My mom is a phenomenal cook. I may be biased in proclaiming her the best though I’m sure I’d find plenty of supporters — attesting at least to her culinary prowess if not her top-ranking superiority — among many a friend who has sat at her table over the years.
I, on the other hand, have not been as amply blessed in the kitchen, though I blame some of that on my own reluctance to embrace the art when I was younger. With my mom capable of whipping up a sumptuous five-dish dinner in a matter of hours — with not a single recipe to steer her — the thought of attempting even one of her creations has been daunting. I also recall, as a girl, being prodded into the kitchen by my dad to offer my mom a hand and feeling resistant, wondering why my brother wasn’t being enlisted in such a duty.
That early opposition aside, I’ve always preferred to bake instead. Cookies, cakes, muffins, breads — ever since I was in high school, making such treats has brought me joy, and even now, with every family meal and special occasion, dessert remains my domain.
Yet more recently, as I’ve savored my mom’s classic baked chicken or her thick and hearty red bean soup, I’ve been thinking about recipes handed down through generations. Of families where the gravy served over pasta originated in a great-grandmother’s kitchen or the turkey soup made with Thanksgiving leftovers was once the inspired idea of a dad pondering the possibilities for all that excess. I think of my cousins who spend hours in the kitchen, up to their elbows in flour, as they pat and roll out dal puri, an unleavened bread stuffed with chickpeas, and bus-up-shut, a flakier bread served in shredded pieces, both recipes they’ve learned watching other family members at the stove.
In my immediate family, there have been no lists of ingredients handed down, no special techniques or secrets for perfection. As my brother Joachim and I have grown more adventurous and capable in the kitchen in the last few years, we’ve pressed my mom for breakdowns of our favorite recipes. But in the tradition of many fine cooks, she relies on instinct, as well as those skills she mastered as a girl in St. Lucia, observing and helping her mother prepare meals for their family of nine. Everything comes from memory, routine or confident experimentation, leaving Joachim and I to flounder with how much exactly is “a bit” of coriander or cumin and is “about 35 minutes” the maximum or minimum time in which the chicken will be cooked.
If she won’t write anything down, we decided, then we should, which is how on a recent Sunday, we came together at my house for our first cooking lesson. On the menu: curried goat. While an ambitious first venture into my mom’s comestible world, it has always been one of my brother’s favorite dishes so that’s where we began, with a recipe for which he has long clamored.
My mom arrived with a large, heavy-bottomed pan, along with some spices and peas. For the goat and the rest of the ingredients, we headed to Pat’s Caribbean market in Cedarbrook, the trip itself a treat and the reason we met at my house, and not my mom’s, as I live closer to the store. Since I rarely shop there, I have to restrain myself when I do. Otherwise, I’m tempted to load up on things like Horlicks malted milk, Shirley Biscuits and coconut tablet, none of which I eat now, but just seeing them on the shelves fills me with an irrepressible gladness and nostalgia for my childhood.
When we made our way back to my house, it was with 4 pounds of goat, cut into chunks, a piece of pumpkin, a few other vegetables, and, for a pre-cooking snack, some Jamaican sodas and beef patties.
And then in my small galley kitchen — the one whose size I once protested wasn’t big enough for my solo meal preparations — the magic began. We rinsed the meat with vinegar and water before adding fresh and dried seasonings, soy sauce and chopped onions and peppers. My mom gave specific instructions and measurements for each step: Add a quarter teaspoon of garlic powder, two to three cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of Goya’s Sazonador Total; let the pan heat up before adding one-and-a-half tablespoons of oil and the curry and additional spices; make a paste that will coat the seasoned meat …
She let my brother and me take turns rubbing the seasoning into the goat and browning the meat on the stove before transferring it to a crockpot, while my partner Zane, also a big fan of her curried goat, wrote down her every instruction. We laughed and chatted the whole time, while the aroma, warm and pungent, wafted around us. Once the goat was in the crockpot, she also taught us how to make talcari, a pumpkin side dish we would eat over rice.
And as the afternoon wore on, I was aware of a deep satisfaction, a welling joy. Cooking like that, with such a sense of connection and appreciation, was not only more fun than cooking alone, it felt like we were sharing in a new expression of a familiar language, and that love filled my kitchen as palpably as the scents and sounds of our simmering meal.
By the time we sat down to eat, we were famished. The curried goat was delicious though the meat was a little tougher than we like it and we all agreed letting it sit overnight in the seasonings, as my mom usually does, would bring out a better flavor. Still, there were few complaints as we celebrated this first — only an effervescent gratitude and communion, and talk of the next entry in our new cookbook.
My vote is for mac and cheese, a childhood favorite that still serves up comfort today.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times