By Dorothy Kalins, November/December 2009
Alone in the kitchen? Impossible! My kitchen is noisy with echoes. With every move I make I hear the voices of every person who taught me something special—a skill, a trick, a principle—that has since become my habit. I think whether we acknowledge it or not, we all become cooks that way, heeding the voices (of a mama or grandfather, a wise aunt or a wacky friend) that take us back to other kitchens and other times. These remembered voices are gifts from the past. They help to make us the cooks we are—guiding us, informing us, making us smile.
The pale morning light slides through the deep piney woods into Lola Mae’s cottage in Hickory Flat, Mississippi. She’s making biscuits, same as breathing to her, forming patties with her fine pianist’s hands—the first knuckle of her index finger ever so slightly skewed—and chattering away, clear as Southern birdsong: “Buttermilk makes all the difference,” she reveals. She’s been known, of a morning, to turn out dozens of those smooth, flat beauties at a time for her hungry family without breaking stride. Once, for Christmas, she FedExed me a box. I never make biscuits without buttermilk.
I’m hunched over a sink in a tiny French kitchen outside Lyons, washing lettuce just picked from an abundant vegetable garden in front of the house. “Il faut laver la salade à trois eaux,” Mimi shyly confides to me, making sure I know to wash those leaves three times to get out the dirt.
Christopher, in her Bucks County, Pennsylvania, kitchen, surrounded by well-used Folk Art cooking utensils and the odd machine part, is about to roast a chicken. First, she fearlessly removes the backbone from the whole bird, rendering it flat. Now, she patiently demonstrates the way her grandmother would hand-pluck the soft white insides from a French loaf. These tender breadcrumbs, browned in butter, mixed with parsley and thyme leaves chopped very fine, and mounded beneath that flattened chicken, make the most memorable stuffing.
In her kitchen, craftily fitted under the eaves of an old house in Venice, Marcella stretches out her hand to me. In her palm are three kernels of rice: arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano. “You make risotto from carnaroli if you can find it,” she instructs. “It is the powdery starch of this grain that makes risotto especially creamy. And never,” she rolls her eyes, “make risotto in a frying pan like they do on TV. It goes too fast!”
Sally is peeling apples gathered from the organic orchards that roll over the gentle hills just outside the door of her sunny kitchen at The Apple Farm in Philo, California. She slices each small fruit in half, then in quarters. With an apple quarter tucked into one hand, she grabs her well-worn paring knife and removes the peel from a pointy end. Then turning the apple in her hand, she peels the other end. “This is the way my mother peeled apples,” she explains. “I never do it any other way.”
Melissa is a better cook than I’ll ever be, but it is the soapy exuberance of her after-dinner work that I recall when I’m up to my elbows in dirty dishes, remembering to lovingly wash the bottoms of those pots.
Camille follows me into the cleverly engineered kitchen of her Manhattan apartment. We’ve just had dinner in her dining room which is painted the kind of confident red only a top interior designer can pull off, and I’m in search of some milk for my coffee. She opens a carton and Owwf! It smells awful. It’s gone bad. For years after that, she’d leave this message on my answering machine: “Come for dinner. We have fresh milk!”
They may not be homemade cookies in fancy tins or jars of fruit preserves tricked out in gingham headscarves, but the generous advice from the kitchens of my friends are gifts nonetheless. Each time I make a biscuit, or prepare a salad, or stuff a chicken, or stir a risotto, or peel an apple, or sniff a carton of milk for freshness, I hear their voices and they comfort me, warm as a hug.
Dorothy Kalins, former executive editor of Newsweek and founding editor of Saveur, produced My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh (Andrews McMeel, September 2009).