Inevitably…as the season changes and the days shorten, I move to pursuits of comfort food, fires and good books. As a child, I remember rainy fall days cooped up in the house. I would head to my room and bury my nose into a book to wait out the weather but would be called out by the aromas coming from the kitchen. Even though times could be rocky in my home, my mother always made wonderful food. My indoctrination into food and cooking was one of diligence and a commitment to the ‘old way’ of doing things.
My great uncle would send her dry chilies from Mexico and as she had always done, my mother would burn her hands as she blanched them in boiling water and delicately removed their skins. If we were lucky to get fresh chilies, she would char them in the oven. My mother was not one to rely on convenience when it came to preparing food. It was one of those funny quirks of my mother’s…. She had two food processors, but chose to ground her chilies and garlic for her Roja sauce in a Molcajete just as my grandmother did.
In our home, the stove would have several pots going at one time. As always, my mom had a huge pot of pinto beans simmering away. Of course, that pot was preceded by the long and arduous process of ‘picking and sorting beans’. My mother would sit me at the kitchen table with two bowls, a bag of dried beans and a paper towel. In small manageable amounts, the beans would be poured on the towel and sifted through to remove any stones or imperfect legumes that happen to find themselves in the bag. One bowl for the undesirables and one bowl for the perfectly picked…It was pointless to take any shortcuts, for my mother would just scoop up my sifted pile, pour it out on the towel and direct me to start over. It was admirable; frustrating, but admirable. And although my mother was far from perfect, she nurtured and loved me through her cooking.
So, in gearing up for autumn, I went looking for some of my favorite recipes and I stumbled across a dog-eared recipe card for my mother’s spaghetti sauce. There it was typed with the new typewriter I received for my birthday. Some ingredients didn’t even make it on the card. There weren’t any instructions either; those were saved to my memory… Hands down, my mother had the best spaghetti sauce I had ever eaten…at least I thought so. I pleaded with her to show me how to make it and on one of those rainy days…we set out to do just that.
First she showed me how to dice an onion; first vertically, then horizontally and finally sliced crosswise. Then she pulled out the head of garlic and placed it in a kitchen towel. She tightly wound the towel and banged it against the counter; like magic, all the cloves separated. Next she grabbed a saucer and pushed down on the garlic cloves; the papery skins loosened and fell off. Since the garlic was small, my mother fearing a trip to the emergency room minced it herself.
The hardest part of this lesson was the dry ingredients. My mother NEVER measured anything. So on that day, I made her pour the ingredients in her hand and I would then take the measuring spoons to determine a quantifiable amount. However, some ingredients remained in their “handful” measurement. Over the course of my lesson she bestowed her hints and tricks; added sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, grated Parmesan cheese to help thicken the sauce; wine added at the end to retain the flavor. This would be my first foray into writing recipes.
I always thought that one day, my mother and I would be in my kitchen preparing food, but that day never came. I often find myself in the kitchen wondering what she would think of my cooking, would she be proud, would she recognize that I still follow her instruction? And when I prepare lentils, I take out two bowls and a paper towel and head to the kitchen table.