women in the Terezin ghetto during the last years of the Second World War, a compilation of recipes for elaborate dishes whose ingredients were long since unavailable to the ghetto's starving inmates, recipes representing a prosperity and leisure these women would never recover, if they survived at all, and most of them didn't. Recipes frequently are our loved ones' survival: not merely voices from the past but tastes, smells, and textures that outlast the grave.
In fact, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai concludes in an article on cookbooks in contemporary India, "cookbooks appear to belong to the literature of exile, of nostalgia and loss." Our recipes represent our often unsuccessful attempts to relive the past, to recover lost comforts or reclaim a forgotten heritage. We take them with us into foreign lands. We pass them on to our friends and children. We share them with strangers. The foods of our pasts are the most elemental artifacts of who we are: who our parents and friends and lovers were and are, where we have been and where we ended up, what we treasure, what we disdain, what fuels our endeavors, what comforts, what sustains. So powerful is food as an expression of the self that we even orchestrate favorite meals for those we execute. We want to honor at least that much of the worst criminal. Good food. Finally.
Somewhere in our hearts, we all hunger for what good food represents. Comfort. Succor. Abundance. We long for the first fruits of God's love for his creation: literally fruit, his gift of all the seed-bearing plants and trees. Like the Israelites in the desert, we study the horizon for evidence of his abiding provision to his children. We long not only to enjoy this food ourselves but to proffer it to one another, to mimic and complete God's most essential creative act-provision-in the baking and sharing of our daily bread. In my mother's wistful words, I hear a latent challenge that it's up to me, the family cook, as a child and now, to pass on what I have learned of provision to my children and my children's children and thereby to model and encourage the only godly habit I seem capable of practicing without considerable effort: appreciation. Good food. Finally.
Tacos the Way My Family Made Them Use three times as many tortillas as you have people eating.
Heat about 1/4 inch oil in a skillet. Slip a tortilla into the hot oil. When the edges are beginning to appear cooked but the tortilla is still flexible, turn it over with tongs and fold it in half, using the tongs to keep it slightly open. After one side of the folded tortilla browns and hardens, turn it over and fry the other side. Drain the fried tortilla open side down in a baking pan lined with paper towels while you fry the remaining tortillas. When tortillas have all been fried, remove the paper towel and arrange the taco shells open side up in the baking pan. Fill each taco about 1/3 full with meat filling (Recipe follows.) and grated Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese. Keep the tacos warm in a 250° oven until serving, which should be soon. The cheese should melt but not harden.
At the table, each person fills his or her own tacos with some or all of the fol- lowing, set out in pretty bowls:
shredded lettuce (It was always iceberg lettuce when I was a child, but now I coarsely chop the leaf lettuce that I use in salads.)
chopped sweet onion (I have had numerous Central and South American students complain that the food item they miss the most from back home is the onion, which is milder and more flavorful than the yellow onions we eat. Although this dish is more Californian than it is genuinely Mexican, I still recommend that you buy the sweetest onions you can get-Vidalias, Texas Sweet, or almost any Mexican variety. They may cost more, but they're worth it.)
chopped green pepper sour cream
fresh salsa (Salsa wasn't known in my childhood but is indispensable nowadays.)
Sauté about one pound of ground beef (enough for 12 tacos) until it goes from pink to grey. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder per pound and salt to taste.
I usually make lots of salsa-enough to fill a large mixing bowl. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator to use in omelets; on leftover Mexican food; with chips; or, with the addition of a chopped cucumber and vinegar and sugar to taste, as gazpacho.
some good-looking fresh tomatoes-I like to mix sandwich-style with plums.
green chile peppers-ancho, jalapeño, serrano, and/or others that smell intriguing
a good smelling bell pepper
a sweet white onion
a few green onions
a big handful of well washed cilantro
a smashed garlic clove
Mix everything together in a big pretty bowl as you chop. Do not use a food processor. It will make the mixture too mushy and will also create tiny, white air bubbles that dull the deep reds and greens of the salsa to a less appealing pink with light green specks. Add salt to taste. Let the salsa sit out for a while on the counter (not in the refrigerator) to let the juices run. If the resulting salsa is not juicy enough to suit you, add a little more salt and/or some cut-up canned tomatoes or a big spoonful of prepared salsa from a jar.
An Imaginary Ancient Israeli Salad
Here's what I imagine those Israelites were thinking about when they longed for cucumbers and onions: the simplest and most refreshing salad in the world that I, too, might fantasize about after a long sojourn in the desert. Make it in summer, when the vegetables come from local fields, not hothouses, and buy sweet onions, such as Vidalias. Or, better yet, use cucumbers and onions from your own garden.
Wash a cucumber; then peel off some or most of the skin, especially if it looks waxy, but leave little slivers of peel for color. Cut off the bitter stem end to the point at which you can see the sections of seeds. Cut along these sections to make three long spears. Slice the spears into thickish triangles into a bowl. (For me it's important to use a clear glass bowl for this dish.)
Peel a sweet onion. Then, using a paring knife, chip it into the bowl in irregular curved pieces somewhat smaller than the cucumber triangles.
Salt the cucumbers and onions and add a little chopped dill or mint, if you have some fresh. Or, instead of the herbs, use a little coarsely ground pepper. Add buttermilk, sour cream, or heavy cream and stir. I usually use sour, Bulgarian-style buttermilk these days, but as a child cooking for my family I used sour cream, and in Germany I made this salad with heavy cream and a pinch of sugar with the salt. Serve immediately.
Excerpted from Starting from Scratch by Patty Kirk Copyright © 207 by Patty Kirk. Excerpted by permission.
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