This essay originally appeared in Gastronomica, and is part of my essay collection-in-progress, Bread & Water.
Learning to Cook
[Dedicated] To anyone who wishes to discover that there is much happiness and many opportunities for learning and becoming oneself in what is still considered by too many the least important room in a home or even in a restaurant, the humble and all-important kitchen. [i]
My older sister, Lee, standing before our relatives and speaking the eulogy at our grandmother’s funeral seven years ago, reminded them of how Gran’s hands helped shape what mine became. “My sister became a chef because of Gran,” she said, pointing to where I sat in the front row. Our family nodded soberly, Hutterites, no longer Colony
but too reserved to shout “Hallelujah!” or to sing our grandmother into heaven. At age twelve I had briefly dabbled with a Baptist church, but each time I had rushed to testify or offer a harmony to the choir, I heard my grandmother’s quiet voice: “We just don’t do things that way, Deneezie. Things take time.”
~ ~ ~
A kitchen is a place of change, of alchemy. Every cook is the Magician who uses heat and time to transform a jumble of ingredients into something else, something Other, a fusion of flavours and textures removed from the original.
For three decades, observing and recording those culinary transformations occupied much of my thinking, first as a chef, then as a food journalist. Each morning, I would stand at square one before my stove. What to create today?
Cooking is second nature to me now, but it wasn’t always. My apprenticeship began in childhood. It was a slow, sometimes painful process.
~ ~ ~
“When you can see through it, it’s done,” my grandmother said. I perched on a stool at the high counter, watching as she rolled strudel dough, thin, thin. She held it up, a parchment-like sheet, gestured for me to lay my palms on its surface. Her square hands, the primal shape my own hands would grow into, mirrored mine, palm to palm, the membrane between us another fragile layer of skin that we coaxed toward transparency.
I was five. She was not yet fifty, but she seemed ancient to me, heavy and slow. The kitchen, hers then, is mine now. It still smells as it did in her day, warmed by pungent cinnamon and cloves, and the wood stove, smoking, the same stubborn flue.
She bent close as we folded apples and dough into a ragged-edged packet, then brushed pastry with butter. Her apron grazed my back as I tugged the oven door open, her hands under my elbows as I slid the tray onto the rack. The enamel door of the
oven was warm against my back as I sat on the floor, the long slow ticking-down of minutes, waiting for the oven to complete its miracle.
“It takes faith. Ovens will do what ovens do. There’s no hurrying, we just don’t do that,” she admonished when I fussed and wanted to pull things out “just to check, Gran, please!”
~ ~ ~
It was in teaching my boys to make cookies that I finally learned the lesson.
“Like this, Mom?” they asked, spooning dough into uneven blobs on the tray. When the trays emerged from the oven, their cookies were all shapes and sizes, some crystalline lace, others baked into bullets. I tasted and saw the myriad ways that dough can vary in each pair of hands, shape and texture influenced by time, temperature, mixing methods. The many ways sons are different from their mothers.
~ ~ ~
No hurrying an oven. No hurrying a grandmother. Some things rely on time passing. A redtail hawk lets the wind do its work for him as he lies on the cross-current and waits for the world to spin into alignment under him. A cook learns to let things be and trust in the mystery of the kitchen.
To a child in a hurry, the seconds sweep by slowly; for a mother, too fast. Those slow minutes, waiting impatiently with my grandmother in front of the farmhouse stove. Or the quick-quick, double-time burnt-before-you-know-it staccato timing of the sauté pan on the stovetop’s cranked-up flame as my children grow up and leave home. Time has no meaning in the kitchen. Time means everything in the kitchen.
Take hold of the handle of the knife in your working hand (the right hand if you are right-handed or the left if you are left-handed); the tip of your thumb should rest on the… corner of the blade where it joins with the handle. Resist the impulse to extend your index finger onto the blade; it may look chic, but it is unsafe.[ii]
Grampa spoke in guttural growls, English blended with Hutterisch, impossible to distinguish profane from proper.
“Crop failure, ne Messarnt. Water, wota. The tractor, en Kjatel. The dog, der hund.”
Alone at the dinner table after the rest of us were long done eating, his face blackened by dust from combining and his elbows propped on the scarred wood, he used his knife to pick up pieces of meat from his plate. When he caught me looking at him from my spot on the steps, his blue eyes narrowed. Was he angry? I couldn’t tell.
“Tomorrow, we butcher.”
~ ~ ~
A knife case made by my mother contains thirty knives, each blade safely wrapped in a sheath, its own pocket. My favourite tools look like weapons. A visiting poet flinches when I pull out steel and paring knife, slowly draw the blade, first one side and then the other, the length of the steel to hone the edge into a razor.
I try to reassure her. “Sharp knives are safer than dull knives.” I can see she doesn’t believe me. I don’t know how to tell her that a knife gets to the heart of things, exposes the core of what matters most, so I grab an onion and show her.
~ ~ ~
Next morning, I hid in the kitchen, ventured out only when my mother nodded to me as she stood at the sink. Her fingernails were rimmed with blood.
“You can go out and swing now. But stay out of the way.”
The rope swing dangled at the far end of the garage, behind the tractor. I edged past the machinery. Stopped. A gutted steer slowly twirled on a hook, blood soaking into the ground, only the stain of salt left behind. The air smelled like hot metal. Grampa’s blackened carving knife reminded me of a scimitar I’d seen in a book of myths. The calm in his face as he picked up his steel, drew the knife down its length, then down the steer’s gullet. A precise line.
“Don’t look away, Deneezie. This is your supper.”
He filled big bowls with tidy pieces of meat. Tenderloin. Short ribs. Chuck. Shanks. I made trip after trip to the kitchen, emptied the bowl onto the table, where Gran wrapped and labelled each piece, a year’s worth of suppers.
~ ~ ~
My sons each held a knife by age four. Soft fingers around a small black handle. A curved tip, serrated teeth, the best I could offer as insulation from the real bite that is a knife’s job, careful of their own hands in a way I never was with my own in my daily work as a chef.
“Put the tips of your thumb and index finger on the side of the blade just in front of the handle, to choke up, for more control. Like a baseball bat, remember, from the park?”
An onion, rolling on the block. “It wiggles around, Mom! How can I make it stay still?”
“Tuck your fingertips way high up and arch your hand like a cat stretching, like this. The blade goes under the bridge your hand makes – and the onion falls in half. A flat surface, see? Now lay down the half on its flat side.”
A carrot, its long tail pointing toward soup. “A rocking motion, honey. The knife moves, not the carrot.”
Then a rack of lamb, the boning knife, so like a pirate’s dagger.
How can I deliberately put such a dangerous tool into my children’s hands? They won’t understand if I tell them a knife will cut a path to self-reliance. I can only show them my faith in them. Don’t look away, Deneezie.
Place the piece … on a cutting board, the fattiest side down. Cut 1 ½ inches deep into the meat lengthwise, then cut 1 ½ inches deep across the meat to the left at the bottom of the existing cut. Now cut 1 ½ inches deep across the meat to the right. Open the piece of meat on the board and smooth it with the flat side of a chef’s blade knife.[iii]
“You are never too old or too young to learn,” Madame said tartly too me, “and being only twenty-six is not a problem. You will store this knowledge like a seed. When you are ready, it will germinate.”
“But Madame, I am here too early in my career. I don’t know enough.”
“Nonsense, ma belle.” Madame snapped her fingers. “This is why you are here. To learn. Why are you frightened?”
I was the youngest in Madeleine Kamman’s cooking school, in France with my husband and my infant son. Every morning, I left them at the hotel and dashed through le vieux Annecy to Madame Madeleine’s kitchen classroom.
As part of our education, we visited markets, farmers and chefs, then returned to the kitchen to discuss what we had seen, and always, to cook. One morning we visited a mountain fromagerie where the local cheese, reblochon, was made with each day’s milk during summer months while the cows grazed the nearby pastures.
“A washed rind cheese,” Madame said, pointing to the wooden racks covered with rounds of cheese. She sliced a wheel open and handed out a plateful of wedges, admonishing, “On ne mange que la crème.”
“What did she say?” one of the Americans whispered to me.
“One eats only the cream.”
Occasionally, the class made pilgrimages to Michelin restaurants, meeting chefs whose names appeared in newspapers, whose cooking had reshaped cuisine. On those days, Madame’s eyes raked our North American apparel with disdain. “You intend to eat at Bocuse in that?” she hissed one morning, smoothing her Chanel skirt as we congregated in cotton skirts and sandals. “You people. You have no sense of style. Just as with food.”
Most days, we gathered at Madame’s kitchen counter over brioche and café crème to brainstorm a menu, then Madame allocated dishes: “Sylvia, la truite amande; Josée, tarte au citron. Genevieve, green beans and le pain fougasse. Deneezie, today you will cook the protein. The veal. You know how to butterfly it, yes?”
Beside me, my American colleagues calmly unpacked their knives, not a sheet of paper in sight. I hunted frantically for relevant recipes in my slim stack of cookbooks, lugged the long trek from Calgary. My knife is too dull. I will never master this.
I was sweating, swathed in an ankle-length apron. Madame glared through her wire-rimmed glasses. At me. Again.
Staring down at fifty Euros’ worth of veal loin, I started to shake when my knife slipped down its spine. A ragged hole appeared in the meat. Madame was at my side within minutes. Sniffing.
“Did you not learn how to butterfly a piece of meat at your Canadian school? This – this – is not well done. You must caress it like a lover, not hack at it. So.” She plucked
my knife from my fingers. In her palm, the knife became a wand. She placed it on the veal and gestured, a magician’s sleight of hand. The veal acquiesced, opening in one continuous sheet, thin and pliable as parchment. The blade landed on the maple butcher block with a dull thud.
I should know this already. French cooks begin their apprenticeship at sixteen.
“Encore.” She retrieved my knife, placed the grip between the fingers of my left hand. “Practise, ma belle. To begin, technique is all. Your hands will know soon enough. Then – only then! – we will discuss flavour principles. Until then, use your knife. And taste everything.”
Perhaps in no other culinary preparation is corner cutting more dangerous than in sauce preparation, be it the most refined of French sauces or in the most fragrant and well-balanced of Indian chutneys. Trust your intelligence and palate…[iv]
Sundays, before I retreat upstairs to my studio to write, I spend two hours in the kitchen. The stovetop fills with pans. Lamb with yoghurt and garam masala. Lentils in a pool of turmeric-yellow stock. The air heavy with ginger, garlic, cumin. Flames flicker and flare, the ancient incantation.
~ ~ ~
My birthday. Both my sons arrive at the house. They jostle each other, laughing, shouldering like good-natured colts in a paddock. My small kitchen seems smaller than usual, their voices and bodies filling all the spaces that normally fold around my ribs like close-fitting feathers lining a nest.
“Hey Mom, where’s the roasting pan?”
“Pass me the colander, bro. How am I supposed to drain this pot with you standing right in front of the sink?”
“Who’s going to make the Béarnaise sauce?”
They make a festival out of the moment.
~ ~ ~
I am sitting at my desk and writing when the phone rings; I know it is one of my boys. Both are professional cooks, their apprenticeships unwinding like an apple peeling to the core of what they need to learn. They will be chefs too one day.
Dailyn: “Mom, I’m canning peaches. What can I add to the syrup that will taste yummy?”
A day later, Darl: “Mom, that Korean flank steak marinade. Can I add horseradish or wasabi, or do I have to use srichacha?”
I don’t miss the irony that I second-guessed my sons’ choice of career when each became a cook. This, despite my own life in the kitchen. “Have another career in your hip pocket for when you hit forty,” I told them, “cooking won’t last.”
But I see their open hearts. And I have learned: my fears are mine alone, fed by distance, age, time.
Of course cooking feeds them; they saw from childhood how it fed their mother. Cooking does last. People have always needed cooks, it is a noble profession, the dance of flame on metal. We all eat, although not all of us cook. What I really meant to say was that their bodies, perfect now, the Adonis bodies of active and healthy young men, will eventually wear down beneath the weight and stress of the kitchen. But just their bodies. Never the inner flame.
Kamman, Madeleine. The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Techniques and Science of Good Cooking.
New York. William Morrow. 1997. p. v
[ii] –. p. 15
[iii] –. p. 777
[iv] –. p. 247