Saturday, June 3, 2006
All You Need is Love (and Leftovers)
This past weekend, I saw my brother’s house for the first time. It’s gorgeous. It begs you to throw a cocktail party, have friends stay over, and talk until it gets late, with a drink in your hand and your feet in the pool. It’s black wood trimmings, French windows and high ceilings. Arches separate the rooms. It reminds me of Rome.
Ever since I can remember, Fausto has been a movie buff. It was so appropriate to see a room expressly intended for movie watching. The house is an accurate reflection of the joyous, fortunate life he has made with Kathia, and seeing it filled me with a love so fierce I struggled not to embarrass him. (Even writing this might embarrass him. Let’s move on.)
We flew into LA Saturday morning and drove directly to his house for brunch. When we arrived, my father and his wife were already there, in an unexpected, fantastic, last minute family reunion. The long dining room table was ready with a fruit bowl, bread, ceviche, olives, salmon, capers, onions, tomatoes and boiled shrimp. Fausto was in jeans and white t-shirt, flipping chicken kebabs and sausages over the open fire on the stove. The Beatles music (which we grew up listening to) was playing and he had a beer in his hand, which he flapped while encouraging us to go ahead and start. As I saw him there in his kitchen, preparing something uncomplicated, festive, I thought how differently each of us approaches the act of preparing food.
My father can't boil water. Let me assure you this is not a figure of speech. A few months ago, he came to visit and asked on the first morning if I could please make him coffee. "Of course" I said. "Why don't you get the water started?" he looked at me, then stared at the stove with a blank, slightly alarmed look.
Later that day, I had to go to work. Leaving him alone in the house should be considered criminal behavior, and filled me with apprehension – the kind you would feel if you left a toddler home alone. He called me at the office a few hours later. "There are no more plates" he stated. I thought for a second. "What do you mean? Are they broken?" "No" he said. "They're dirty." I tried very hard for my next sentence to be void of sarcasm or attitude. "Well" I intoned as sweetly as possible "do you think you could possibly wash a couple?" "Dushka" he said, taken aback. "That's a woman's job." I thought this incident was so hilarious and so like him that I recounted it to Jen, a friend at work. She swallowed. "Dushka" she said, voice flat, eyes scanning the room, "he could get sued for that".
The only time in my life my father decided he'd take it upon himself to make dinner (I forget the evidently extenuating circumstances) he decided he'd make fondue. Cheese. Wine. Heat. What could be hard? We trailed behind him to the garden and watched him clip herbs with flair, smell them and nod knowingly, carefully set them aside. We then all followed him back to the kitchen, transfixed. A pot was located. Cheese was placed in it. The herbs. He looked at the mixture. Does fondue really need to be a thick, uniform liquid?
We all went into the dining room. He set the creation in front of us and took a step back, chef-like. We all dipped in our bread, put it in our mouths and- almost gagged. He was furious. "Disdaining food is a capital sin." He broke off a piece of bread and spread the concoction fearlessly over it. He put it in his mouth. We watched as the bitterness hit him. "Mmmmm" he said, not grimacing, "this is…- Absolutely inedible".
My mother's cooking resembles an assembly line. She gives orders, moves from left to right, and strictly follows the Two Cardinal Rules.
1. No scrap of food wasted.
2. The kitchen must end up cleaner than when we started.
Chicken is pulled from the bone and turned into enchiladas. Left over tamales are mixed with mole de Xico, becoming tamal de cazuela. Day old salad becomes a spicy cream of vegetable soup. Greens are put into the blender. While it whirrs, she wipes the counter. While the soup bubbles, she cleans the floors. While flavors come together, the windows, cabinets and refrigerator are scrubbed down. The end result is a sparkling kitchen, four oven dishes that get covered, then popped into the freezer, and three that are used for meals throughout the week.
Many years ago, Tomas, my mother's husband, made a generous portion of Bloody Mary's for a brunch. A lot of the guests ended up drinking orange juice instead. My mother grabbed the pitcher with the leftover Bloody Mary, poured it into a pot, added a bit of yogurt, and voila. Tomato soup with a kick. Based on the effect it had on people, alcohol does not evaporate as quickly as you think.
Luca is a purist. He reviews a recipe book. Marks three entries. Dictates a list of necessary ingredients. He then lines things up so that if the recipe reads "half a cup of julienned carrots" they are in a bowl, cut up and pre-measured. He uses every dish in the kitchen. He accepts no substitutions. “Diced” is never “chopped”. Cream cannot be yogurt. Lemon means lemon, not vinegar. Scallions are not used in place of onions, nor cherry tomatoes in the place of plum tomatoes. The recipe must be followed to the letter. 45 minutes in the oven mean a timer set to 45 minutes. And, have you ever seen a chef chop something up? Boring, compared to Luca's flick of the wrist. And despite flawless results, my favorite thing when he cooks is how the food is arranged on the plate.
Like Fausto, I prepare food to music. While things cook, I dance as I scrub down those cabinets. That’s not the only way I take after my mother: like her, I cannot for the life of me follow a recipe, and find leftovers a fascinating challenge – in my house they too become soups, or get tossed with pasta or scrambled eggs. The inherited flair of giving food a second life is often met with a standing ovation from Luca. I never bake because I find substitutions inexplicably irresistible: in an attempt to make things healthier or better I shun butter and white flower to often perplexing results that are as inedible as the famous fondue from my childhood.
Just like the food we eat becomes our bones and our blood, there is an inextricable, delicious piece of those we love in the person we become.