It’s not like I had never wandered into a kitchen before marrying Carla, but cooking together became a teaching opportunity for her, a learning opportunity for me. We took them. Here is a tasting menu of what she taught me about cooking.
Be nice: share
Carla and I shared kitchen duties from the beginning of our marriage. She prepared most of our family meals. I helped her set the table, clear it and do dishes.
We modified this routine to accommodate Carla’s return to school, the demands of a “real” job and parenting our two children. We reinforced it while adjusting to the vacancy they left when our children moved on. We relaxed it to receive fiancés. It ballooned to embrace grandchildren.
We might have differed in our enthusiasm at times, but our paths from days apart to evenings together always joined in the kitchen.
It’s about the love. Really.
I began helping more and more with meal preparation when Carla began taking cancer treatments about 10 years ago.
I started to prepare a meal by setting the table. Vegetables could remain unwashed, meat might still be frozen and water for pasta could sit in a cold pot on a cold stove until I finished laying plates, arranging serving bowls and counting out silverware.
My oblique approach drove Carla crazy. Her approach was to survey the kitchen from the center of it, bring herself to her full height of 5 feet 2 inches and plunge directly into selecting ingredients and preparing food: pre-heating the oven, starting water for pasta or potatoes, freezing hands washing vegetables, scraping knuckles shredding cheese and, regardless of the menu, chilling pinot grigio. Peripherals like napkins and silverware could wait.
“But setting the table helps me visualize the optimum sequence of component preparation,” I explained patiently, speaking from recent experience as a project leader. Carla’s 45-plus years’ experience planning, preparing and presenting family meals sharpened her response.
Still, I continued to regard meals as projects to be delivered on schedule. I continued, that is, until experience cooking with Carla revealed the secret of her skill and the potential of my own.
I learned that the attention to detail, thoughtfulness and energy Carla brought to cooking were sustained by her love not of cooking or food, but of others and life. Cooking gave her another way to express it. Cooking began to do the same for me.
Carla’s cooking reflected her youthful spirit. To delight our children and herself she created birthday cakes resembling giraffes, penguins and coveted pets. Whenever our grandchildren visited on the Fourth of July, breakfast included red-white-and-blue waffles: waffles topped with a field of whipped cream spangled with strawberries and blueberries. (Some assembly required.)
Sometimes her creativity outran her taste. Growing up she often took care of her younger brothers and sisters while their parents were at work. One day she decided to make them macaroni and cheese for lunch. Half way through preparing the sauce she realized she had no cheese. She substituted peanut butter. Years later the kids confessed they had smuggled the macaroni and peanut butter outside and offered it to the dog. Prince declined.
Although optimistic by nature, Carla didn’t take success for granted. Instead she learned to take the occasional culinary disaster in stride—even if her guests didn’t.
Just as friends were arriving for dinner one evening, Carla pulled her made-from-scratch dinner rolls from the oven. They came out half the size she expected and four times as dense. Lacking a ready alternative she served them anyway, nice and warm. Appreciative guests sneaked a few home, sprayed them with an acrylic—not that they would have decayed without it—and a few weeks later presented them to Carla on a plaque. She happily accepted.
It was easy to lighten up in Carla’s company. Her own lively spirit lifted those of others. Like the campari aperitivos she sometimes served, Carla brightened the present moment while stirring anticipation of the next.
Good cooking in return
Carla believed that “Love we give away returns to us.” So did her cooking.
All our children and grandchildren were able to join us for Christmas 2009. The day after Christmas our son-in-law and younger daughter’s fiancé teamed up to make breakfast for everyone. Elbow to elbow in our kitchen and surrounded by eggs, dripping cookware and piles of diced ham, chopped salami, shredded cheese, sliced tomatoes, chopped onions and peppers, they delivered omelets made to order for six adults, two insatiable teen-aged boys and one very discriminating young lady: “Orange juice, please. No pulp.”
Carla’s appetite had improved with the approach of Christmas and arrival of her family. She ordered an omelet with “the works,” meaning, “Stuff it to the limit—Hold the peppers!” Cooks who loved her prepared her omelet. She received it at a noisy table sparkling with Christmas and crowded with family. Carla ate her omelet. All of it.
All season long Carla’s love of family and friends returned to her in their touch, prayers, and presence. And as an omelet.
Prepare the second seating
Christmas 2009 turned out to be our last Christmas here with Carla. Occasionally
I feel her joining me in the kitchen, wide-eyed and smiling as usual, adding flavor to my cooking simply by peeking at it.
In retrospect I realize that Carla, true to her nature, tutored me not for her immediate benefit, but so I could make a decent meal without her, should I ever need to.
I haven’t mastered her lessons yet, but
I continue to work on them in the kitchen and elsewhere.
I’m also learning a lesson she left me to discover on my own: love we give endures in the hearts of those who receive it. Carla’s endures in mine, slowly replacing denial of her death with wonder at her life, and transforming grief over her absence into gratitude for the memories and intimations of her presence.