Cooking for my mother.
After nearly every meal I cook for my mother, she thanks me as she gets up from her chair. I don't know why; I certainly have never thanked her for any meal in the nearly three decades she has been cooking for me. It is a strange feeling to be thanked for something so simple, for something that is so often taken for granted. I took for granted that my mother would cook for me when I was a child; I take for granted now that I should cook for her and my father, when they are here. Now it's my turn, my turn to rummage around the refrigerator and pull together a meal, my turn to look around the piles of neatly arranged produce, the gleaming array of meats and seafoods at the supermarket and think of what to cook for the nights ahead. It is my turn to make them feel as cared for as they have made me feel for all of my life. I make all the things I remember from years past, and there is a curious sensation of inverted time as I stand at the counter slicing vegetables and mincing garlic, or hover over the stove waiting for the oil to heat to a shimmer.
I think about how my mother taught me to cook, beginning with washing the vegetables, progressing (with age) to slicing and chopping, leaving a trail of colanders and bowls and plates heaped with bok choy and finely sliced scallions (never sliced quite thinly enough) and strips of tofu in my wake. And then I started making one dish for the evening's meal, the stir-fried vegetables or scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or a dish of soy-seasoned ground pork crowned with one egg and steamed in the microwave. Slowly - by now I was in college - the entire meal became my domain. And I continued on with all the things I remembered, all the things I learned from my mother balanced by those I learned from books and television cooking shows. How to slice eggplant in irregular chunks and peel garlic by smashing a whole clove with the flat side of my chef's knife (mother). How to chop onions into an even dice without scattering bits of onion all over the place (Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake!) and to put minced garlic into cold oil in a cold pan (so says Jeffrey Steingarten, who learned this from Marcella Hazan, who did for Italian cooking what Julia Child did for French cooking in this country).
I think about Jeffrey Steingarten and Marcella Hazan's words as I pour a swirl of oil into the pan, scraping some minced garlic in before turning the heat on. It slowly caramelizes as I turn my attention to the braised beef on the next burner, browning the sliced short ribs with sliced onions in between cleaning up the chaos that had erupted on the counter behind me. Clean up as you go, your parents and all the cookbooks have been telling me for twenty years, and mostly I don't. The smell of browning beef and onions mingles with the scent of garlic; time to add the somewhat messily trimmed green beans to one pot and the tomatoes to the other. The tomatoes melt into the short ribs, so the meat simmers in their juices; the beans steam under the glass lid. I slosh in some soy sauce, and continue stirring until all the moisture has evaporated and the beans have browned around the edges. At last it's time to toss in the strips of dried tofu and stir them together with the beans until they are hot and slightly glazed with the sauce. It is perfect, a study in tastes and textures, sweet and salty and garlicky, soft green beans and chewy tofu. We eat it all, and I marvel at the faint caramelized sweetness, an unexpected new flavor in an old dish as familiar as a childhood teddy bear. It is not until later that I realize that the sweetness came from the organic heirloom garlic I bought at Whole Foods because I couldn't find any regular garlic.
You can make something again and again and again, and know it so well that each step comes without thinking, like my garlic-soy green beans. And yet the addition of something new or slightly different can change it entirely, make it extraordinary. A surprise, the best kind.