I’ve been thinking about the simple pleasure of preparing a meal. It’s an activity made even more poignant by the situation in Haiti this week. The earthquake calls into sharp focus just how devastatingly fragile the physical world is and how common our basic human needs are. In so many structures in Haiti, where there are no longer tables and chairs, or cabinets and walls, the simplicity of bread and water is magnified to a king’s meal. Why isn’t it so with every meal, especially those prepared in comfort? Yes, it’s hard to think about pork chops and placemats in the light of such a tragedy. Still, the simple pleasure of offering food around a table to ones dear to us is so much more astounding as I’m reminded of the multitude of neighbors in our hemisphere for whom that luxury has been displaced.
I usually like to cook. Sometimes it’s a quick, easy and totally gift-friendly meal of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti or some other favorite that allows me to get in and out of the kitchen quickly. In my mind those meals offer only a nod of the head at cooking, but the experience is elevated simply by the presence of those around me. At other times I enjoy making a selection of dishes with more presence, ones based on special recipes or made from “scratch” rather than from some combination of boxes and bags. Those are the kinds of meals almost everyone has in some form or another. They are ones that say home or celebration or culinary success, birthed from familes and traditions, experiences or locales.
Some meals have “place”–like the one from Wednesday night that was unmistakably Southern from its inception. Although they may have been modernized, the dishes have a context in memory or cooking method that speaks to my life in Mississippi. Corn bread was the first thing I made. My grandmothers made it in large iron skillets heated in the oven first and with handfuls of ingredients tossed and stirred without thinking. I make mine from the recipe on the Martha White Cornmeal package in a square metal pan. I could probably do it from memory if pressed, but I’ve never tested the theory. And, you barely miss the skillet’s influence when it’s warm with a dab of butter.
Macaroni and cheese was next on the menu, and although I’ve had my share of experiences with the blue Kraft box, I prefer to make it myself now–mainly because Bug asks for it. There’s nothing like the repeated requests of a 3-year-old to make you feel like a cooking rock star. I make my mac and cheese with a milk and egg mixture rather than a cheese sauce and layer the noodles with whatever combination of cheddar, swiss and parmesan I have available.
Honey-pecan pork chops were the main event, floured and cooked in butter on the stovetop. Yes, it’s about as heart-friendly as a can of Crisco, but still, it’s not every day. The frying recalls the way my Mom cooks chicken tenders or how my grandmother made deer steak as a child–lifting the edges of the meat with a fork to check the brownness, turning at just the right time, scraping the pan with a spatula. After the chops are cooked, the recipe calls for some measurement of pecans and honey which I can never remember. I just throw some in, and I’ve learned through hard experience and very hardened sugar to turn the eye down first. I like to add a splash of Worchestershire sauce in as well to give this semblance of a roulx a more savory taste.
There are a hundred other stories of recipes and dishes, various combinations with the appropriate green elements, sides, bread and fruit. Most moms and wives have them. And, every woman has her own preferred method and ideal environment for cooking for her family–the kitchen, the pots and pans, what happens to the used dishes and egg shells, the proclivity to use measuring spoons and the penchant for interaction. It’s an integral part of the process of feeding a family.
My kitchen is invariably a cacophony of sights and sounds and movement. The sights: A refrigerator and stovetop grease guard filled with children’s photos, finger paintings tucked behind spice racks and collections of utensils and momentos lining the counters in plain view. I just like to look at things while I’m cooking, while I’m living. One wall of cabinets with glass doors affords me the opportunity to see the vessels I enjoy–bowls and pottery, 50s pyrex I love, colorful plates of various sizes. The sounds: A thousand interruptions to start a movie, answer a question, referee a car chase, or retrieve a 15-month-old from the top of a table. Ocassionally there’s an attempted conversation with my husband from the rocking chair my grandmother gave me. The movement: Perpetual acts of wiping my hands on my pants, various dishes at different stages of completion and imperfectly timed to get on the table somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00pm, and always a flurried combination of preparation and clean-up all going on at the same time. The tasks are often accomplished around Baby Girl unloading the plasticware cabinet at my feet. These kitchen sensibilities are the evidences of time spent trying to elevate this ordinary daily activity to the honored place of extraordinary.
I am struck by the power of the simple act of feeding. In all its complicated cacophony, the individuality and habits found in my kitchen can raise that process of eliminating hunger to the level of celebration. If I embrace them. Somehow in that boiling and stirring and place-setting, I’m feeding more than stomachs and strong bones. I’m feeding healthy hearts and hungry spirits for those in my care. I’m meeting a basic human need we all have–nourishment for body and soul.