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Some years ago, when fate found me suddenly single, I moved into an apartment solo. It's the only time I've truly lived by myself. I'm familiar with solitude; I cherish it (I'm an only child) I do my best thinking alone, I love to read alone and writing - I do that alone too. But mealtime, I've come to realize, is not a time I like to be by myself.
Dinner was sacred to my family. My parents taught me that mealtime was a community event. We each had a role to play: my mom, the head chef; my dad the prep cook; and myself, the busboy. Dinner from beginning to end, involved conversation (open lively) and arguments (usually boisterous). This was the element that made the whole ritual so important to us. Whether I screamed in frustration at my parent's constant corrections ("don't say 'ain't, dear. Were they really 'like' that?) Or my mother howled like a hyena at some tale of my dad's or my dad sang obscure rock n' roll hits he'd heard on Finkleman's 45's, this was when we shared ourselves.
My mother taught me to cook. I learned that the good meal is like the community it feeds. Pasta puttanesca gets its name from the prostitutes who invented the sauce using cheap ingredients. Like the women, the flavours are strong too: the smouldering sting of sautéed garlic, the budding zest of capers, the dark tang of calamata olives, the comfortable sweetness of Roma Tomatoes, the flaring heat of cayenne peppers and underlying it all, Anchovies like tears. The meal is a reflection of the person-or their home. It talk about its creator, in the language of flavours, to those who eat it.
I discovered the keys to a good meal are preparation and timing. Everything must be ready to go before heat gets involved (on cooking shows, preparations importance is neglected because it is completed off screen.) There is a rhythm to cooking: like dancing, you have to know the steps before you can add your style. I like to listen to loud, upbeat music when I cook. I mince garlic to the beat, pit olives wiggling my hips, open the tomato can, head bobbing. I drum with my spatula on the counter. I make a mess. From the chaos of the kitchen comes serene white pasta on a black plate covered with a bright red-sauce full of black olive halves, flecked with melting parmesan.
I place the plate upon the table and sit down with my guest, friend, lover. I hungrily watch the newly laden fork rise from the plate, enter the mouth, and then pause before sliding naked from closed lips. Perhaps his eyes close as a soft, involuntary "mmmm"escapes. Perhaps her chin thrusts toward the ceiling-shoulders relaxing, torso slouching slightly. The body shows its approval of food in a multitude of gestures, each a silent exaltation saying: "oh this is good!"
But I'm alone tonight. There is no payoff, no conversation. My fork stabs into the pasta. Click. Swirl. A plume of spiced steam. A riot of flavours whoring for the attention of my taste buds. But I hardly notice.
In my mind, I'm picturing myself alone at the table. I don't see cherished solitude, but isolation. Solitude, by becoming common, had lost its pleasure, and I no longer eat alone at home. In the same way that a great dish reflects a community, only a community can properly enjoy it.
I love to cook - for someone else.
Author's Note :
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