I said awhile ago that I would not abandon this project. I need to apologize for the absence and get back to the articles and reviews. In doing so, perhaps I can explain my delay in writing and offer something meaningful, although somber.
I have been reminded of Proust and his “Remembrance of Things Past” too often to count. Those passages about the tiny shell shaped sponge cakes always reminded me of how something so simple, profound and heartfelt can be so difficult to explain to others. A thought, a memory, or a feeling so easily grasped by us all inside loses it’s meaning and importance somehow when put into words. As it turns out, I have spent much of my life in pursuit of something that I only recently understood.
Many times throughout my busy, hurried hours, days and years spent in restaurants, I stopped and closed my eyes. The swirling smells of the kitchen are too scattered to stop and place unless peering into a stockpot or some intern is busy burning bread. But there were smells that, when presented to me, stopped everything and the blur of the kitchen slowed down to a crawl, and finally stopped. In those tiny seconds, I would remember my childhood. So far away in every aspect from a chaotic kitchen that it was a small, instant vacation to a another time. A time when I hated mornings. As a kid who was too smart for his own good and less than enthusiastic about waking up at my father’s preordained time, I found the early hours of the weekend day tedious and would lie in bed listening to the grumbling of my father and constant calls to wake up from my mother. She was always willing to go above and beyond my impatient father by tirelessly asking me to wake up. As I lie in bed, I would slowly begin to breathe in my mother’s breakfast cooking. The smell of bacon and onions drifted throughout the house and eventually into my bed where I lay dreaming. It was a smell that could not be ignored. It was the smoked salty savory scent that lingered from the early morning hours throughout the day into the evening that would always remind me of home.
Other times I was reminded that there was nothing that could compare to Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. They were of course delicious, but always baked for friends or celebrations of some kind. They were always associated with happy times. The gooey chocolate chips floating in the salty and sweet soft centers, surrounded by the crispy crunchy outer crust, were heavenly. As a child I ate them voraciously but never understood until many years later how they gave me a feeling of utter contentment. While I nibbled on a cookie during a busy holiday event thousands of miles from my family back home, I was taken back to the times of my childhood when I sat carefree with my family. With each bite I was transported back in time to when I was surrounded by loved ones, swimming on hot summer days and laughing with childhood friends. As I stood motionless amid strangers drinking and caroling, I suddenly realized how great my childhood days were. How carefree and loved I was. Until then, I looked back dispassionately on my youth and it was not until that Christmas eve that I understood and actually became fond of it.
Days when I was sick and home from school, I would lie underneath a heavy velvet blanket with leopard spots that Mom had sewn together herself. As I lay on the couch the watching “I Love Lucy”, coughing and generally feeling miserable, Mom would walk in with a bowl of hard cooked eggs expertly prepared. The eggs were always cooked perfect with never a runny or grey yolk and just the right touch of salt and butter to make them fluffy and delicious. They were sublime, and most importantly were made with love. Though I was ill, the eggs had an unusual healing property that remained the same throughout the years. My Mother’s care, the laughing on television, the hard boiled eggs and being curled up under a heavy blanket, always made me feel better. I remember knowing I was safe and loved and that nothing else mattered on those mornings. Of the thousands of hard boiled eggs I must have cooked in my life, each one I’ve cooked reminds me of a simple dish fed to a tiny ill, but happy child, on a sofa a lifetime ago.
She never seemed to stop cooking. It was one constant in my early years. It provided me with the most basic ability of a chef – to make food taste good. I suppose I also inherited the desire to make others happy with cooking much like mom, although I confess, it gets lost in the day to day chaos that is a professional kitchen. My mother did not have packaged meals or pre-made food in her repertoire. Everything was made from scratch. Not made from scratch in the corporate restaurants who have everything shipped in from out of town way, but in the Italian grandmother slaving over a hot stove to make a single meatball way. Growing up, I never knew how respected this way of cooking was until I began working for culinary luminaries. It was the most basic concept to cook everything from scratch, but I soon found out how few people actually did it. It takes a talent, a patience, a knowledge and a love, to cook that way. It was all intrinsic and fundamental to my Mother.
Looking back, everything she did in the long list of things that encompasses making three meals a day for a family was done with care and joy. She seemed to take some secret pleasure from cooking, always going about even the most mundane tasks of cooking in a way that most people do not understand. The tedious chores of shopping, frying, baking, chopping, boiling, roasting, sauteing were transformed into happy times in between boring life necessities that make up the days of a young family. Kitchen work that was uninteresting or inconsequential and insignificant to most of us, was a privilege and a source of happiness for her.
So maybe now I realize that my mother has given me one final gift. One she could not have ever known about but would have made her happy. Through food, I am able to remember her and our family in a way I could never have imagined; with kindness, fondness and love. I know that intellectualizing and writing about involuntary memory cannot evoke the memory of my mother in the way I wish it would. Nor can remarking on her incredible gift of cooking for others and her cheerful and giving disposition explain to a stranger who she was. To all this, I can only offer something simple yet hopefully meaningful. We’ll miss you mom.