I remember the first meal I ever made.
I was only eight years old, or so — memory is only guessing at best, sometimes. By that age, I knew how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, or heat up a can of soup. Macaroni and cheese from scratch — that was becoming my specialty. I could tear open a package of frozen spinach and heat it up in the microwave. When we ate chili or spaghetti with meat sauce, my mother had me fry up the ground beef, since she had developed an aversion to the sight of the red juices and browning meat after being pregnant with my brother. And I stood on a kitchen chair and watched my mother bake, often. So I was slowly becoming conversant with the kitchen.
One weekend morning, I decided that I wanted to make breakfast in bed for my parents. I’m not sure where this came from — somehow I decided that they were overworked and needed a rest. Perhaps it was Mother’s Day, or someone’s birthday. I don’t remember all the details. What I do remember is this — turning back and forth between the orange and avocado green counters in the rectangular kitchen of our house in southern California, trying to convey a ladleful of pancake batter across the linoleum floor to the hot, plug-in skillet sizzling with butter. I was making pancakes, from Bisquick, and they were thick. Pancakes, to my mind, should be thick and stiff as a stack of dollar bills, but far more chewy. So I made pancakes with crisp brown edges, trying hard not to burn them, piling them up on a brown Pfalzgraff plate. I lay out two more plates, for serving, forks and knives, paper towels I tore off the roll, and the squat jug of Aunt Jemima maple syrup.
But somehow, just pancakes didn’t seem like enough. We didn’t have any bacon in the house, which was a weird occurrence, since there always seemed to be a plastic pack of Oscar Mayer bacon in the bottom drawer. I didn’t really know how to make eggs yet, poached or even fried. So, I made the only other breakfast food I knew how to make: toast. As the pancake pile grew, I made a stack of white bread toast (I’m pretty sure it was Wonder bread, or something like it) on a saucer. I dragged a table knife glommed with butter across the top of each slice, the shuffle and brush of crumbs against knife a sweeping sound in my ears. Finally, it was all done. Proudly, I carried the tray full of food to my parents’ bedroom, where I lay it down with a flourish.
They laughed at me. Who makes pancakes and toast together, they wondered?
I was crushed. When they saw my face, they immediately started cooing their apologies. I have this image of them pouring on syrup and attacking the pancakes with their forks, in a rushed attempt to show just how much they loved my breakfast. But I never forgot it, obvlously.
(And how weird is it that the first meal I made was an all-gluten diet?)
Ah well, we all have to start somewhere.
A few weeks ago, I was at the home of my dear friend Francoise. I’ve written about Francoise and her family before, and in that post I put a photograph of everyone in the family, except Selene. Somehow, she didn’t make it in, then, and I’ve always felt bad for slighting her. Selene is one incredible kid. She’s a writer already, fiercely devoted to her craft. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to read her imaginative stories, and I can safely say that we’ll all be reading her books, sooner rather than later. I think that her best story from this year, Shok and Loppy, should already be published.
To go along with this, Selene is already becoming a foodie. Now, she’s blessed with parents who truly appreciate great food. In her humble way, Francoise is one of the best cooks I have met, and Adrian makes succulent salmon on the barbeque that leaves me speechless. Selene, and her wonderful sister, Camille, eat nearly everything with gusto. (Except fruit. Oddly, Selene simply doesn’t like fruit.) When I go over for meals, we talk about ten hundred topics, but we always circle back to food, somehow.
So, when I was over there a few weeks ago, Camille was on a white-water rafting trip for the weekend. This meant that Selene had all our attention. She shared more stories, and she spoke with wide eyes and a darting smile about her schoolwork. But the first thing she told me was about the tuna dish she and her friend had invented that afternoon. “And it’s gluten-free!” she told me, gleefully. They had been bored, and found themselves in the kitchen. So they started experimenting, tossing in bits of this and spoonfuls of that. They tasted and nibbled along the way, until they felt done. She was proud. I was astonished.
When I was Selene’s age, I would never have thought to cook without a recipe. I’m not sure I would have been allowed. But now, I realize that recipes are really only a rough estimate, like memories, at their best. One of my Buddhist teachers in New York once told me — when I was troubled by the fact that language can never be experience, and thus why was I a writer if it was only a pale imitation of life itself — that words are simply a finger, pointing out the path. And recipes? Yes, like that.
So feel free to experiment, like Selene did. Make your food by tastes and nibbles, not by the bible of recipes printed out in neat columns. Play in the kitchen, with the confidence of a ten-year-old girl, alive to the possibilities and unafraid to make mistakes.
But don’t make the same mistake I did: pancakes and toast don’t really go that well together.
Tuna Rolls, from Selene Canter
You might think this sounds strange, at first, but trust me. When Selene told me that she and her friend tried celery seed in their creation, I knew these would be good. Celery seed! What fourth grader cooks with celery seed?
And then the friend rang the doorbell and walked into the house, bearing a plate of these “tuna rolls.” I took a bite tentatively, ready to roll out appreciative noises on demand. But they came naturally instead. These were unexpectedly light and clean, like a Thai salad. Memorable. I’ll make them again. I really will.
one can white tuna
four tablespoons crunchy peanut butter
steamed carrots, shaved into small slices
steamed asparagus, shaved into small slices
one tablespoon celery seed
one-half teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon pepper
five leaves of iceberg lettuce
five leaves of cabbage
one tablespoon balsamic vinegar
three tablespoons olive oil
one-quarter white onion, finely diced
Mix the can of tuna with the peanut butter, stirring until they are mixed completely. Add in the carrots, asparagus, celery seed, salt, and pepper. Stir well.
Roll the tuna mixture into the iceberg-lettuce leaf, tightly. Wrap that in one of the cabbage leaves. Set on a plate, then arrange with the rest of the lettuce rolls.
Drizzle the balsamic vinegar/olive oil/onion combination over the top of the lettuce packages. If you desire, you can add some sliced green onions as well.