“I am in the kitchen now. I stir the risotto and type. I am waiting on the capon negro to finish in the oven, a bird stuck on a contraption to hold it vertical and allow it to roast, basting in the steaming beer in the dish below it. The bird is covered with a rub of cumin, paprika, chile powder, cocoa, and a touch of brown sugar. The smells are phenomenal. On the cook top, the colors of the vegetables in the risotto are bright, and make for good contrast with the black beens simmering in the neighboring pot. The risotto sizzles with each addition of the warm broth, a mixture of the sautéed vegetables and chopped Black Mission figs, mixed in with the fat grained rice and vermouth, gradually becoming rich and thick before the final addition of the various cheeses. Tonight I will add parmesan and asiago. A sensory feast before its even on the plate. I drool, therefor, I am.”
(last night while fixing dinner)
I love to cook.
This was not always so. When Mark and I married some many moons ago, my knowledge and experience with cooking was limited to being able to microwave a hot dog and heat water. Mark taught me to make cornbread and how important the care of a good cast iron skillet is. I still cook cornbread in that same skillet, his grandmother’s, well seasoned, with multiple decades of its use.
Eventually I managed to learn to cook a simple breakfast. A Crock Pot held my hand as I used it to learn how to make a meal. There were many errors along the way, but I gradually learned improvisation and a good bottle of wine can get you over most with little notice.
I had several folks along the way who taught me basic stuff like combinations of flavors and proportions of ingredients, and such and I became a bit more comfortable and adventurous as I learned. My cook book collection is enormous and I can spend hours reading recipes, tasting them in my mind, imagining the merging of the flavors, but rarely follow them. I learned,too, that it was about the food, of course, but that it was also about the sharing, that made the meal and the preparing of it, become, something special. Food became an art project on multiple levels of satisfaction, in both the production and the consumption.
There was our friend Pat, a poor fellow who was going thru a painful divorce and who needed a diversion to his evenings. Pat was the first real “foodie” I had ever met, he loved food. I mean loved, FOOD. So for a while, every Wednesday night, he would come over and bring whatever fresh veggies or bag of shrimp he had. I would pull whatever I had out of the fridge and we would all engage in the process of creating and experimenting with the random stuff we had. It was he who introduced me to cooking risotto. The night we first cooked it, we all got into such a giggling fit that we were paralyzed and could barely stand, much less, stir the rice. I had to pull in help from my daughter to handle the chore. She, of course and rightfully, thought we had all lost it and were crazy. We finished that meal off with enormous bowls of ice cream. Pat remarked that mine was so huge it was bound to affect the climate. It was so good.
Eventually Pat’s pain eased and we ceased the regularity of our Wednesday sessions and we moved on in new directions. Pat sadly died this year, and those memories of our time spent in my kitchen, chopping and tasting are now more precious. I, of course, remembered the incapacitating giggles again last night as I continually stirred the rice and added the broth.
In all this time coming down this path of learning to enjoy cooking, the most surprising thing I have come to realize is, that the teacher who really taught me the most, I had not even known I was taking lessons from. Her name was Francis.
Francis Clayton was a very tall and very round black woman who my parents hired when I was in 3rd grade to keep their house, cook, clean, run me around town, and do whatever. She was very good at all of this. She raised me, from our introduction in 3rd grade until my senior year of high school. Her influence on my character was immense. I preferred time with her to most anyone, and I spent endless hours in her kitchen, not helping, but just sitting and talking and, watching.
What had not occurred to me however, until recently, was that in my watching, I was learning. It just took years of struggling thru the formality of learning to follow recipes and such, to finally understand that she had already taught me the real basics of cooking. Comfort. She cooked from the soul, and she was abundant with her love, and her cooking always was soothing and sweet for the soul for those lucky enough to sample her fare. Her food deeply nourished on so many levels. There was nothing fancy about it. It was just simply, good.
Now whenever I cook a batch of collards, batter fresh bream from our pond, season the black eyed peas, drop corn meal covered green tomatoes or okra into hot grease, or mix some butter beans with corn kernels to make a salad with mayonnaise, or any of the more southern types of dishes I can see her still in my folks kitchen in town and up at our lake house, doing the same, and I mimic what she did and feel her spirit.
We are what we eat, literally in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Food prepared with anger or out of obligation, or with a lack of concern for even basic esthetics goes down badly and sits like a rock, refusing digestion. Fast food is without any spirit and is the worst. Food should be fun and makes folks happy.
I have been told many times by the folks who have shared a meal at our table, that my cooking makes them feel better. Unknown to them, that the ooh’s and ah’s they give to me, is really high homage to this wonderful teacher, Francis, that graced my life and left her legacy to me, to share with them.