Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Best Ingredients We Have

Photo Credit: Morguefile by Xandert

Standing in the kitchen with my teenagers over the sundered carcass of a beast, I swell with joy. For the moment, I have their attention.

"We need more sea salt in the rub," I admit.

"Is this enough?" asks twelve year-old Devin, with the eyes like wells, Devin with the lashes like one hundred bolded question marks.

"Not really," I tell him, "and you need the fine rather than the coarse."

Fifteen year-old Rowan grinds pepper. In his able hands, the pepper grinder rumbles, purrs, obeys. Devin separates rosemary from a branch.

"Mom, is this the thyme?"

Innocence and ignorance sit so closely on my tongue. Rowan scoffs. I smile, and Devin answers with a smile that owns his question, the scoff and all the amusement in the world. The lashes blink and cheeks run to merry red.

"Is this the thyme, then?" he kids and points at the other herb. "No! What?" He enacts the drama of the fool. Rowan looks on through half-lidded eyes, as skeptical as a snake. I giggle. They push and pull and shape one another with their tugs. Logical and lyrical, an answer to the other's strength.

"We could do a dry rub," I tell them. Rapt eyes focus on my face. "But I am going to use olive oil."

We cover the chicken in olive oil, anoint it like a supplicant before its God. Then we pat on the salt, the pepper, the rosemary and thyme.

"I am going to slice the lemon finely," I tell them.

"Why can't you slice it coarsely?" Devin asks. Because of the laws that govern words. One can slice finely or chop finely, but one cannot slice things in a manner that is coarse.

"One slices thickly," I tell him. "But I am going to slice it finely." Somewhere an Adverb Judiciary nod their heads in frank relief, disaster averted once again.

For a few moments, I slice in silence. The boys watch me as disks of lemon fall decisively from my knife.

"You're slicing them thickly," admonishes Rowan. "You're screwing this all up."

Of course I am. It is my job to teach him things so that he can think that he could do them better than I can. It's his job to rib me and tell me I'm a fool. The basis of our good-natured fondness for one another rests in my willingness to assume that he may well be right. I grin and he grins back.

"Well," I tell him, "They'll have to do." We layer lemons over the chicken.

"It goes in a 400 oven uncovered for an hour or until done. Now, what shall we do with the butternut squash? "

We halve the squash and scoop out the seeds, cut it into manageable wedges. Then we sprinkle it with pumpkin pie spice—nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, lemon peel and cardamom. It is dabbed with what passes around here for butter and settled in a bit of water, covered in a casserole dish. Into the oven it goes. I am confident in this experiment. Anything blessed with cardamom will sing.

"We need to make a salad." Bell peppers hardly bigger than Christmas lights, yellow, red and orange, and English cucumber, carrots—purple, orange and white. Leafy red lettuce. Devin has disappeared and it is only Rowan and me.

"I want to show you how to make my signature dressing."

"I just remembered I have something else to do," says Rowan.

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do. I have to go lie on the couch."

"Come here," I tell him, using my Mother Voice and he Comes Here. He still Comes Here.

"You mix two tablespoons of red wine vinegar with two tablespoons of dijon and whisk."

"That smells disgusting," he tells me.

"Of course it does. It's vinegar."

"Then add in six tablespoons of olive oil, gradually." As I measure and add, he whisks it in, unasked.

"There's something about the way that looks that wrong."

"Well, it tastes really good. Try." I hand him a lettuce leaf. Dip.

Meh, he tells me. Meh. Whatever, Mom.

When dinner is served, I put out cheap wineglasses and serve sparkling cider with the meal. Devin asks continually if he's holding his glass correctly.

"You look like a redneck who's trying to have class," Mike tells him. Devin rewards him with the deep red smile, the fluttering of lashes and the further mocking up of drinking wrong.

Rowan takes a bite of chicken and stops for a moment of what might be prayer.

"That's gooood," he says.

It is. It is good and it is simple, made of things that happen to be around. Leftover herbs from Christmas. Two lemons on the verge of getting hard. I stock good vegetables, good spices and buy cheap chicken then let everything marry itself on our tongues. I am raising my kids the same way, with whatever is in my cabinets and whatever I find at the store, whatever is on sale. Yesterday it was cooking, tomorrow history. Add good ingredients and a little know-how and forget the recipe book. One may taste like lemon and dijon, the other like cardamom and clove. It doesn't matter. They will sit and watch me cook until one of them takes the knife from my hand, saying, "Mom, I can do better than that." Then, he will cook his own meals and eat the ruined and the rich. He will learn from the smoke about arrogance and devise greatness in his own dry rub.

Until then, I will look for moments where I can stand with each of them in the kitchen, with the smell of lemon and fresh herbs, the warmth and closeness. I will look for them surrounded by the best ingredients we have.


  1. What a beautiful narrative on the small moments. How wonderful that you are teaching your sons the art of cooking- my husband is a much better cook than I, because he learned from his Italian grandmother to just cook to taste. I, on the other hand, am afraid to stray from a recipe.
    Thanks for linking up!

    1. Thanks! With my Christmas money, I got two great cookbooks The Science of Cooking and The Flavor Bible. I am hoping to become even more empowered to cook things to taste and teach my kids to do the same.

  2. I think it is important for everyone to learn to cook, boys and girls alike. After all, everyone has to eat!


    1. I agree. It's a project of mine to send kids into the world empowered to grow and prepare their own food.

  3. I agree! Beautiful writing! I stopped by from Papa is a Preacher's Thursday Link-Up! I hope you'll check out my blog:

    Happy New Year!
    Your Newest Follower

    1. Thanks very much for dropping by! I just opened up a tab to your blog and am about to hop on over. :)

  4. Wow, that was wonderful to read...I got to the end of it and was like "wait, that can't be it! I want to read more!".

    The interactions, the cooking, the descriptions....all perfect!

    (Visiting from Larissa's link up party)

  5. You are growing so much beauty in your house. Family and food and memories and laughter. And more than anything love. You are very, very good at growing love.

    1. Thanks, Beth. I really appreciate that. It's so precious to me that these two boys turning into men will still end up in my kitchen looking at lemons as I layer them onto a bird. It makes me so grateful I could sing.

  6. So beautiful, Tara! I love narratives and yours are always exceptional.. .

    My mother cooks like this too, from what here and now.. I'm trying to learn. Hoping to learn..

    Thanks for linking up!

    1. I'm so glad I REMEMBERED to link up! Now to visit all those blogs! I learned to cook by watching my father and asking questions, and he explained things to me. Then I started using recipes. I was able to figure out a lot that way. You will, too. :)

  7. Lovely, as always! You have such a way with words. Always a pleasure to read. :)

  8. Everything sounds delicious - I'll come to your house to eat any time! And it's so nice that you can get your boys interested!
    You write this sort of post so well. You ought to consider going through your blog and picking out maybe 10 or a dozen posts and collecting them in a self-published book. I think they make great reading.

    1. Thanks, Lorinda. That's a nice idea and much mellower than the stupid memoir am working on. Perhaps I will.

  9. How beautiful. I had to learn to cook mostly out of necessity, I can't wait to teach the girls.

  10. I can so relate! My 19 year old college son, Tate, asked for cooking lessons for Christmas. And artwork! And "anything for my apartment kitchen that will help my life". My heart swelled. He took a knife skills class and then we took a sauteing and sauces class together. A holiday highlight! He's back in college and I miss him:(

  11. This is so great. I would love to learn to cook this way.

  12. "It's his job to rib me and tell me I'm a fool. The basis of our good-natured fondness for one another rests in my willingness to assume that he may well be right." I wholeheartedly subscribe to this school of parenting. This was a delicious post in so many ways.


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License