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Four-Alarm Fall

What’s cooking in our kitchen

By Anna Mitchael

 

There are people who are born to cook. People who instinctively know the precise moment to add a splash of paprika, when to back off the burners, how to cook squares of dark chocolate into magical desserts without gobbling them all down before they even get started. I am not one of these people.

My people are the sort that are born to set food on fire. And not in a born-to-be-a-Benihana-chef or in a purposeful flambé sort of way. We keep more than one fire extinguisher in our kitchen because, otherwise, the cooking of a grilled cheese sandwich could become a four-alarm affair. In the past I’ve been able to avoid this handicap by simply ordering in, but the only deliveryman who comes to our address in the country is the UPS man, and he doesn’t carry large bills or Pizza Hut in his truck. Trust me, I’ve asked.

I am heartened by a story about my grandmother, who lives in East Texas and is one of the best cooks I know. At some point in my father’s early elementary education a teacher asked how to make toast, and he raised his hand and said that he knew how: “You take it out of the toaster and then scrape all the black stuff off with a knife.”

Unintentional flambé runs in the family. Hopefully, her red velvet cakes do, too.

As summer droned on, I used the excuse of oppressive heat to slack off in the kitchen. More than once the baby’s pot of mac ‘n cheese evolved into our dinner, too, as hours passed but the heat stayed. But on those noodle nights we agreed the only thing worse than waking up to yet another 110-degree day would be enduring 200-degree flames in the kitchen.

But then blessed fall arrived and out of the blue, I found myself missing a meal I discovered I loved while living in Boston during my 20s — spaghetti. I’m not talking Olive Garden-variety fettuccini and tomatoes. The plates I fell in love with in the North End were like what your momma would make. If your momma happens to be Sicilian and has English as a third language.

I knew my concoction wouldn’t be a close match, but I figured after a few months of slacking off any effort would be appreciated. There might not be big flavor, but there would be big love. And, hey, every cook has to start somewhere.

There were raised eyebrows when I set out the ingredients, and I detected a sort of confusion from the baby, like, “Um, guys? Isn’t this the time of day Mom is usually sitting in front of the air-conditioning vent? What’s she doing in the kitchen?”

I diligently added spices and tomatoes. I simmered and tasted and, somehow, the only thing I burned was my tongue a couple of times. In the end the toddler waved his arms frantically until we realized the cause of his distress and exchanged his spaghetti for some mac ‘n cheese. As for Andrew and me, we agreed that it was better than a can of Ragu. But as for being close to what you could get in Boston’s North End, let’s just say it was as far away as … well … Texas.

However, in the course of that late afternoon I spent over the stove, we opened all the windows and played ball in the yard and listened to music, and those of us who are of legal age sipped wine while the other used an actual sippy cup for milk. I lived in Boston a decade ago, and this image of life would have been completely, totally, wholly unfathomable to me at the time. The years I considered cooking for friends to be buying expensive cheese and opening boxes of crackers is 10 years ago, it’s 10 days ago, it’s 10 minutes ago.

I may not have been born to cook, but I think it’s a definite possibility that I was born to cook that pot of spaghetti on one of our first cool days. After a relentless summer we were able to relax and play and stretch a regular afternoon into something spectacular, something we would remember. Fall is the season for comfort and for food. Now is the time to sit the people you love at a table and give them nourishment. Flambé, fettuccini, burnt toast — food you have made with love.

 

This column appeared in the October 2011 issue of the Wacoan.

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