By Michelle Cacho-Negrete
My mother loved food but she hated cooking either because she wasn’t good at it or wasn’t good at it because she hated it. Her oatmeal was lumpy, meat too well done or too rare, vegetables overcooked and mushy, corn boiled thirty minutes in a big pot of water with sugar until it looked like wrinkled fingertips and tasted like watery simple syrup. I was in my twenties before I had my first properly cooked corn. It left me ecstatic and filled with regret at what I’d missed all those years. She cooked out of pleasureless necessity. An hour subway ride to work, eight hours on her feet as a file clerk, an hour to come home, leaving little time to feed her two latchkey children overdone hamburgers, barely thawed fries and chopped spinach sometimes still frozen in the center. My mother could, however, prepare two perfect dishes: her banana bread — sweet, never dry and delectably spiced and her always creamy scrambled eggs — with a flawless consistency and just a hint of herbs.
We dined on chipped ceramic or melmac plastic dishes from thrift stores on Second Avenue, drank from yahrzeit memorial candle glasses, used worn silver plate or plastic forks, accoutrements later cultivated in the sixties. It was then considered bohemian, anti-establishment and when topped with health food much admired for proof of non-materialism.
On the rare occasions my mother had extra money we went out for Chinese food, which she adored, Italian food which she found exotic, and Bratwurst reminiscent of the Europe she fled from with her parents when she was seven. Above all else my Russian mother loved sweets. A cup of tea had to be sipped through a sugar cube or piece of hard candy held between your teeth. A cup of sour cream was augmented with brown sugar or jam or figs in heavy syrup. Her toast was always topped with butter, sugar and cinnamon. Her pockets bulged with popular miniatures like Chunky, Mars Bars, Hershey chocolates.
Despite hating cooking, she loved food-shopping, a family outing and an activity that remains one of my favorites. Once a week my mother, brother and I would walk to the indoor Brooklyn food market, during those dangerous, pre-Williamsburg-chic days when rents were cheap, sidewalks cracked, buildings deteriorating. The market, a concrete cave with artificial lighting and rank with the odor of fish kept fresh in ice, was also an international cornucopia of provisions, a hands-on experience with food at its freshest in this neighborhood of immigrants during the 1950’s, a time when they were not suspected of nefarious conspiratorial activities.
The first stop was always sugar cane from the Hispanic vendor. He would cut off the ends, peel it with his knife, slice the naked cane in half and hand a piece to each of us. We loved the sweet juice that dripped down our chins as we sucked it. She sometimes bought a mango but everything else was beyond her. The array of Chinese greens, broccoli – bok Choy – gai lan were familiar, but she would never take a chance on cooking them. Italian cheeses overflowing the counters or hanging from hooks boasted the fragrance of far away but after admiring them she turned to her usual Russian farmer cheese from the counter across the aisle. The outing continued with a bit of lox, smoked white fish, sturgeon, two sour pickles, a small container of sauerkraut, and beets for borscht, all discussed and decided in Yiddish. A bakery counter with challah, bagels, danish concluded the purchases.
We made our trip to the market immediately after payday and by the end of the week were reduced to onion sandwiches. My mother toasted slices of slightly stale pumpernickel, carefully rubbed garlic on the toast, spread mayo, placed slices of onion on top of an iceberg lettuce leaf and presented them to us with a flourish and a little piece of chocolate to make the best of it. It was our most festive meal delivered on the only three matching plates along with home-made egg creams, those eggless, creamless chocolate sodas endemic to New York’s Second Avenue. We ate on the fire-escape in warm weather, or on a table covered with my grandmother’s white tablecloth in winter. There was an air of exclusivity about this meal as though it was our first choice. I loved those sandwiches that despite our surroundings draped us in a luxurious laziness we pretended was real because of my mother’s efforts to make them fancy. I sometimes eat them for dinner when my husband is away, fondly remembering my mother’s attempt to soften the harshness of poverty.
My first encounter with hearty, pungent meals was with my first husband’s family. Carlos was Cuban and the various aunts, cousins, sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, and grandmother were exceptional cooks. The first time I visited his grandparents I was greeted with hugs, questions, and the tantalizing aroma of unfamiliar spices. In broken English his grandmother, a lovely gray-haired woman who had raised him after the death of his mother, escorted me to a table overflowing with fried platanos (Spanish bananas) both sweet and salty, garlic and lemon marinated pork roast, fried yucca and an iceberg lettuce salad. I was flooded with envy that Carlos had eaten like this every day of his life while he took it for granted. Later there was Cuban coffee, a powerful brew that kept me awake all night, served with wedges of cream cheese and guava paste.
Once his family realized we were getting married, it was understood that Carlos’ Aunt Julia, the acknowledged best cook in the family, would teach me to prepare Cuban meals. Every Sunday Aunt Julia worked with me, her most willing apprentice. Various family members, alerted by tantalizing smells, would pop their heads into the kitchen to ask when dinner would be ready. Pork roast was the usual Sunday dinner and she showed me how to pick out a plump, lean but not too lean roast, poke holes in it then stuff each hole with an olive and clove of garlic. We prepared a bath of lemon juice, beer, crushed garlic and marinated the roast all morning. Black beans were next on the list and I was soon turning out this spicy, sumptuous, yet simple Cuban staple, as well as rice with grains as fluffed and separate as popcorn. We expanded and perfected my repertoire: Cuban sandwiches bloated with ham, roast pork and pickles, ropa vieja — a spicy mix of shredded beef, olives, onions and red peppers, and arroz con pollo, chicken with saffron rice. Aunt Julia told me, not quite tongue in cheek, that preparing Cuban meals was a prerequisite to marrying a Cuban man. When she felt I was ready to make my debut I worked for hours to prepare yucca in garlic sauce, two types of fried bananas, simmered black beans and rice and pork roast, tender and fragrant. She nodded her head, frequently saying “Bueno bueno,” and patting me on the shoulder. We set the table for fourteen, the usual Sunday gathering. When the family pulled up their chairs, tasted, smiled and complemented me, I felt as though I’d been given a graduate degree. The clicking of cutlery, loud voices talking over each other, and the words, “Now you’ll make a good Cuban wife,” warmed me.
My mother and brother were invited for a meal to meet Carlos’ family. They were suitably impressed with the food; my brother’s eyes opened wide in admiration. The meal was congenial, warm, affectionate, filled with jokes about the newly-weds to be. After the table was cleared off, coffee and tea were poured and the banana breads my mother brought for dessert were cut and distributed. There were sighs of appreciation all around and everyone was filled with complements for this perfect dessert.
“You are a wonderful cook,” Aunt Julia said.
The three of us, and Carlos, now in on the joke, smiled at each other and my brother answered, “She is indeed quite a cook.”
I think of the years I was married to Carlos, who worked twelve hours a day, as a food desert. I had two young children and catered to their food choices once they were old enough to express them. My friend, whose child was the same age as my oldest, and I walked up Ninth Street to the playground in Queens where we lived and then to the fast food places the children preferred for lunch. They loved White Castle burgers, tiny squares made curiously tasty with fatty meat, fried onions and who knows what else, along with greasy french fries. They begged to go to Burger King with their fat buns embracing circles of previously frozen chopped meat topped with tasteless tomatoes, lettuce, onions. Pizza and take-out Chinese food not worthy of the name were often eaten on park benches.
Once I was divorced I became a vegetarian and health-food devotee. My mother loved our new choices and became especially enamored of quiche, a dish that incorporated her wonderful eggs with a variety of vegetables. My children, however, on more than one occasion threw open our filled-to-the-brim refrigerator and screamed “There is nothing here to eat.” In high school, when their friends visited while I was at work, they had contests to see who would eat chunks of tofu, tempeh, seitan, although I have no idea what the prize was. My younger son, however, deciding he wanted to lose ten pounds, went on a diet of mochi with tofu banana spread and enjoyed it so much that it became breakfast when he was in a hurry. We survived the food wars then they went to college and grew appreciative of healthier food. One is married to a vegetarian and their children are vegetarian as well. The other plans menus of organic food with his wife.
My second husband is a gourmet cook who would rather be alone in the kitchen cutting, chopping, sautéing than doing anything else except exploring food markets. My mother would have loved his dinners. The first meal he fed me – roasted eggplant, pasta with a diced fresh tomato-garlic sauce, a green salad with a superb homemade vinaigrette – was one I rhapsodized over for weeks. The sight of that table, abundant with his evening’s work, convinced me that I would marry this man. Kevin prepared Thanksgiving dinner when one of my sons drove his four friends from Chicago picking up his brother and girlfriend (later his wife) in Ann Arbor Michigan. The apartment itself seemed to have absorbed the particular fragrance of Thanksgiving, breathed it back into the air warmed by a wood stove, and channeled it down the narrow stairway to delectably greet the oncoming group. The living/dining room was large, ringed with windows that let in light by day and framed gently falling snow that evening. We borrowed extra chairs, pushed small tables together and then covered them with colorful tablecloths. We lit candles and both our family and that of two other friends were blanketed in a serene peace. Conversation was punctuated by laughter and the sounds of joyful appreciation for this homey meal composed of the usual Thanksgiving fare elevated to a level none of us had indulged in before. Kevin smiled with satisfaction and on the way out a few mornings later my youngest son whispered to me, “Hang on to this one!”
The most memorable meal I had with Kevin was not one he prepared however. During a trip to Slovenia where he was conducting scientific research our Slovenian scientist friends invited us to a seasonal “Fruits of the forest feast.” A group of us drove in an institute van through thick, late summer woods, the trees just beginning to suggest the russet, scarlet and gold of autumn. The restaurant was suddenly there as though dropped in front of us and I thought of the scene from Brigadoon when the village magically appears. It was a lovely thing of gables and wood and lacy curtains. In the front courtyard they’d formally set a long table circled by red upholstered chairs. We were immediately offered a glass of white wine and invited to sit on the various wicker chairs scattered around and start with hors d’oeuvres. I felt transported to a photographic spread in a magazine, the white linen cloth, sparkling crystal, numerous gleaming silver utensils, flowers and the music of Arvo Part, playing softly inside the building itself.
The day unfolded leisurely. We were soon asked to take our seats and over the course of four hours course after course was served, each with its own wine. As the sun slowly descended, candles in glass cylinders were lit on the table and around the immediate courtyard. The waiters were attentive, good-humored and experienced. We’d made clear we were vegetarians and everyone in our party admired our meal. A gentle breeze ushered in the scent of some wildflower unfamiliar to me and the rustling leaves seemed a melancholy, summer-is-leaving part of the music. I barely remember what we ate there were so many courses; a superb mushroom soup and an amazing chocolate mousse marbled with crushed raspberries stands out, but the food was not the most important part of the meal to me. I was surrounded by people speaking a multitude of languages, or in accented English addressing both scientific and worldly issues. I felt, for the first time in my life, sophisticated and worthy to participate in the conversation of these people, many of whom were the most admired scientists in the world, flattered as they asked me about, and responded to, my work in the field of domestic violence, as well as asking about my writing.
This should be my most memorable meal but I find myself returning many times to a different eating experience, one that lasted a month. I was diagnosed with mononucleosis when I was a thirteen year old. The doctor explained that sharing a glass, a straw, silverware, were among the ways it could be acquired beside kissing, an experience I’d sadly not yet experienced. The illness left me exhausted, frequently nauseous and without an appetite. I woke up each morning between sheets bleached thin as handkerchiefs and exhausted enough to go back to sleep within a half-hour. Sleepless nights of worry had left my mother stooped with weariness. She prepared a small milk shake for me to have for breakfast each morning, purchasing ice cream which was usually reserved for desserts, in response to my having already lost weight in two days. My brother begged me to remain sick for a long time while my mother begged me to think about what I would eat while she was at work but nothing appealed. The only thing I felt capable of keeping down were her scrambled eggs. She smiled tiredly at me and made an instant decision without ever thinking about what it might mean for her personally. She woke up extra early each morning, ran down to the Italian grocer as he was opening and purchased a fresh mini baguette. She buttered it, made her perfect eggs, put them in the bread and wrapped it all in aluminum foil. Each day at lunch I would heat it in the oven at 300 and within ten or fifteen minutes have the only lunch I wanted to eat. My mother was a woman who never told my brother and me that she loved us. The words seemed absent from her vocabulary. She was neither a hugger nor a kisser, her love was to be surmised. We surmised it.
When friends enthuse after meals at our house on how fine a cook Kevin is and aren’t I lucky and have I ever encountered a better meal short of a restaurant, I nod in agreement. Kevin’s meals are elaborate, elegant, delicious, but I believe that the worst cook I’ve ever known prepared the most perfect meals for me for one month and nothing I have eaten since has compared to them.
About the Author
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired therapist who lives in Portland Maine by way of Brooklyn New York. She’s been published in North American Review, The Sun, Silk Road, and a variety of others. Michelle’s essays have been selected four times for Most Notable of the Year and she has won Best Non-fiction on the net. She’s I five anthologies, but is especially proud to be in Thoreau’s Legacy; Writers speak on Global Climate Change. She is currently non-fiction editor for Solstice Magazine.