Thanks for the Meat, Mom
While I foraged the fridge for other delights, her meat got me through. Sometimes after school, it drove me home through the swampy woods. And when I was lucky, she’d have foil-wrapped flank steak waiting. Charred on the outside, bloody in its center, ready to be sliced ever so thinly, it beckoned.
Her company ham smelled bright and salty. It was meaty rather than slippery in texture, which made me strangely proud. On a good day, I would uncurl my brown bag lunch and reach inside for a sandwich graced with her ham. My sisters carried only one sandwich to that cement school. How early on was it that I ate two? Because I asked for more, she complied. No questions asked.
I loved the dense white bread against the roof of my mouth, which always followed the sharp tang of the mustard and salty ham. That ham pulled me away from that lunchroom smell, the roar of my classmates. And after I ate them, the weight of her meaty sandwiches slowed me down. They made it so that I could walk with deliberation back to my classroom to face the shame of my subpar reading group, where I’d try to decipher the incomprehensible tangle of words on the page.
By high school, the rich aroma of leftovers in our bag lunches embarrassed my sisters. But waiting in my locker, her lunches supported me—especially sukiyaki after my birthday and brisket after Passover, laid onto rye bread with thinly sliced pickles.
Decades later, I’m not sure if her meat was a mother’s love, but it felt like it. Did she know I was out there, leaping toward the strong taste of meat, each meal a stepping-stone out?
A Trinity of Flavors
The Father and the Son, yes. But the Holy Ghost always stumped me. My husband, a lapsed Catholic, was never much interested in discussing church doctrine, but he speaks in metaphors, not my forte.
When I taught students how to season food, I spoke in flavor trinities, never in metaphors. Food is hands-on, literal, and that’s something I adore about it—cook, savor, satisfy.
My seasoning class was a simplification; cuisines can’t really be reduced so perfectly. But the flavor combinations, trinities of ingredients, worked superbly. This is especially true for those with little experience cooking, who can suddenly create a Thai curry or Provencal chicken. But even excellent home cooks, especially recipe-followers, feel liberated when improvising international mid-week dinners with three flavoring ingredients
I can season food well. But, generally I’m an ingredients-based cook who prefers to let the individual components shine, rather than adding them up to the sum total of their parts. Trinities are a compromise. They evoke a cuisine with their synergy—think butter, shallots and wine for France—but you can taste the individual flavors too, because there are so few of them. When you start with raw ingredients that are fresh and seasonal, you don’t have to add much to make them work.
It’s the end of growing season. Not early on when basil leaves shrivel on their stems. Nor when the zucchini plants collapse, chilled, to the ground. But it’s late, time to knife down the last row of field greens before they go, too. I walk toward my garden through the cold grass, my hiking books drenched from the wet.
The wooden fence waits patiently for me, a heart cut from its center by my husband long ago. The door has started to rot a bit, the latch gone, so it’s wired shut now. I open it. I follow the pebble path–intended to keep the weeds down–and reach my long and narrow lettuce bed. And as I stoop to cut the last growth of my baby lettuce leaves, in the split second before I drop them into my large metal bowl, I know they’ll begin to die. Not now, when they’re spunky and stand-up green, but later.
That afternoon, the farmers’ market smells of apples. Heavy in their wooden crates, in greens and reds, they call out to me. So, I bite into a Jonathan, slightly spicy and still crisp from the harvest, long before it softens and loses what it once had.
At night, I lie in bed, next to my love. Right before I fall asleep in the dark, I can hear him beside me, breathing deeply in the otherwise silent room. There is a moment before I drift off, when I’m at my peak, ripe for the plucking, fully alive, yet dying too.
We visit my 88-year-old father-in-law, Tom, that winter. He sits on his balcony, overlooking the parking lot in an assisted living home, looking out at the cars as his mind fades. He calls it his “last stop.” His son holds out a bag of popcorn to him. Tom’s hand plunges inside, almost up to his elbow. A smile crosses his face. One kernel falls on the thin carpet, and he reaches down like a ballet dancer and picks it up, his focus complete. Two fingers on one kernel, hand to mouth. Dying, yes, but peaking, too.
The greens I harvest that morning sit in a bowl. I sprinkle a pinch of sea salt and splash of oil that smells of olives. After a toss, I squeeze a wedge of lemon in and toss again. This light coat of dressing allows the greens to shine, so that they are at their peak, fork to mouth. No time to die.
I’m old enough to Google the age of actors in the movies I watch on TV. Why do I care that I’m not at my peak? We all die. I look for signs of things that are better, not worse about me right now. Like the cliché, I’ve learned to stop and notice smaller things now, because I’m not aiming at bold strokes to elevate my existence any more. Wine and a schemer of Monterey goat cheese on crusty bread or that popcorn, only better, locally grown and doused with olive oil.
My husband once told me he liked middle-aged potatoes. They’re not yet soft but have more flavor than the newly harvested guys. Although I don’t agree—produce is not wine—I like his point. His compliments are generous, too, and have more impact because of their rarity.
We sit on our red couch watching old movies and eating oranges sections in January. It’s snowy outside, but far from here, there are trees laden with citrus. Their acidity wakes us from our mode, just briefly, as we bite through their membranes. Pop. Peak.
Amy Cotler worked as chef, caterer, cooking teacher, food writer, and farm-to-table advocate in New York and New England before moving to Mexico. She is author of a several books written on assignment, including The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasure of Locally Grown Food. She has lectured and taught cooking at small and large venues alike, including the Institute for Culinary Education and the Culinary Institute of America. Cotler is the founding director of Berkshire Grown, an early New England farm-to-table initiative that has received national recognition. For six years, she worked as a food forum host for The New York Times online. A major contributor to Joy of Cooking, Cotler has developed close to one thousand recipes and has appeared on The Food Network and public radio stations.