“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
He used to stand in front of the TV in denim overalls, hands tucked into the bib, riotous blonde curls on his head, to watch Sesame Street. Ready to dance, to sing along, to call me in to see at a moment’s notice. He handed out fierce hugs frequently, kissed his aunts’ hands when greeting them, and was my little shadow for years. Lap sitter. Hold me. Can I have another kiss goodnight? A re-appearer on the stairs after tuck-in to tell me just one more thing: Mommy, you’re so smart. You’re beautiful. I wanted to say thank you for my lunch box. He grew up so fast, as busy children – and parents – do. And while I may not remember every little word, gesture or moment of the growing up, I will remember the ache of complete and blindly obliterating love in my throat and my heart forever.
Reverence for food runs through our lives like a deep dark river, and has for generations. Food is sacrament and sustenance, celebration and consolation. Preparation is joyful meditation, and sharing is a fulfilling communion. Conversation grows like morning glory vines scrambling up a string to bloom. Love is passed along with the roast spring lamb embedded with garlic, crusted with sea salt, rosemary and lemon juice; along with the pasta with fresh ricotta and spring’s baby arugula; with the winter’s chicken and dumplings, rich and feathery. The garnet wine, the black espresso, all become the easing lubricant for a life that can be a creaky and cumbersome burden. And the laughter that leaves us breathless is the real dessert along with the cream and the dark chocolate.
This weekend, I saw my son in new light; the focused laser of a being who hears and heeds his calling. He volunteers to help a friend with the cooking for a benefit dinner that is stalled in the planning. Their welcome of his expertise and practical suggestions turns him into the executive chef, and I’ve offered to help. How did this sensitive little boy grow into this young man so in command of his kitchen? He exerts full control with calm and humor and an understanding of human nature beyond his years. He rescues the fraternity brother, a volunteer, from the dish pan to which he’s been relegated, and asks him “How are you with a knife?” The boy replies, “Uh…OK, I guess.” My son gives him a knife-proof glove, gives him quick clear instruction, reassures him he can do it, hands him his lethally sharp personal santoku knife, and the fraternity brother is suddenly making a good chiffonade of fresh mustard greens to go into the braised chicken. Clearly, he likes this a lot more than the dish pan. My son as mentor with a sense of humor.
There’s a skill to getting five courses of dinner flowing to the dining room. Even more skill is required when the dining room is half a mile away from the kitchen. He has a crew of volunteers and amateur cooks, a clipboard with pages and pages of notes, recipes, schedules, and lists of tasks to be completed, who’s to complete them, and in what order. This is the daredevil boy who rode his bike down the biggest hill he could find, as fast as he could go, ditching the bike helmet as soon as he left the house and my eyesight. This is the boy who set off a roman candle inside his car just to see what would happen. He runs his kitchen like an engineer runs a locomotive. It can’t be stopped or the whole thing derails. Timers tick away and ring their alarm. Pots are boiling, sauces simmering, oil heating, cold things kept cold, hot things kept hot. 60 plates heated in the oven until they are screaming hot. You can’t touch them without towels and even then you get burned. Bowls for sorbet and tiny spoons popped into the freezer to chill, then kept in a refrigerated truck until the sorbet is served before the entrée. One of the diners has an allergy. We prepare his appetizers and entrée separately, using dedicated knives, cutting boards, dishes, utensils, even gloves. He assembles his crew, checking items off the list as he doles out the duties. It all hinges on him and his organization, and he’s ready.
Instead of engaging in a showy tug of war for control, he quietly does things his way with no discussion and no fanfare, this boy who muscled his way through the terrible twos (and threes…and some of the fours…) with fearsome tantrums. My respect grows. There are two of us that he trusts completely, left in the kitchen to finish the cooking with him. I am honored to be one of them. After a lifetime of cooking for him, I’m now a bit intimidated by his knowledge and his skill. Do I measure up to the standard now set by my son? There are no do-overs here, and I don’t want to disappoint him. We fry 65 creamy polenta circles, we pull apart 10 braised chickens. I am told to thicken the braising liquid, redolent of white wine and chicken stock, and I am relieved when he pronounces it “perfect.”
The food is finished cooking, wrapped and covered, and stored in hot boxes for transporting to the tent at the site of the dinner. We plate the salads in an assembly line. He watches to be sure that the salad will stretch. There is enough left for two additional salads. Good planning feeds generously, while minimizing waste. The salads are cleared, and sorbet is served. A fresh mint leaf and a frozen spoon are settled into each little white cup, and trays are whisked away by servers. We set up to plate the entrées. He tells us all to get fresh gloves. We will plate the allergy sufferer’s entrée first. A circle of polenta goes down onto the plate. Next, a handful of hot chicken pieces. Hands are a much better, more satisfying way to judge how much you’re serving than an impersonal spoon. A ladle of the braising sauce is poured over the chicken. A warm salad of blanched, still crisp green beans combined with chopped peppers and a vinegar dressing is added to the plate. Passed along the line, a garnish of chopped mustard greens is sprinkled atop the chicken, a vivid orange nasturtium blossom is tucked in beside the beans. Each beautiful plate is passed to the “wiper” who makes sure each one is perfectly clean before it’s put on the waiter’s tray. My son keeps a close eye on each step, his final instruction telling the waiters to set the plate onto the table with the chicken covered polenta at 6 o’clock, and the nasturtium on the left. Uniformly beautiful and delicious.
The entrées are all served, and then we plate desserts. First, fresh gloves for everyone. Thick slices of carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting gets a rosette of whipped cream. Alternatively, there is a dense moist chocolate cake sweetened with puréed beets, covered with a glorious chocolate ganache. More whipped cream is piped out, and these dark plates get a mint leaf and a fat red raspberry as a little extra gilding. Entrées are cleared, and desserts are served. My son is called into the candlelit tent by the dinner’s organizers, and their chef is introduced to the assembled group who have paid $50 a plate for tonight’s meal. Their enthusiastic applause brings tears to my eyes. He waves a modest thank you. He is exhausted.
The last few diners linger over their coffee and dessert, and then leave, and finally we can begin clearing up. The job is enormous. Everything must be taken away in trucks; glasses, plates, bowls, cups, every spoon and fork and knife, transported to the dish washers waiting at the University. The refrigerator truck must be driven away. Tables must be taken down, linens bagged, chairs folded and returned, food wrapped and saved for donation or discarded as unsafe to eat again. I return to the prep kitchen, which also must be cleaned. I leave my son loading piles of chairs onto a pickup truck. An hour later, he returns to the prep kitchen where we are finishing up the wiping and washing. He grabs a broom and even though he looks ready to drop, he makes sure the floor is clean, he sorts out his knives and cleans and dries them, putting them away in their canvas roll. He packs up the bins of blenders and propane burners, stock pots, spoons, whisks, grill scouring pads, and all the paraphernalia essential to the success of an event like this, and carries them to his car. This boy, whose bedroom was a chaotic stockpile of clothing, video games, books, music, lacrosse pads, sneakers and computer parts for years, puts his broom away. He casts a final appraising eye over the kitchen. He’s left it cleaner and tidier than he found it. And at 11:15 PM his day is over. I invite him to the house. I give him a beer and we share a drink and a cigar in the quiet cool back yard. And we talk over the day and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. I tell him how proud I am of who I saw tonight, how fortunate to be able to work with him in his chosen and hard-won profession. I am so fortunate to find deep respect for this child of mine. I feel that ache of love in my throat again, as strong and deep as when he was 3. I always will.