Meals My Island Mamas Made
by Zada Clarke
Clarissa Allen’s kitchen has always smelled the same. It might be the milk formula that she feeds the runt lambs every spring. Or the sprouting spring potatoes in the corner, bacon grease in cast iron atop the stove, piles of farm equipment catalogues or vetiver-pine candles being tested for sale in the store. I recently went back for a visit 10 years later, and still the scent remains, my olfactory sense tugging me back.
It is June and I am 10. The big house is getting cleaned for summer renters and the farm is abuzz. In the kitchen, slowly counter spaces appear where before there were stacks of mail, old coffee mugs, and ongoing building plans for the Brazilian slow cooker Mitch wants to put in. The air hums with winter dust. Midafternoon Clarissa declares a break, with sweaty brows we retire to the kitchen. She takes down from the higher shelf of the pantry a brown bottle. The bottle looks as if it holds a witch’s brew. She tells me to get out milk and ice cubes. Into the blender these three ingredients go, and out into two glasses. The drink is sweet and cold, little bits of ice that melt bitter coffee and milk into your mouth, without being too rich. We sit sipping. I sit on the counter with sweaty knees, Clarissa with her three pairs of glasses perched on her head. In silence, it is a gentle pause before the free-fall into the summer ahead.
Back when love was buying each other bagels at Mocha Mott’s, and when rebellion was putting dry ice into old water bottles and watching them explode, my friends and I always ended up inside our family friends, the Berlows’, kitchen. We always knew there we would find the most important things: food and music.
The kitchen had a delicious funk to it, the alternative stock simmering with protruding bones slowly dissolving with us singing along to Steely Dan. The fridge always looking like the big band of leftovers. Townes Van Zandt sang his loneliness away as we devoured bowls filled with day old spaghetti and homemade red sauce, not knowing which one lulled us to sleep faster. The freezer opened up with icy glee revealing brown butter ice cream, local sausage, or cranberry sorbet putting the same jazz into our step as a jazz number. The pantry held the the world’s finest notes, Scandinavian butter cookies, Turkish dates, small fishes in brine.
In those days we partook in our fair share of small town misdemeanors, but always came back to make chocolate chip cookies in that kitchen pounding our teenage angst into the dough as Nirvana droned in the background.
Midnight Kitchen Raid Plate
Go into the fridge and look for the following:
-A hunk of good cheese
-A bit of salami/prosciutto
-An old jar of homemade condiment that your neighbor gave you last July
-Fancy spreads you got as Christmas presents
Go into the pantry and look for the following:
-A loaf of bread
-Some nuts/dried fruit
-Some garden vegetables in brine that your neighbor gave you last July
-Chocolate/Easter candy/Halloween candy
Take your smorgasbord to the counter. Get a nice plate that you only use for guests and arrange artfully the gleaned ingredients. Make a sandwich. Make a cracker tower or just an hors’ devours plate. Eat sitting on counter or the floor while listening to some good tunes.
I was sitting on the metal counter with Danielle at the Scottish Bakehouse during a lull in service. My dad had just moved away to Colorado and his departure made me feel empty. While we sat there, the knot in my throat ached with attempts to hold down tears. Danielle looked at me and with that kind but affirmative tone, told me that it would be alright. She got a small cheesecake from the front case, cut into it and gave me a slice. I ate it and she told me to get back to work. And that is what I did, learning that sometimes we may need a good cry, but sometimes we just need to get to work.
Feel Good Food
-An ice cream bar
-A Snickers bar or handful of M&Ms
-A spoonful of Nutella
-A slice of cake or pie
-A spoonful of honey
Clear your mind. Don’t think about the stacks of paper or the to-do lists. Don’t think about the pain they left you with or what you could have said. Savor. Lick your fingers and then get back to work doing something you love, doing something that gives you even just the smallest sense of purpose.
Aunt Kate isn’t my real aunt. She could not possibly be related to my disregard for directions in the kitchen. She is the most precise woman I know, and the proof is in the bread she bakes (pun intended). Measurements and I have an on-and-off-again affair. We casually hook up when I glance at a recipe, and then I shove them to the side and use my fingers instead of teaspoons. That is probably why my bread comes out sticky on the inside and burnt on the outside. Aunt Kate, on the other hand, respects those true and tried recipes, expanding them only when she knows the true chemistry needed to produce an honest loaf. Who we are as people translates to what comes out of the oven.
If You Are Anything Like Me Bread
One afternoon, randomly decide you want to make bread. Dump some flour in a bowl. Add a couple of pinches of yeast (that you found in the freezer, probably five years too late) and one of salt. Pour some water in until it seems like it’s the right consistency. Look online to see how long bread takes to rise, find out on average it’s about 18 hours and huff and puff with impatience. Forget about the dough until 19 hours later. Turn on the oven to around 450 ̊ and put the dough in a slow cooker with lid on. Bake it until you get bored (30 minutes). Remove the lid and watch it in the oven for another 15 minutes. Eat it with butter before it cools because hot bread is always good. Then realize when it’s cool that it isn’t that great and you probably should have slowed down and honored the directions.
The next day go to the woman who has learned about life’s ingredients and how to take them and knead them into something beautiful. Listen to her advice. Let her teach you even though you think you’ve learned it all.
My brother Zoli is there under one little lamp at the Vineyard Haven dock to pick me up. He is taller, a little too broad in the shoulders for his Dumptique Carhartt coat.
The Nissan drives up-Island and the scenery never changes. Maybe a sign gets taken down, a new one up in it’s place. Cronig’s is bigger, but Alley’s porch still sits there like an off-season still life. The sea has kept its slice through Tashmoo Overlook. I always think each time I return it’s going to be different. That something will drastically change. No, it stays the same, just gets a little smaller each time I come back.
Mom opens the door. She has grown shorter, but also louder. I think she is trying to make up for the change in stature. She fusses over my inability to keep my hair brushed, and for not keeping my Blundies polished. She sits me down at the little round table and from the same old wooden ladle pours soup that has been simmering for the entire day. She tosses in parsley, eyeballing lemon juice. She takes bread from the oven and cracks pepper over my bowl. As I eat, I will look up and she will be watching me, holding me with that one look that surpasses all others, the one look a mother gives to her child.
A Loved One’s Return
Acknowledge that tickle in the stomach when you realize what day it is. Go to the grocery store and buy their favorite ice cream, the ingredients to their favorite dish, or that special bottle of wine. Ignore the price this time. Begin cooking their home-coming meal. Bake the biscuits, cut the vegetables, put the water on to boil a box of Annie’s macaroni and cheese. Dress their bed with washed sheets, place their stuffed animal that they forgot about on the pillow. They won’t say thank you but when they go to bed they will hug it.
Wash the dirt from under your nails and put on something that is very you. A flannel, a dress that makes you feel particularly lovely, your old T-shirt.
Lay out the wooden bowl, your grandmother’s china, their favorite plate. When you see the lights in the driveway, or when you see them finally emerge (of course last) onto the gangplank, run out and hug that person with all the energy that keeps this little Island afloat.
Bring them home and feed them. Nourish them, love them.