I just finished “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” on the bus home from Maine. I’ve spent a lot of time cooking for myself, eating for myself, and less frequently dining out alone. I readily acknowledge that the food I make for myself is often repetitive, inexpensive, and fast – black beans mixed on the stove with salsa, topped with shredded cheese and maybe sriracha sauce comes immediately to mind. At my grandmother’s this morning preparing my favorite cucumber salad for the noon dinner, I remarked that often in college I would eat nothing for dinner but a large bowl of cucumbers with a generous pour of white vinegar, hungry for a taste of home.
Every time I visit my grandmother I think of tradition and family. Growing up in a military family, now divorced, has left me without any place to call home, no place to return to and relive childhood memories, save for my grandparents’ hay farm in Maine. I won’t bother to explain the layout or how amazing it is, because it will only mean this much in my eyes and if you don’t see it I’ll just be disappointed. Suffice it to say that no place is as magical as that, no vegetables and fresh and sweet as those that come from my grandmother’s garden, no bread as good as that from her kitchen… you get the idea. Within ten minutes of my arrival I was in the garden picking beans and tomatoes. This morning we peeled the tomatoes to ready them for freezing, and she told me that she used to help her mother with the same task. On the long bus ride home (five hours seems interminable when the woman next to you won’t cover her mouth when she coughs and the man across the aisle has his shoes off. Why on earth must people remove their shoes on buses and planes?) I thought a lot about how much the idea of “home” revolves around food for me, and what those tastes are.
Chicken diable, with honey, curry and mustard. My mother would make it and let me lick the honey spoon. Her spaghetti sauce, which was a hit at all of my sleepovers. Carlo Rossi Paisano wine, which my parents would serve at these sleepovers when I was in high school, much to the delight of my friends, and that my father would serve me with his minestrone, the cure for even the worst cold. And šunkofleky, which is a Czech dish passed down from my mother’s father’s family, and which we called fleky (pronounced fleech-key) even though it turns out that’s incorrect. It was egg noodles with scrambled egg and cubed ham, and my mother and I would devour it by the bowlful, smothered in ketchup, when my father was gone on recruiting trips.
Tonight as I faced the prospect of an unseasonably cool night, empty cupboards, and dinner alone after a long bus ride, I ran through all of the beautiful possibilities of what I could eat. I desperately wanted chicken and dumplings, but with no grocery store within walking distance and never having made dumplings before, that craving didn’t last long. I wanted something with spice and lots of flavor. Something a little creamy. Thai curry? Chicken Tikka Masala? Screw it all and order in a calzone?
In the end I chose a bottle of cabernet of which I’m particularly fond, and the last of a box of orzo, mixed with butter – REAL butter, not Smart Balance which I refer to as butter although I know better – lots of powdered yes powdered parmesan cheese and fresh ground black pepper. It’s nothing I was ever served growing up, but it’s a meal that reminds me of the home from which I’ve come and the home I want to build some day for my kids. And it tastes perfect.