Fried chicken, sweet potatoes and collard greens. No matter how far my mother had come from her roots in South Carolina, she was still a southerner when it came to cooking. Those were the foods she cooked the most when I was young. And, rice. I'm not sure why all of a sudden I remember rice. Maybe that was what she was cooking the day I asked her how she knew the right amounts to put in.
She always used the heavy Le Creuset pots. The colorful cast iron cookware that required two hands to lift it from the stove. Dark green. With wood handles. True to her name, my mother was drawn to colors and textures that reminded her of nature, and our kitchen, where she often held court, pulled you in with it's warm, mahogany cabinets, rich mosaic Spanish floor, all enveloped by the aromas of her home cooking. Our California house, with it's red brick walls and Terracotta tile roof, tucked at the end of a richly foliaged cul de sac, was the perfect setting for a woman so connected to the earth.
If my mother couldn't be found in the vegetable garden, where she was the most at home, then she was probably in the kitchen, prepping and cooking her harvest. Standing and the sink, she would tear the collard greens by hand, "Cutting them with the metal of a knife, changes their taste," she instructed. The stove would be filled with various sized pots, some boiling water for the rice, others heating olive oil, onions and garlic, waiting for the greens to be added. I would watch as she instinctively prepared the foods we had collected from the garden, making sure they cooked soon after picking, so as not to lose their nutrients.
There were no cups or spoons for measuring and she didn't use cookbooks. She believed that too many ingredients distracted the eater from the taste of the foods themselves. "Mother Nature, in all her perfection, has done all the work. Why would anyone want to mask the natural flavors?" she would say.
"If you don't measure anything mommy, how do you know how much of everything to put in?" I remember asking. "You measure with your eye," was all she said, knowing I would have to ponder that thought for a while. Measure with your eye? That just sounded weird. How was I supposed to measure, with my eye? I stood, puzzled, staring at the pots and their contents, the boiling water and sizzling oil feeding my imagination. I narrowed my eyes, squinting, raising, first the right eyebrow and then the left, trying to visualize how using one's eye to measure was physically possible, the cells of my brain straining as they processed this theory. I put the thumb and index finger of my right hand up to my eye, taking it's measurement in an open pinch, then held it out in front of the pot to see if that was the method she used, not quite being able to come to terms with what my mother had said, yet not willing to challenge her either.
Seeing my struggle, she added, "You have to feel the food. Deep inside you. Like another sense." I tried desperately to figure out what the hell she was saying, but I knew asking for clarification would result in a response that would send me into an even deeper state of confusion. Sometimes, I thought she really was crazy.
My mother continued her cooking, moving around me as I stood there, wrestling with her declaration. She loved watching me try to figure things out, often giving me only morsels of information, knowing the answers would come to me in time, relishing the 'Aha' moment, no matter how far in the future.
I did, eventually, figure out how to measure with your eye. And, recently found myself telling my own daughter the exact same thing, as we stood in our kitchen and she watched me cook... collard greens, sweet potatoes and chicken. And, I found, you do, in fact 'feel' the food, deep inside. Or, maybe it was my mother I felt as her words now found their way to mouth.
What We Remember. What We Treasure. What We Love. Simply...Eartha