In Good Taste

If I navigate around the kitchen in my parents’ house, I find many familiar objects, and each brings to mind a powerful memory. Wooden spoons, large metal mixing bowls, and white cutting boards remind me of the countless meals they have helped to prepare and the endless hours I’ve spent in happy fascination, watching Mom or Dad turn a handful of ingredients into something delectable.

As children, my siblings and I were welcomed into the kitchen and given tasks to complete. We started with washing vegetables, then we graduated to grating cheese or peeling carrots. Eventually, we learned to assemble whole dishes by ourselves, and we could proudly claim at the next family dinner, “I made that!”

One of my most vivid kitchen memories is a scene that often repeats, varying slightly each time. It begins with my father’s voice calling, “Emily where are you?” because I’m not in the kitchen at the time. If I respond by saying, “I’m folding laundry,” or “I’m getting ready to go out,” his answer is always the same. “I need you in here.”

As I’m making my way to the kitchen, I hear him banging a spatula on the side of the food processor or one of our large metal mixing bowls. When I enter the kitchen, he says a variation of one of the following: “Get a spoon,” (handing me a chip or a wedge of pita), “Here’s your testing implement,” or simply, “Try this.” The next thing he says is always the same, whether I’m tasting spaghetti sauce, hummus, clam chowder, olive spread, salsa, chili, or guacamole. He turns away from the counter to face me and says, “What does it need?”

At this point, I take a minute to savor the mouthful he’s loaded onto the spoon, chip, or pita wedge, knowing that he expects me to talk about the complex flavors I’m tasting. Here, I must tell him whether it needs paprika, garlic, lemon juice or zest, onions, a pinch of cinnamon, allspice — an infinite and well-stocked cabinet of spices looms before me and Dad grins at me expectantly. If I remain quiet, he gently prompts, “Well, what does it need?”

I can’t remember how old I was when Dad first began consulting me on the seasoning of his dishes, a task he could easily do on his own.  Many can attest to his wonderful culinary skills. He would make jokes about my “superior palate” and say that he needed my expertise, even if I hadn’t been involved in the initial stages of making the food. It slowly dawned on me that Dad never contradicted the seasoning I advised, that he always added what I suggested and thoughtfully considered my comments. Later, he would tell anyone who commented on the food that I had helped him season it and that he had done exactly as I’d suggested.

Looking back across the many meals we’ve cooked together, I still find it strange that he defers to me when it comes to seasoning. He has more experience in the kitchen preparing all kinds of things I haven’t even attempted, and he has a knack for knowing which flavors will complement the ingredients he’s chosen. Even as I’m suggesting seasonings, he tells me things about the food we’re preparing, instructing me in the use of the garlic press or showing me how to steam broccoli. He shows me how to use his large chef’s knife to chop vegetables, turning them flat-side down on the cutting board so that they don’t roll away. He tells me that I’ll know when the bacon’s done cooking because, “It’ll stop talking to you” — meaning, the pan will grow quiet. Dad explains that this is because, as the water in the bacon cooks out, it makes the familiar sizzling noise.

So why would he trust me? As I stand next to the huge mixing bowl watching him fold the tahini and lemon juice into this particular batch of hummus, I think, “I’m just a kid.”

And it dawns on me.

When it comes to garlic and pepper, he lets me call the shots, because he trusts my palate, but he is not focusing on his trust. He’s trying to get me to trust myself. He follows my advice so that I’ll understand the consequences of my choices. I’ll know what a little more garlic and a pinch of cinnamon do to the chili — and when the changes I suggest turn into fantastic tastes, Dad wants me to know that I made them happen.

Dad and I stand next to the stove as he stirs his giant pot of clam chowder, one of my favorites. I stand by the cutting board as he chops green onion or opens cans. We chat about the meal to come, both getting excited. He has done the research, looking at dozens of versions of the same recipe, but he doesn’t cook with the recipe in hand. He improvises on the theme.

As I listen to him explain the intricacies of his latest creation, blueberry pancakes with lime zest and spices, I realize that I cook the same way – doing the research and the tossing the recipes aside. We stumble upon rare ingredients in the grocery store, and we both start gushing about what we could do with them. He hands me a bottle of pomegranate molasses and says, “Look, isn’t this neat?” We immediately begin to dream up uses for it, and I slip it into the cart.

I come by my love of good food honestly. Growing up with parents who are both excellent cooks will do that to a person. But I would never have trusted my own culinary intuition if Dad had not put me through my paces as his personal food critic, taken me to the store to pick out my own garlic press and red cutting board (a high contrast surface for chopping vegetables), and indulged every request I made for fancy ingredients that most college students wouldn’t even know how to pronounce.

Dad teases me about my gourmet tastes and surprises me with a new cheese in the same conversation. He refills my spice containers and haggles at the farmers’ market to get me the best mangoes and ginger.

To me, the best moments aren’t peeling the delicious golden mangoes or unwrapping the Stilton with apricots. They’re the moments I spent standing next to him in the kitchen, when we’re working together to make something we love for the people we love.

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