I have a sweet story about my mom. And it’s a big deal, because I have very few sweet stories about my mom. Underline very. Italicize very.
Tonight, I peeled a glowing, burgundy-red onion to her skivies. Then, further, to her naked blushing self. Raw and wet, wild and fresh.
There she was. I called my son. He didn’t respond. I went to him in the living room, where he kept my dad company.
“Bo, listen. This is important, it’s a trick I rely on constantly. If you’re ever not sure what to cook, what to do, how to start in the kitchen, just start sauteing an onion. Put a pan on the burner, turn it on, pour in some olive oil, dice or slice an onion, and toss it in. Add salt.”
“Yeah. I think you’ve told me this, Mom,” he said.
I flushed a little, delighted and proud that I’d already taught my 18-year-old son this important directive, and that he’d remembered.
I neglected to say, go out to the garden, pull a few leaves off the rosemary bush, a few leaves from the thyme branches, have fun feeling the little branch go bumpety-bump as you pull the leaves off, like a clattering little trian.
Bring those in and toss them into the oil too. Add some shakes of red chile pepper flakes, or crumble an arbol chile into the oil, and add a couple pinches of sea salt, and a few grindings of pepper from your best pepper grinder, the one that’s a real friend to you, the handsome one that holds pride of place on the counter.
When I returned to the kitchen, my mother’s words drifted back to me, as they frequently do. In fact, it might be true that I think of them literally every time I saute an onion, which is probably every day and in many cases twice a day.
I remember those days in my childhood home when I’d wander into, through, or near the kitchen and call the same words every time, “Mmm! It smells good! Mom, what are you cooking?”
Each time, the answer was the same. She’d laugh, a little self-effaced, a little shy. “Nothing really, honey. Just sauteing an onion. Your father always says the same thing.”
She was amused by this, that both my dad and I were always delighted and drawn by the scent of an onion, sauteing.
It doesn’t surprise me at all.
Who wouldn’t be enchanted by the scent of a sauteing onion? Is there any better fragrance on earth?
The point, though, is that this exchange, which was a kind of ritual between my mother and me, serves as one of the sweetest and most painful memories I have of my mother.
This is because this was about the closest we got to intimacy. Even though, or perhaps because, the exchange took place between rooms, not together… our eyes never met. We were generally not in the same room.
She was, obviously, in the kitchen. I wasn’t really allowed in the kitchen. That was her drinking den. She didn’t like us kids in there much.
In the early days, when I was little, I’d ask to help. She never let me help. I never got to hold a knife, learn to cut an onion. When I was very little, barely able to climb onto the black, vinyl-covered barstool opposite her on the chopping block kitchen counter, I sometimes saw her chopping an onion. In those days, she used the plastic, manual food processor that my parents called the “blitzhopper.”
They laughed together in those days. I heard them over the absurdly loud pounding and banging of the silly, orange, plastic blitzhopper.
That’s why my mom married my dad, she told us. He made her laugh.
He’s still funny, even though he can’t see straight and is completely demented. Still, he has his sense of humor. It never fails him, in fact.
But, back to the story. By the time we could climb the barstools ourselves, we were no longer welcome in the kitchen. The blitzhopper was no longer in use. My father was gone at sea most of the time, and we were often asked to fetch band-aids.
When my mother cried while chopping onions, I ran for a washcloth which I would soak in ice-cold water, praying under my breath for the faucet to hurry and make the water cold, colder. I’d run it to her, a compress for her eyes.
I don’t recall if she ever asked for this, or if I thought of it myself.
Certainly, she did not ask me to put her to bed at night, as I did most nights, when I was about six. I’d wait for the sound of the TV going fuzzy. When the channel would just die and the screen would fill with fuzz and this annoying scratchy sound.
I’d slip into the room, every muscle at attention.
She’d be asleep, her chin sunk to her chest, her glasses perched at the end of her nose. She’d be sitting up in bed. In her hand would be a glass, wet with condensation. Often, it was precariously tilted. My first task was to remove the glass with utmost care and skill. Somehow I knew it was imperative I not wake her during this operation.
Somehow I knew it was important to save face for her during this operation. I sensed instinctively that it was essential my mother not know I was putting her to bed. After removing the glass, I would carefully, oh so carefully, remove her glasses.
It took a long time. I worked incrementally, with my breath held. I never woke her. Once the glass and the glasses were removed, I’d pull the covers up as high as I could and turn off the light on the nightstand.
Then, I’d slink out of the room. Eight years later, when I was 14 years old, I was shocked — shocked, mind you! — when my best friend Sarah said, “Christy, face it, your mom’s an alcoholic.”
I remember how sharp those words were, how stunned I was, even though I felt their truth with a kind of brutal finality. The gig was up, the joke was over, I had nothing to cover for, there was nothing more to do.
Except save her life. That was the next task. But, that’s another story.
In the early days, though, the days of delicious, fragrant, sauteing onion, I was not invited to stir, to fetch things from the fridge, to watch.
But, she would allow me to toss off that question. And it was like a little joke between us, because I never learned. Although I obviously smelled the same scent again and again, I never recognized it. Each time, it was new. Each time, enchanting. Every time, it made her chuckle. Every time, it made her say the same thing… “just like your father…”
And when she said that, she said it in a soft voice that I didn’t hear very often, a voice of love. Love for my father. For me. For cooking. I don’t know. For a sweet edge of a family life and marriage which seemed overall to bring her great bitterness.
So, when I saute an onion, yellow, white, or red, I feel a little quickening within myself, like a heartbeat connecting my mom and me through the lowly, yet powerful onion.
It calls for a kind of ritual in me too. Cutting off the top end, leaving the root end intact. Placing the knife edge on one side of the root and cutting authoritatively to halve the onion. Turning each half onto its cut side (for stability) and then choosing: slice into narrow half moons? Or dice by cutting vertical lines root to stem and then crosswise (sometimes before the crosswise cut, making a middle cut through the center of the half-onion for a more precise and even dice)?
Yes, Bo. My son. When you don’t know what to do, how to start, it’s okay. But, don’t give up. Don’t hesitate. Go into the kitchen. The important thing is to start. Simply peel and chop an onion. Begin sauteing it in a cast iron pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Rosemary and thyme if you have it. Red chile pepper flakes or a crushed chile arbol, if you have it.
Then, root around in your fridge, in your pantry. You can do almost anything at that point and not go wrong. Toss in some potatoes. Some old kale. Rice? Sure. Just add some wine and or water or chicken broth or vodka, or all of the above, as well. Some butter. Some canned tuna? Sure, in a pinch. Better if you have some real food. Any leftovers. A can of tomatoes. Some eggs? Why not. You can cook your rice twenty minutes (under a lid).
Add your eggs toward the end so the yolks stay runny. Make little depressions in the rice and crack your eggs in. Or cook them in a small cast iron pan — fry them in butter, with salt and pepper and shake them onto your rice and onion dish. That’s a good dinner.
No wonder I couldn’t marry David. He didn’t like onions or garlic.
When he first told me that, I was speechless.
Not like onions or garlic? That was impossible, right? It must be a joke. Also, this was a Persian man. How could a Persian man, hearkening from one of the most sophisticated food cultures on the planet, reject onions and garlic?
My response? I simply ignored it. I had no idea how to cook without these classic starters, and I had no interest to do so.
I was not a very good girlfriend.
I’d cook for him. He’d take a bite, look up, and say, “This has onion, doesn’t it?” I’d say, “Yes.”
Was I a bitch? Probably.
Was I about to forsake the lovely onion?
No f*in’ way.
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