In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were all lost in the supermarket or, as in the case of this entry from Emily Rich, watching a child grown into a different cook, a different person, than ourselves, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.
And now that I’ve laid the table, Emily Rich:
Isabel, with my black apron cinched around her waist has effectively shooed me out of the kitchen.
“I got this, Mom, don’t worry,” she says, unsheathing the good chef’s knife from its protective case. My oldest daughter is home from college and wants nothing more than to make the family dinner.
Wine in hand, I retire to the non-serious side of the granite counter and take a seat on one of the low backed stools where I can watch my daughter expertly dice zucchini and red peppers into one parti-colored mound on the cutting board. Her fingers on the knife are pale and slim, well manicured. Her blond hair is swirled up into an out-of-the way bun.
She has categories of ingredients arranged before her, spices, vegetables, fats, but no recipe book. She knows what will taste good, she says.
How fun it must be, I think, to be able to cook with such authority and abandon. It’s a gift I’ve never had.
It’s not that I don’t like to cook, I do. And I’ve long gotten over my food issues, from the days I rebelled against the tense and joyless dinner table of my youth, eating as little as possible of whatever my mother put on my plate. By Isabel’s age I was skinny and finicky and a terrible cook. I’ve relaxed quite a bit, but it was something I had to teach myself to do.
As a wife and mother, I adore my family and want to provide them with good, healthy, even memorable meals. I peruse cookbooks and magazines—or more recently, websites like epicurious.com—I write lists, shop, chop, bake and braise, following every recipe pretty much down to the quarter teaspoon. I’ve never developed the confidence to improvise. My meals are less spontaneous love letters, more well-researched reports.
Whether learned or inherited, Isabel has gotten her cooking skills from her father, a happy and extraordinary cook. I remember Isabel as a child standing beside him in the kitchen as he threw unmeasured quantities of this or that into the veal ragout, stirring, tasting, adjusting the flavor. “You know how you know if something tastes good?” He’d instruct. “Taste it. You gotta go with your gut.”
My husband is a big man with big appetites, whose passion for life’s pleasures mean a good portion of the family budget will always be dedicated to fine food and drink. Not that I’m complaining! If you want to have a great dinner, come over sometime when he’s cooking and pouring the wine. I’ll happily clean up the kitchen for us afterwards.
But my husband can also be undiscriminating. He’ll eat anything. It’s a point of pride. Sweetbreads, pigs head, offal, you name it. Once in Thailand he bought a bag of wok-fried locusts from a street vendor. In Hawaii he ordered something called “difficult octopus” that looked like a bowl full of pale snot and delighted in the reaction he provoked from the rest of the table as he chopsticked the goo into his mouth.
Isabel is more discerning. She is a pescatarian, which means she’ll eat fish, but not poultry or meat. It’s healthier, she says. Usually she cooks vegetarian, like she is doing tonight: A pasta primavera bursting with vegetables, a blueberry-peach cobbler for dessert.
So what is my contribution to the meal tonight? I like to think I provided the haven where everyone’s true selves could flourish. From the time my children arrived, I wanted nothing more than to create a warm and stress-free home, a place so completely opposite from the sad and violent home where I was raised. My kitchen is clean and well-stocked, there’s classic rock streaming on the computer. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. All I need to do is get out of the way and let Isabel compose her love letter to the family.
Isabel’s Pasta Primavera
I use whatever vegetables I have available, sometimes it’s frozen broccoli and spinach. But my favorite is fresh zucchini, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. I chop those up and sauté them in white wine (if I have it!), butter and as much garlic as possible. Throw in some herbs like oregano or thyme, salt, and red pepper flakes.
Meanwhile, boil whole wheat angel hair pasta, drain and mix in the sautéed veggies. Top with Parmesan and a fried egg. Finish with black pepper. Enjoy!
Emily Rich is the non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of journals including Little Patuxent Review, Welter, River Poet’s Journal, Delmarva Review and The Pinch.