First, allow me to address the elephant in the room, being the elephantine gap between my last post and now. I’ve been, along with andthenblog.com blogger K, who happens to be a bffl, undergoing something of a blog soul-searching,-insofar as a blog has a soul. I had originally envisioned this as a space for me to share with you my thoughts on various slices-of-life (like surgeons general) and to a certain extent, I still will. But I think it’s more useful for me, and perhaps more interesting for you, if I were to, instead of using this as an opportunity to kvetch, use this as a space to develop and workshop my life’s work-something that remains to be determined, but will exist in the intersection of food, commun(ity) and (ication), and spirit.
And with that, I introduce a weekly post: Sunday Supper. Sunday being the Janus head of days, ever looking forward and backward, I find it a reflective, melancholic time in each week. So in an effort to take stock (pun intended), I’ll share, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, what’s been consuming and been consumed each week.
Right now as I type this I am standing in my kitchen, caramelizing onions. Slate has an excellent piece about the disparity between the time most recipes will tell you it takes to caramelize onions properly, and how long it really takes. The inimitable Julia Child says 35-40 minutes, and so say I. And they are tricky buggers, you have to watch them like a hawk, constant stirring vigilance, They’ll turn on you-in fact, right now, I can smell the butter ever so slightly browning, which is not ideal. So you turn down the heat, you give yourself some more time, and you keep calm, with the rewarding promise of buttery, umami-y unctuousness in your near-ish future.
Onions also cook down-a lot. This is necessary, essentializing and condensing the flavors, the miracle of heat and time, like coal becoming a diamond, taking two huge onions and reducing them to about 3/4 of a cup of deliciousness. In short, it is a high-risk, high reward game, in which you must be patient, attentive, and forgiving.
None of these are my strong suits, and it is perhaps for this reason that I did not always enjoy cooking. I knew how to cook, since childhood, learning at the side of my Grandmother how to make stuffed grapeleaves, squash, and cabbage rolls, hummus, tabouli, kibbeh, and mjuddarah, all manner of Arabic food, from the every day to the extravagant. From my Father I learned how to make every meal a feast, and the principles of meat, the marination, the resting, the time, temperature, and sauce. To this day the quickest way to get my Dad’s undivided attention is the tell him I have a cooking question. And from my Mother I learned the art of the salad, and the quick prep of a weeknight meal, made after already working a full day and still managing something nourishing, joyful, and never out of a box.
So I always knew how to cook, at least by rote, but I had never cooked on my own. After moving out of my sorority house my senior year of college, I was suddenly on my own. I had the materials, I had the book knowledge, but I had no instinct, I had no real skill. I’d seen it done, but I had never done it, at least not without a guiding hand. There was something terrifyingly lonely about being in the kitchen by myself. It was a place I’d associated with family, and warmth, but I couldn’t create that by myself.
And I lacked patience. None of the recipes I knew were turning out right. I burnt garlic and I undercooked pasta, in an effort to hurry things along. I hated being in the kitchen alone, and I wanted to create good food, but I didn’t want to be there. I oversalted things and undervalued sweetness and sour. I ended up just eating pasta with butter and salt and pepper more nights than I care to recall.
But somewhere along the way I decided to start cooking for other people. Invite people over, and you have a reason to slave over a stove. You have a goal more urgent then simply feeding yourself. You’re entertaining others, you’re nourishing them. Cooking for others was what taught me to be patient in the kitchen; I’d eat burnt crap, but I’d be damned if I’d serve it to others. In learning to cook for other people, I learned how to cook for myself.
Which is how I am here, on a Sunday morning, slowly, methodically, meditatively, almost, cooking onions until they are no longer really onions, but something altogether more. The strange alchemy of the kitchen has taken over, where time, pressure, and heat combine to take something ordinary, a yellow onion, and make it extraordinary. It’s not all that dissimilar from what happened to me in the kitchen. With time I too have been able to take what is an ordinary experience for most of us, simply making dinner, and make it something extraordinary-an opportunity to nourish my spirit and those of others (I hope).
But right now my onions are burning, and I must tend to them.