Food Incantations

I chop onions the way Zack Kaplan taught me. In half lengthwise, from stem to root. Peel off the skin, trim the dirty nubs of roots, cut off whatever papery bit of stem remains.Place it cut-side down on the cutting board, and, holding it in place using the rounded side that faces up, slide the knife in parallel to the cutting board, cutting almost–but not quite–all the way to the root. This is the trickiest part–press too hard on the top of the onion with your hand, the knife won’t go in and you’ll have to apply too much force to the knife, opening yourself up to the opportunity for the knife to slip suddenly as the onion gives way, possibly chopping off bits of your hand that you’d just as soon keep. I cheat, sometimes, balancing the onion on its root as I slide the knife through. But I know it’s cheating, and I try to do it flat on the cutting board, which is safer anyway. You repeat that, making slices parallel to the cut through the onion, at the desired dice size.

Make cuts perpendicular to the cut side of the onion. Press the point of the knife almost–but not quite–at the root end, cutting through the onion towards where the stem used to be. This part is tricky, too–have to choose the cuts carefully, to hold the onion together.

The final set of cuts, across the onion, like making onion rings. Starting near the stem end, slice, moving closer to the root with each slice. Like magic, the onion turns from the carefully created sculpture of cuts into a dice, small chunks of onion falling onto the cutting board. Cut closer and closer to the root until the onion won’t stand on the side facing the cutting board any more. Turn it over, the root pointing up now. Cut off the little bits remaining around the root, leaving the root intact. The chemicals that make your eyes water are concentrated in the root end–if you cut as little of the root part as possible, maybe you can avoid the stinging pain.

It’s a precise way to dice an onion. It’s a fast way, too, if you are good with a sharp knife.

And every time I do it, I conjure Zack, standing at the table in Jessie’s cabin, showing me how to wield a dinky, sorry-excuse-for-a-chef’s-knife to the best advantage. It was around the 4th of July last year, and the air outside was hot and filled with the buzzing of insects. We were probably making guacamole to eat out on the porch, lazing in our bathing suits on the weather-proof furniture, filling our tummies with chips and beer, trading stories. Every time I chop an onion, I have a vision of that moment, a perfect instant in our friendship.

While Zack managed to teach the onion-cutting skill to me, there are other skills, passed on from those I hold dear, that I haven’t quite mastered. It was Malavika, for instance, who showed me how to scrape a bowl. Never before or since have I seen someone so thoroughly remove all of the food from a container. Even without a rubber spatula, she manages to get a bowl so empty that you have to look closely to tell that it just held food. I try, but I lack her patience and skill. Instead, as I’m scraping down a bowl or a yogurt container, I see the four of us–Malavika, Dhruv, Neha, and me–crammed like sardines into my tiny Hilltown kitchen in the darkness of that Dundee winter, the kitchen window fogging with the steam from pasta and our breathing. Rarely have I had guests so unwilling to accept my refusal of help, and so we made macaroni and cheese (Malavika’s request) all together, in the improbably small space of my kitchen. We bemoaned the terrible Scottish stoves, electric behemoths with cast iron burners that stayed hot for hours–how we longed for the gas stoves of home! I see Mal, every time I empty the contents of one container to another. I hear her, tsk-tsking my shoddy bowl scrapage, sounding both fond and exasperated as she rolls the r in “Raych”.

Malavika, too, is the best  tortilla roller I have ever met. Somehow, when I roll tortillas, they always come out looking more or less like Africa. Mine are a little too thick, a little uneven, a little ragged around the edges. Malavika, though, rolls with both precision and speed, turning out the most perfect round tortillas, one after the other.  She tried to show me how she managed it, as we stood around the table in Dhruv’s bachelor pad in Dundee’s west end, but it never took.

In eating, too, I find the memories of my friends. Roasted chicken, for me, is especially laden with with moments from our shared pasts.

It reminds me first of my father, who had a fondness for chicken livers and other chicken bits that are less socially innocuous than the ubiquitous boneless-skinless-chicken breast. Once, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen, a chicken cooling on a plate by the red glass jars full of Lipton tea bags and sugar, he showed me how to strip the meat from a roasted bird. He removed all the meat we normally think of, and then pulled out a series of gray, lumpy, organy bits from alongside the backbone in the cavity of the chicken. He showed them to me, and joyfully popped them into his mouth. Those, he said, are the best part of the chicken. They are the parts that taste most chicken-y. I shuddered, at the time. Lumpy gray organy bits do not make the most photogenic eating.

Then I moved to Scotland, where it was so much colder and farther away from home than I anticipated. I roast my first chicken, using the beer-can method that has since become my standard. Alicia and I ate it hungrily, sitting at the table in our cold living room, tearing chunks off the crisp, golden flesh with our bare hands. We ate like barbarians, for this chicken and for many afterwards, the warmth of home soaking into our eager fingers.

Later, in the kitchen, as I stripped the cooling carcass of the chicken, I came across those little bits of which my father was so fond. I popped them, still warm, into my mouth, and discovered that he was right on two counts–not only are they the most chicken-y bits of the chicken, they are also delightful.

Stripping chicken carcasses of their flesh is a task that reminds me, too, of Ilya. After dinner together one night in Dundee, he asked me, shyly, if he might avail himself of the carcass once I had removed the meat I planned to use. We stood in my tiny kitchen, as I put away the food and washed the dishes. Ilya hovered over the plate of carcass by the microwave, gleefully sucking every particle of flesh from the bones. As I recall, this is something his grandmother did.

Jessie, for instance, I associate with fruit. At Intel, we are allotted on free piece of fruit per day (This is what I assume is Intel’s financially-sensisble nod to Silicon Valley’s wealth of free food.) Every day, as I select a piece of fruit out of the endlessly refilling fruit baskets, I think of her (and what I anticipate would be her unmitigated glee at such a wealth of fruit to choose from). Lately, I’ve been selecting nectarines, which are inevitably drastically under-ripe. Jessie prefers her peaches a little under-ripe, delighting in their tartness, but I leave the nectarines on my desk to ripen for a few days. In the afternoons, after I’ve picked up the nectarine and breathed in the sweet perfume from the stem end too many times to count, I slice one up using the pocket knife Jessie gave me. I’m not strictly sure that I am allowed to have a knife at work, but I figure as long as I don’t stab anyone, it’s okay.

These conjured moments are why we should break bread together. Sharing the cooking and eating of meals teaches us the ingredients and gestures of an incantation, that we may use to invoke the presence of one another later, when we are apart. It is a prayer, a spell, some magic that keeps us connected across space and time.  Every chicken I roast now sings to me the song about the winter Ala and I survived together, in that cold flat in Scotland, a testament to our tenacity, to the strength of our friendship. Every onion I dice transports Zack into my kitchen, sharing stories, cracking jokes, and expanding my worldview. Every nectarine I slice on my desk at work calls Jessie to my cubicle; every bowl I try to scrape speaks to me of Malavika.

This is the magic with which  I fill my kitchen (and my belly), and it is what I hope you find in yours. Now, shall we make a meal together?

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Food Incantations