When I was growing up, I was my mother’s little sous-chef in the kitchen – chopping, peeling, dicing, creaming butter and sugar for cakes, frying plantains, among other things. All these little tasks contributed to my ever-growing love affair with food.
As humans, we all have to eat. Some people see food as just fuel, others are obsessed with it, and others are simply indifferent. A few, are just in love with everything food-related – from its role in the history of the world to the simple act of peeling a mango to give to a child hungering for something sweet and delicious; the love of something so basic as feeding your family well was infused to me by my mother.
It started when I was very young. I was completely fascinated by everything my mother did in the kitchen, and was especially entranced with licking cake batter off the spoon and drinking hot cocoa with brown sugar. My mother saw the glow in my eyes as I observed her every movement while she cooked and as I got a little older she gave me specific duties.
Almost every meal was accompanied by a salad, that is, by sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. I had to peel the cucumbers, cut them in half, scoop the seeds with a spoon and then slice then in rounds. The tomatoes were just simply cut and served, seeds included.
The other constant side dish was fried plantains. This was a little more elaborate as I had to peel the plantain first, then cut in half, then slice in long, thick slivers and fry gently so that they would not burn. It became an art after a while and my brother and sister were always happy to see this on their plates. When Mommy was not looking, we would sprinkle a little sugar on each slice of plantain to make it even sweeter. Pure wickedness.
Then I graduated to do more “complicated” things like frying eggs, boiling macaroni, prepping all the ingredients for her famous chicken stuffing and mastering the fine art of creaming the butter and sugar for her lovely cakes.
I became, more than anything, the best eater in the world. We would sit side by side in front the TV and watch cooking shows. We would walk down to the mall and go to the bookstore to buy Gourmet magazines and the latest cookbooks.
We had a ritual: every Sunday my father would take us to a fancy restaurant, my all time favorite being one called Piccolo Mondo. I would always order the same thing – Fruit Punch to drink (the best ever), Gnocchi à la Bolognese as a first course, Châteaubriand with Béarnaise Sauce and Strawberry Cake with Cream for dessert. These decadent dishes were the foundation of my craving for good, high-quality fare that survives in me until this day.
It is hard to believe that given this background, I did not actually learn how to cook until I was twenty years old. On a break from college, I randomly picked recipes from a French cookbook called “Everyday French Cooking” by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, a cookbook that Mommy had and that I still own up to this day, worn, with yellowed pages.
I told her that my mission on that break was to learn to cook a complete dish, not just to do the prep. She stood patiently by, giving advice and smiling mischievously when I failed, the gnocchi being especially trying for me.
Nowadays, Sundays are sacred in our family – we all get together to enjoy a weekly feast prepared by our mother. Her repertoire of dishes has expanded and have become both eclectic and idiosyncratic, a unique and inspiring style that relies on no recipes, just a lifetime of tasting and observation.
We still talk about recipes on the phone and ask each other what we are cooking. The love of food is a bond that is intrinsically woven into the fibers of our affection for each other, a delicious connection that will never go away and will keep us together forever.
Happy Birthday Mommy!