"She had had to hide feelings for so many months that her expression now changed dramatically, and her relief and happiness were obvious. It was if all her inner joy which had nearly been extinguished, had suddenly been rekindled." Laura Esquivel, "Como Agua Para Chocolate"
In Turkish, a language I do not speak (YET), the word sofra means dining table, table where food is set or, more generally, a spread of food on a dining table. It's a bit like picnic. A time for sharing not only food but also stories and travelers' tales.
This week, while enjoying a leisurely stay-cation, I decided to make a sofra for my friends Kate & Bob and my sister Betsy. I love to cook, especially when I'm not in a hurry, and I believe in the power of slow food preparation (and consumption!). There's an essential and sensual truth to cooking. I love it.
A big part of the joy lies in selecting the ingredients. Some of my favorites, in no particular order: Vanilla beans from Madagascar, long, plump and spicy sweet. Bunches of fresh mint and basil, still dripping water. French feta cheese (and a shout out here to the amazing Sevan Bakery, THE Armenian grocery in Watertown, MA), creamy and salty, just a perfect near-white block of loveliness. Olive oil. Oh, that grassy, rich elixir, redolent of warmer climes. Sesame seeds, dill, Urfa pepper, pistachios, apricots and dates. Lamb -- organic, sweet and tender. Garlic. Banana peppers. Cilantro. Native tomatoes, soft and pulpy and full of juice.
I could write about this stuff forever.
There is something so incredibly pleasing about the fragrance and the spice and the limitless sense of possibility in those ingredients. The culinary vistas that open up before me when I select the ingredients are the stuff of fantasy. When I cook, I feel like it's all possible! Like driving to an airport and choosing an unplanned destination just 'cause it appeals in that moment. It's about serendipity. It's about instinct. It's about whimsical leaps of faith.
It's about passion.
And, it's about memory. Food as memory. Nostalgia. Integration of past experiences into present.
I felt that day as if I were somehow able to channel not only my wonderful trips to Turkey but also my months in Italy, my years in London, my life in New York, my very first dinner party, my first kiss, my first glass of champagne, my childhood. My mother. Again, and unwittingly, I realized the strength of that connection: my mother was an excellent cook, a natural in the kitchen. She gave me the confidence to try. I remembered this as I cooked.
My mother and I were not especially close. She had a horrendous childhood and she learned to close herself off and to remain at a distance from anything potentially powerful. She was physically unapproachable. Sarcastic. It was very hard to know my mother. I'm not sure I ever did. What I know is that she was far more complicated than she ever let on.
People who knew my parents always say I'm exactly like my father. And they're right in lots of ways: our curiosity, our thirst for learning, our love of linguistics and word play. I can plot points along the genetic continuum from my father to myself.
But, as I learn more and more each day, my mother gave me many of the things that make me who I am, as well. Her passion for cooking -- something about my mother that was cited not only in our eulogy but also in her obituary and in every condolence card we received -- was an expression of her love. And a gift she passed on.
What I understand now is that sometimes we are only able to appreciate some gifts after we have experienced sorrow. That with grief comes deep potential for joy. That even-keel can never be anything more than what its name promises: comfortable but ultimately flat.
Got the gift, Mom. Tesekur ederem. (That's thank you very much in Turkish.)