a satisfying job

“It’s important to remember that when you’re feeding someone, including yourself, it’s an honor. It’s about pleasure and nurture and respect. We all come to the table with different kinds of baggage –hungers that can’t be satisfied, or fear, or perhaps an illness that makes food problematic, or even good appetite and high expectations – you name it. Cooking for any or all of these qualities is a big job, but a satisfying one.” — Deborah Madison

Saturday, just after the farmers’ market. A wide smile sliver of a French heirloom pumpkin sat on the dining room table, along with two delicata squashes that grew conjoined, a bunch of gleaming green collard greens, and a squat orange squash.

I’d like to tell you they made a beautiful tableau, with high pale northern light falling on the mostly empty wooden table, the squashes artfully arranged to look as though they had landed that way. But the dining room table was filled with stacks of cookbooks that threatened to topple. There were at least a dozen clean jam jars with the remnants of tea lights melted on the bottom of them. I’m pretty sure our water glasses from the night before were still there too.

Danny had been cleaning out the refrigerator, so there were jars of salt-cured tomatoes, pickled turnips, and duck fat on the counters. Lucy rearranged the magnetic letters on the refrigerator to make a long, loping ABCs, curving in on itself, not in the right order. At least four had fallen to the floor. And there were dishes in the sink, waiting to be washed.

But we’re cooking. I took one look at the splayed-out choices of leftovers from the refrigerator and started making lunch. I put a pot of hot water on, then watched the water roll slowly across the surface, the boiling beginning. A bowl of braised greens called to me. Oh, these weeks in December, with the potlucks and teacher gifts and sugar-cookie baking. I’m trying hard to not eat much sugar, but it’s hard. Greens seemed so wonderfully appealing to me. Lucy and I had plucked a bunch of fresh kale leaves from our garden when we came home from the market, so I rolled those up like a cigar and sliced them. By this time, she was more interested in what I was doing than in the refrigerator magnets or hiding in the refrigerator.

“Mama, can I help?” she asked me. It’s one of her most frequent questions right now. Of course, the answer is yes.

She stirs food in pots now, carefully, with our close observation. I let her stir the greens and kale as I grabbed a handful of caramelized onions left over from the night before and threw those in too. “Mama, can I have a napkin?” she asked. I knew she meant a kitchen towel, so I grabbed one. When I turned back around, I saw that she had carefully wrapped it around the handle of the cast-iron skillet. She could feel the heat rising and wanted to take care of herself. Sort of teary, I whispered to Danny to come look. We stood there for a moment, feeling lucky.

Then I threw in some sliced-up olives and asked her to stir some more.

I swirled the spider around in the pasta, feeling its bite with the edges, and then the edges of my teeth. Done. Lucy helped me move all the greens and browns, the smells of brine and caramelization into our wide red bowl. And then I moved the pasta on top of it, along with some of the water.

We danced to the Nutrcracker for a few moments while we waited. We were headed there in less than half an hour.

Ding. Lucy stirred the pasta, with my hand on hers, to find a creamy sauce. That technique — hot vegetables and sauce, a splash of pasta water, pasta on top, and waiting — works every time. Time to come to the table.

Danny ran back to the kitchen and pulled out the truffles. He had insisted on buying these Washington state truffles that morning, three tiny nuggets for $22. I blanched at first, then thought, “This is what we do. Let’s celebrate.” Besides, they last for such a long time. Soon, there will be trufffle salt and truffle oil in our kitchen. But that day, he shaved tiny slivers over our pasta.

“You taste like truffles,” Danny told me the first time I kissed him. I didn’t know how that could be, since I had never eaten them. But when he said that, giddy and right there, how could we have known that we would be sitting in our dining room on Vashon, at a table covered with cookbooks, that pale northern light still flooding out the mess, eating pasta with truffles with our daughter. Pasta she had helped us to cook.

The dishes got done later. That meal could not wait.