I’m mad decent in the kitchen.
My junior year of college, I went into a newly opened cafe in Iowa City with my boyfriend Wes. The Motley Cow was the sort of place I did not feel cool enough for: it was tiny, there were interesting objects everywhere (e.g., glass seltzer bottles), and there were words like broccoli rabe on the menu. I spied a pasta dish on the paper menu that contained…truffles? In my world, truffles were chocolate. We went in because Wes wanted to ask for a job. They didn’t hire Wes, but they did hire me. I’m still not sure how it happened; I truly do not remember asking for work. Besides, I was horribly intimidated by the whole operation. In conversation with Wes and the owner that day, I must’ve mentioned that I had waited tables all through high school. Within a week I was on the schedule as a waitress at the cafe. From there, out of curiosity and a deep desire to help that beautiful place succeed, I got into the kitchen. The Cow became my contemporaneous college. It changed me as much as normal-college did, probably more.
We ate five things in my house growing up: pizza, chicken tetrazzini, mostaccioli, lasagna, and chili. In a single-parent household where that parent is on the road much of the time — trying to make enough money for any sort of food — there is no food worship. There’s no interest, money, or time for it. And this was twenty years ago in small-town Iowa, mind you; that I even knew what a chocolate truffle was is saying something. I don’t mean that we were a bunch of rubes; I mean that it was a different time and that time did not include sauteed shallots or aged balsamic.
When I started inching into the kitchen at the Cow, I started from nothing. I didn’t know about the soup-starter triumvirate (carrot, celery, onion); I didn’t know hummus was made of chickpeas, nor did I know what a chickpea was; pan-searing and braising were revelations; I remember the day I learned what a roux was and I made one; I remember the day David needed me to make a soup and he said, “I need you to make a soup,” and I did: I made a delicious French onion and we served it. I made the soup! I fell in love with making simple, gorgeous, nourishing food and I owe it to the Cow and the people who were patient with a willing kitchen student who didn’t know anything at all.
In New York City, you walk out your door and before your very eyes is some of the best food in the world. (I actually think Chicago beats NYC for Best Restaurant City in America, but that’s another post.) But would you know that I’ve been cooking since we got here? I haven’t had a working kitchen in so long, it feels like the sweet breath of life to be standing at a stove again. The setup here is laughable: there is no countertop. No counter at all, just a sink and a tiny, tiny stove. But it’s a gas range, the oven works, I’ve fashioned a counter by putting a board across the sink, and I can use the small dining table if I really need more room. I’ve made lasagna, chicken-quinoa-vegetable chowder, penne caprese, maple cookies, chocolate chip cookies, Irish soda bread, rolled oatmeal with cream and almonds, and beautiful asparagus and salads.
Feeding myself and Yuri in this way feels like watering a plant and that plant is love and that love is five-star.
Mary Paulger MaryP
In 1970s, we were in Chicago (near De Paul) for a family wedding ( from UK).
My Dad had given my little cousins, money “for truffles” and they were mightily confused.
“Is a truffle some English thing? they asked me.
Not knowing about the handout, I explained that truffles were fungus that pigs sniffed out in woodland.
…. oh the looks of disgust on those small children’s faces.