My earliest memory of cooking was a bowl of parboiled rice in a plastic bowl and a spoon. Mom would be in the kitchen and plop me on the counter with a bowl of rice which I stirred to emulate what she was doing. I didn’t actually cook something until I went to a day camp in primary school where there was a cooking class, and I cracked an egg for the very first time in my life. After that I cracked more eggs at home where Mom let me loose in the kitchen to scramble eggs and experiment with omelettes on my own. She was always available to help if I needed it, but to her credit never hovered. Being a bookish child, I often read from her trusty Five Roses Flour Cookbook and asked questions about ingredients with which I wasn’t familiar. My first experiment in baking was a recipe for Butterscotch Brownies from that book in our Toaster Oven. Her only critique was that they would have turned out better if I used the big oven instead but I was too nervous.
Mom never pushed me to learn how to cook because she preferred that I get a good education and make a good living. I could always hire a housekeeper but she wanted me to know just enough to supervise competently. Before she got sick, Mom was a domestic goddess and not in a joking Roseanne Barr kind of way either. She was the real deal. There was nothing she couldn’t do: cooking, cleaning, washing and even sewing which she admitted wasn’t her strong suit. On top of all that she had a green thumb and could make anything grow. In primary school, all the kidney beans I tried to grow died horribly but hers sprouted leaves. I was devastated but she said something must have been wrong with my beans. One of these days I’ll plant something to see if it dies but that’s another story. She was thrust into the kitchen at a very young age and refused to drag us into it. At nineteen, she married for love and like so many women of her generation, decided that being a wife and mother was enough. She expressed her sharp mind and creativity in the kitchen by learning how to make everything. Cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, breads, roasted meats, soups, candies, Indian delicacies – everything. She used cookbooks and natural intuition to perfect her recipes. Eventually, she would hardly consult anything but her palate to replicate meals she ate while travelling abroad or something I brought home from a restaurant. The lady was legendary and envied by many for her “sweet hand” as we Caribbean people say.
Although she took pride in preparing delicious, healthy food and feeding us well, along with anybody else who had a rumbly tummy, that’s not what she wanted for me and my sister. I thought she was going to throttle me once for suggesting that it wouldn’t be bad to stay home for a few years with my own kids. She couldn’t fathom how I would consider such a thing and insisted that she’d take of the kids herself but I must never put my career on the back burner. My decision to walk away from my corporate job was a shocking one and the last thing in the world she wanted for me. Still, it’s in God’s Hands now and He wanted me to stay home for a few years…with her. When I finished secondary school and was looking for a job, she finally agreed to show me a thing or two in the kitchen. Okay, it was keeping her company while she cooked but as a careful observer and her occasional sous chef. When I got a job, I still tried to hang out with her as much as possible, seeing what I could pick up and baking on weekends. We spent more time in the kitchen together. She showed me some of her tricks, kitchen hacks you wouldn’t believe and was encouraging as always, even when my attempts at simple actions went horribly awry. Her advice was to toss it, act like it never happened and try again if you want; but don’t beat yourself up about it because life’s too short and we have plenty flour. That’s sage advice for everything in life if you think about it.
My sister loves to cook too, and like mom will try new things. After my last birthday, I decided that it’s high time to resume my own culinary exploration by starting with the stuff Mom taught me. It’s not that I didn’t cook at all but’s time to move out of my comfort zone and just do more. Not that my pancakes from scratch aren’t a hit in this household, but the stretch was the return of roti to our diet. Learning to make sada roti was a big deal for me, and the first thing I had to really work at. Meaning that the first time I kneaded flour for sada roti, the results were less than stellar. It looked okay but the roti was hopelessly flat and just a mess. Mom made me try again and there was some improvement until eventually I would say they were passable. The first time my roti swelled up on the tawa, there was commotion in the household from Dad. He was so proud and swore that it was time for me to get married. Unfortunately my Prince Charming is navigationally challenged and can’t find me up to now but I’ve made peace with that reality, so it’s all good. Taking back up roti making came at a good time because it’s a good deal healthier, hot on demand and can be filled with potato for a meal in itself.
Mom was a culinary master and occasionally pops into the kitchen to see what I’m up to. She’ll give me a kiss but not stick around for very long. It’s hard for her like everything else but when she can, she talks about cooking. She wants to do it very much and I know why. Cooking food is visceral. Even a simple act like making a sandwich connects you to the person for whom you’re making it. You cut the ingredients and decide how much seasoning to add. You taste it to make sure that the flavour is correct and when it’s done, call your family to come eat. They take what you prepared into their bodies. It nourishes them and makes them strong. Eating good food makes people happy and satisfied. A good meal brings people together. A house doesn’t need a television or even a computer but there’s no way you can leave out a kitchen. I’m looking forward to trying new recipes and sharing the results with you.