to be in the kitchen

what happens to make a meal

The time between Christmas Eve morning and Christmas Eve night used to feel weeks long. This year was the first year I realized it was only ever a few hours. Of course there were also the days leading up to the party—the 22nd and the 23rd, and those, too, were small infinities—but it was only ever really on that day that the true violence of Christmas kicked in. Mountains of vegetables appeared in the base of our sink, spilled onto the countertop, waiting to be cleaned and chopped. Brussels sprouts to be quartered, oyster mushrooms to be pulled apart and griddled in butter, parsnips julienned, sweet potatoes sliced into rounds on the mandolin.

For most of my life this was an act of mysticism: the enigma of the appearing vegetables. And even more unfathomable, the mystery of my appearing mother. It didn’t matter how early in the morning I woke up, it was certain that when I stumbled downstairs and into the kitchen, Mom would be there already elbow-deep in the prep of clarifying butter, cleaning racks of lamb, slicing bread. I’d stand in the doorway for a moment, silent and barefoot, until I was noticed and swept into the swell of “mix this, toss these, measure that.” As I got older, the directions broadened to include activities that required blades and heat and an eye for timing. But the fundamental atmosphere stayed—I was aboard a ship I did not own, and it was my job to do work, and when the clock face showed 5 p.m., to get out.

After five was my time for answering the door, pouring champagne, and remaining tethered to the phone that rang with the arrival of each new car at our gate until the very last guest was upstairs by the fire and chatting comfortably with a miniature poached pear and Gruyere grilled cheese sandwich in hand.

When I reached my teens I began to push, lightly, against what went unquestioned for so many years. “Don’t you think 60 lamb chops is a bit much for only 28 people if you’re also making pork ribs and halibut?” I was, inevitably, wrong most all of the time. We wanted 30 cold lamb chops to sit in the fridge or be diced into omelets, and you never knew when you could use some for a hash. Didn’t I know that Grandma and Grandpa would take leftovers home to freeze and de-thaw well into February? Of course I did know these things. In retrospect I think what I was really looking for was some way to make my presence known in the creation of Christmas.

At 6:30 p.m., when we all sat down for dinner, my mother would stand at the helm of our living room, looking out over the hodgepodge of long tables and fine china, and announce the impending meal. “And tonight I’ve made…”

Then everyone would applaud, and I, standing beside her, would feel a small pit in my stomach. Here I was, perpetually on the losing side of my unknown fight for recognition.

Acknowledgement is easy when it comes to desserts. You can say, “That’s my carrot cake,” or “I made the rosemary plum crumble.” You don’t get that when it comes to dinner. There’s no one parsing who chopped the brussels, fried the shallots, cleaned the portobellos. It’s like any dining experience—there is only ever the chef and the food on your plate.

Now, I wonder when these roots of disturbance were originally planted. I think it’s too easy to say the whole affair was grounded in some childish form of jealousy toward a celebrated mother. My mom was single for the majority of my upbringing, and this past winter was the first time I’d heard news of a romantic interest on the horizon. So maybe this is why somewhere deep within me, there is a lilting toward her feeling of fundamental aloneness—her feeling, and the rage that any expression of that feeling evoked in me. I can’t count the times during my childhood that I heard her say, “Nobody loves me.” And I would cry back, “I love you.” I would cry back, “I love you!”

I was in the kitchen. I am still in the kitchen. And this year, for the first time, I felt, or at least hoped, that she saw I could help cook Christmas too.