I am Paola, a Puerto Rican born all-American girl of Cuban descent. I am a water-boiling, reheating, take-out and delivery single mom of two kids trying to be everything – a professional and a homemaker.
As a writer and performer, I’ve had many opportunities to learn new cultures and try new things, but recently I embarked on one of my toughest journeys – family cooking!
So I’m trying to forge my own identity in a culture that is often loud and always outspoken. That’s why I’ve chosen Imusa to guide me! Their products are a bold new take on a classic style and come with recipes that allow me to try things without having to turn to Mama or Tia for advice.
Through this journey I know I’ll have to face my fears about who I am and how that’s affected the way I see everything from food, cooking and relationships because what happens in the kitchen doesn’t ever stay there.
In every hero’s journey, or in my case, heroine’s, there is a call to action. There’s some problem to solve, some question to answer.
On Monday night, that call to action came once again in the form of Sofi asking, “Mami, what’s for dinner?”
So many times I’ve met that call with dread, anxiety and aversion. Practically speaking, that call has been met by a Domino’s pizza guy or the sweet old Asian man who delivers regularly from Sushi Maki.
In the past couple of months, I don’t know that I have become a better “chef”. That said, it is something just to recognize that I consider myself a “chef” in any capacity. I definitely don’t feel compelled to cater parties, nor do I day dream about things like how I can incorporate rosemary or cumin into a dish. What I have found, is that I can celebrate my family and my friendships. I can bring comfort and show affection. I have found that with some courage, discipline and patience, I can define that role of “chef” for myself. I can answer the call.
I began this challenge with so many strong and harsh feelings about what it meant to be a woman who cooks. I held a contention that somehow made me feel more independent, more liberated more at ease. In reality, I had made myself a slave to that idea. In the same way that any statement that begins with “I’m not the kind of person who…” is just a shackle, a delusion, a limitation.
So this week, when my sweet and hungry little girl presented me with the challenge, I knew how to respond. With my Wok, some rice, left over chicken, eggs and a few slices of deli ham, I was able to answer the call.
For years I’d look at my refrigerator as a vault of disappointment. I saw things in three categories: what I should eat, what I shouldn’t eat, and what is not edible.
Now, my relationship with my refrigerator has changed quite a bit. Like a magician’s trunk, not only can I make a dinner happen when I’ve got hours to traipse about town buying this and buying that, I’ve learned I can make something out of seemingly nothing.
On Monday night, that something was Fried Rice with Chicken and Ham. It was the perfect mish mosh of comfort and creativity, it was the perfect meal to end this journey.
Originally I had imagined I’d make some big meal and host all my family and close friends. I’d have it on nice tables and plates and the whole neighborhood would be filled with aroma of my delicacy. But that’s not who I am. I’m still a single mom who works a lot. I’m still a single mom who wants to be more for my children and for myself.
That “more” doesn’t come in the form of showing anything off to anyone else. It’s in the quiet moment within my heart when I hear
“Mami, what’s for dinner?” that instead of dread, I feel delight.
So I’ve reached the end of my 10 week experiment and what I want to do is offer up a reflection on what this venture has meant to me. It’s so simple to say “10 weeks”, but I invite all of you to pause and look back on your own 10 weeks, or at least, let today mark the beginning of a new set of 10 weeks. What I mean is, that of all the experimenting with ingredients, heat and appliances, the biggest gift hasn’t been all the gadgets I’ve collected or the spices and sauces that fill my cupboards and fridge. The biggest gift has been my ability to see myself differently.
Sometimes there’s just no time. Not in the exaggerated sense of, I could be doing something more productive, but instead I can’t miss the next episode of the Breaking Bad marathon. Sometimes, you’re doing something productive. Sometimes you are actually doing those things that the world deems valuable. You’re working, creating, managing, making mergers, planning meetings, planning trips, writing business plans. Sometimes you’re spending so much time planning and producing, you don’t get a chance to – live.
That’s how I felt this weekend. The people closest to me know how I am. I’m usually at my happiest and most miserable when I’m working. It’s a complication of emotions that makes me a workaholic at times. I tell myself to say yes to the new opportunity, to delete the old, rewrite the draft, record another take. I had so much work to get through this weekend that I shut myself up in my room, alone with my iPad and a microphone to record my voice for an online seminar. But I wasn’t alone in that room, really. For one, I was in there with my cat Teela. But more significantly, I was in there with my twin demons of hyper-perfectionism and abject slackerdom.
I found myself tangled in an emotional web that went back and forth about wanting to redo each take because I knew that just one more would make it sound so much better, would have that much more meaning and wanting to just hit “save” when I had barely gotten the words out correctly because I was so tired, so frustrated and especially, so hungry.
I had locked myself in my room with my ambition, plans and expectations, while the world I had already built and nourished was forced to be on the other side of that door. I locked out everything I already loved in exchange for what I hoped to one day love.
Sofi and Max basically spent the weekend motherless. It makes for a kind of guilt that I think is particular to us working single moms. It was one of those moments where you make the decision to shut them out, leave them without your attention because you believe in your heart that you’re investing in the future you want to give them, the life you want to be able to provide. It’s the kind of small, piercing decision that breaks your heart every single time.
So after having provided meals from frozen boxes all weekend in order to dedicate more time to my job, Sofi presented me with a challenge I couldn’t escape.
“Mami, my Spanish project is due tomorrow. We have to take food. Remember?”
I hadn’t remembered. In the midst of all the work, recording, writing, bill paying and life living, Sofi’s Spanish project had escaped my mind. But there was no way I was going to look into those beautiful round brown eyes and say anything other than
“Of course, I remember”.
Now what to do? I had a deadline to meet, no time for the grocery store, no time to chop or prep. Still, there was my little girl with a poster board full of all kinds of facts on Nicaragua. A poster board she had put together all week alone because her mom was working. A poster board that with the most gorgeous crayon outlines and misplaced accents you’ll ever see. It was a poster board that was breaking my heart. And that poster board was going to get the food it deserved to get my girl her A!
After googling all the different and delicious dishes from Nicaragua that I’d never have time to make, I got up from behind my computer to get a drink of water and there on the right side of my kitchen counter, like some kind of appliance epiphany, sat the empanada maker!
Yes! They eat empanadas in Nicaragua!
Now in all honesty, I don’t know if it’s a fair representation of Nicaraguan cuisine, but to those big brown eyes holding that big white poster board of facts, the thought of having her hands in a bowl of guava and goat cheese was enough to make the room light up.
So that’s what we did – rather, that’s what SHE did. She mixed the goat cheese, guava and olive oil. She cheerfully laid out the empanada discs and filled and folded them. She preheated the empanada maker, set the kitchen timer and safely completed her project.
“They look great!” she said.
“Yes they do” I replied.
After we wiped down the counters, wrapped the empanadas in foil and got everything ready for school the next day, I gave her a kiss and sent her off to bed.
I went off to my own room, reflected on how proud of her I was, how mature and independent she can be. Then I quietly wiped the tears from my face and got back to work.
Love is difficult. When you’re really in it, you know how tough it is. If you have a child, parent, sibling or spouse, you know exactly what I mean. There are the moments of joy, excitement and pride, but a lot of the time you’re mostly loving while getting through the routine, often in the midst of a messy house while fighting about the bills, the car, or the shoes left by the doorway.
A lot of times, love just looks like quietly reading the paper while the little ones color, picking up the clothes from the floor or listening to the events of the day. A lot of time love doesn’t look like love much at all. But that’s when you’re really in it.
This week I found out my friend’s father is ill with cancer. When he texted me a month ago that he wanted to talk, I wasn’t sure what it was all about. We’ve been through so much, as friends, lovers, colleagues. When he texted me I was so embroiled in making moves in my career that I didn’t want anything to distract me. I didn’t want to be emotionally sidelined by whatever it was he had to say.
But then he said it. “I’m in town for a few days. My father needs treatment.”
Even then, I felt the hesitation in my heart. I did. I wasn’t sure what that meant for him, but in the selfishness that where not supposed to admit to, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me.
I slept on it that night. I let sleep be my meditation on what it meant to love someone and answer his call for comfort, solace, friendship – even when you’re no longer in love. The post-love love.
By the time you’ve reached your third decade of life, the post-love love becomes a bigger part of your life. It’s the way you may react when you run in to your first crush or your grade school best friend. It may be the way you react now to the guy who took you to prom or the best friend who took him from you. It’s definitely the love you want to show the man who was once your husband and the family you once called in-laws.
Anyway, on Monday afternoon he called. He was waiting while his father got radiation for his stage four throat cancer. He wanted to watch the process he said. He needed to see what it was like.
We briefly spoke about how the family was handling it, how the kids were all pitching in. He’d have to fly in to Miami more often now to help with logistics.
I listened wondering, what is there to do? What is there to say? I grew up having known parents were mortal, but I realize that some of my friends are only learning this lesson now. And just like I didn’t know what I needed to hear or what I wanted to say when I was 11, I didn’t know it now.
But when he mentioned his dad needed food, I thought, yes! This is how I can help.
I packed my wok, sauce pan and apron and headed over to his family’s home in Pinecrest.
Earlier in the day after perusing through the recipes site, his dad said he wanted Thai Style Seared Scallops with Coconut Milk. So we made plans to head to Whole Foods to stock up for the evening’s meal and the rest of the week.
When we returned my friend, his sister and I got to cooking. He patted dry the scallops, she lined up the plate with paper towels and got out the utensils I’d need. I heated the wok, added the oil and butter and got to the business of cooking.
We poured oil and salt on the asparagus and put it in the toaster oven. We scooped the cooked rice and kept it warm in the oven. We tested a scallop. And then another. And then one more. I took a bite of an asparagus and fed him the rest from my fingers because in the midst of the synchronicity of creating, the mind gets lost and acts like it used to, like it once was.
When we were done, we sat down as a family to eat. It wasn’t my immediate family. It wasn’t even a family I had been in touch with closely over the last decade, but on that night, with the weight of everything they were about to face, we sat there and shared a meal.
My relationship with my friend doesn’t look at all like I had once imagined. I’m not there as his girlfriend or fiancé. But after so many years of back and forth, often insisting “never again”, sitting beside him, his mom, sister and father, we talked about work, TV shows and movies with ease. It’s not the passion of the expectations I once used to harbor, but in this new way, after the heart breaks and mends, life really hits, and if you pay attention, it looks a lot like love.
While it’s not always easy, I do love being a little sister. It’s one of those conditions of life that doesn’t change no matter how old you are or how much you’ve accomplished. I’m in my thirties, divorced and a mother, but to Alex and Javi, I’m still just their little sister.
Over the years being the only girl among the siblings has meant a lot days of watching the fun through the window, not always understanding the jokes and often being the butt of them. At times it has meant being the first one blamed or the last to know.
It did sometimes mean being the dummy when they were learning new wrestling moves. And it meant wedgies, wet-willies and bathroom jokes. It also meant never getting the remote or picking the radio station.
I remember often sitting on the sidelines while they played basketball or tennis. I never got a chance to be the one in the driver’s seat or at the head of the table.
But it has also meant having someone, two rather, to always come to the rescue.
Being little sister has also comes with knowing someone would always walk me home from school or drive me to my best friend’s house. It meant having someone to lay in bed to cry with on the day our father died. It meant hearing “you’re not alone in this” when I broke the news of my divorce.
It still means I’ll never be alone on a holiday, even during the loneliest of seasons, because one or both of them will open their homes and their refrigerators to keep us all together.
Saturday was much like all of our family gatherings. We were at my brother Javi’s house to celebrate my nephew’s birthday. Javi is 15 months younger than Alex and 6 years older than 1. In other words, Javi is the middle child. As the middle child, Javi fulfills a special role. He’s the call it like I see it, don’t try to full me, cynical wiseman. He’s part Buddha, part Han Solo. With a single lash of his wit he can reduce you to tears of shame or make you laugh until you cry. Javi can be your most ferocious defender or your sharpest adversary. So when I decided to plan a meal for one of my brothers, I chose to invite our older brother Alex and my sister-in-law Paula. Maybe I’ll be ready for Javi in a few weeks.
Alex the quintessential big brother. He is smart, handsome and ambitious. He is a lefty with great handwriting. He’s a great student and his own best teacher. You’ll rarely see him without his shirt tucked in and he speaks to you with passionate sincerity about everything from barbequing to the Middle East.
The family had spent all day Saturday at Javi’s house celebrating my nephew’s birthday. So much good food and wine was served that it was 8PM when something dawned on me…for the first time I wasn’t panicked in preparation for a meal! It isn’t just because Alex and Paula are among the most gracious guests you’ll ever have, but because I thought, with confidence, it’ll turn out fine!
I almost couldn’t believe my own thinking. Previously, when I hosted my friends and family, I spent hours scrutinizing the recipe trying to decipher the unmentioned appliances and utensils that are never written but are imperative, things like knives and bowls. Previously I’d need to make time to cook the meal twice – the first one just to try and throw away!
Instead, I got home Saturday night, put the kids to bed and fell asleep confidently, even though I knew I had to make a 7AM grocery run in order to have everything ready by 10.
I challenged myself to make BOTH the Spinach Goat Cheese Omelet and The Multigrain French Toast. Naturally, I also had to make some with plain white bread for Max.
I got to Publix and moved through the aisles with surgical precision. I have already learned that pre-sliced bread is too thin for French toast and I knew where to go for two loaves, unsliced thank you very much. I know now where the vanilla extract hides, so it was no big feat to find its cousin the almond extract. The last thing I needed was chorizo, and to my delight, they sell it chopped!
By the time I got home it was after 8AM and I started with the French toast. Among the many things I’ve learned (like a chef’s knife is always necessary), keeping the oven at 325 degrees allows you to put the final golden touch on many meals. I don’t like soggy French toast so I kept them warm there while I mixed the goat cheese, spinach and chorizo for the omelet.
I made the egg mix and poured it into the Imusa Sauté pan followed by the cheese, lowered the heat and covered. After a while, I noticed it puffed up a bit and looked really delicious, but again my fear of a soggy middle got to me! So I pulled the French toast out of the oven, plated it, took the lid off the omelet, covered it with a cookie dish, flipped it and placed it in the oven to continue on to its golden goodness!
At 10 AM Alex and Paula arrived and we sat to breakfast with the kids. They both really like the omelet, noting that it was way more flavorful than other “egg white” dishes they’ve had in the past (it takes tabasco). Alex liked the Multigrain French toast so much he took the leftover home and I even bottled the guava maple syrup for him.
So after breakfast, we finished our mimosas and chatted. Alex talked about cooking on the grill and Paula gave me advice on keeping chicken breast tender. But I got so much more than practical advice from them, I got a chance to feed my brother and his wife. For everything he’s done for me over the years, it seems like a small thing really – eggs and some toast – but trying to express what he means to me otherwise, well, that would be impossible. As I continue daily to step into my own, not away from my brothers, but beside them, I know that I can show them some of what’s in my heart. Even if it’s just one meal at a time.
“She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be… I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.” – The House on Mango Street
Sometimes my life feels like a waiting game. Waiting for the alarm to ring, the dryer to finish, the kids to go to sleep.
There’s something else I often find myself anxiously waiting for and I’m just going to say it…I’m going to say the thing I’m not supposed to say. I often find myself anxiously waiting for the Fridays when my ex comes to take the kids for the weekend. I do. I know. I’m horrible.
I’m not always counting the minutes to pick-up, but sometimes, like this past Friday, I feel like a caged animal wanting a moment to go to the bathroom without having to conduct a conversation from the other side of the door. Those Fridays are also the same day I hire someone to clean the house. It’s one of my suburban luxuries and one that I’m not ashamed of and for which I would (and have) sacrificed a lot. I wait two weeks for this treat.
The weekend then becomes a whole other kind of waiting game. I wait for the gym to open, the mall to open, the party to start. Sometimes I’m waiting for the weather to get better or the my phone to buzz with a text. At times, waiting for the right person to walk into my life, to fall in love.
This weekend was different. This weekend there were no happy hours, bars, or late dinners. I didn’t go to the movies and I didn’t go dancing. I didn’t wear heels or put on my contacts. As a matter of fact, I think it may have been the first time in my life where I just spent my weekend all by myself. I spent the weekend with the TV on Law and Order and on my iPad recording a voice over job. I went from my bedroom to the kitchen to the family room with reckless abandon. I waited for no one and no one was waiting for me.
At times I got lost in my imagination and enjoyed thinking about the future I’m always waiting for. At times I was lachrymose, remorseful of the futures I’ve given away. At times I wondered how long I could endure this. What if it was forever? What if, this is what the rest of my weekends will be like?
The truth is that over the last four years I’ve made strides to find relationships or companionship at the gym or yoga, at clubs and bars and have found many empty nights and dead ends. And I know it doesn’t seem logical, because companionship isn’t just going to walk through my door, but being alone feels like the only thing I haven’t tried.
Anyway, I stood in the kitchen Saturday morning, thinking that since it’s just me I could live of egg whites and Ezekiel bread all weekend…That I’d wait for the kids to get home so Sofi and I could start making the chicken dumplings she’s been dying to try. By now all the anticipation I had for wanting the kids to leave was replaced by the longing to have them back home.
It was while I was staring at the steamer that I recognized the flaw in my thinking. Why am I always waiting?
It’s a habit of thinking I know too well. Any time I’ve wanted to accomplish anything in my life, I’ve had to battle the demon of thinking I should just wait. I’ve had to stop sitting around with my sadness on my elbow wishing things were different, and convince myself that I’m worth more than my current salary, partnership, weight. Tonight, I had to struggle to convince myself I was worth more than a meal on a paper plate and reheated piece of chicken.
Just that morning I did two loops around US1 before I convinced myself that I was going to do my workout instead of waiting until later, and I had to convince myself that evening once again, that I don’t have to wait for anyone or anything to chop the garlic and the onion, dampen the dumpling wraps and make myself a beautiful meal.
I know there’s something that lies within me that worries if I get so good at being alone, that that’s how I’ll stay. I’ve put off being more independent, treating myself, and pushing myself for fear that no one will want to stand by me, much less share a meal.
Either way, I put out the spread, wrapped the dumplings, set them in the Bamboo Steamer and made myself a something special, something delicious.
About an hour later my ex and the kids arrived in time to taste them and share the meal with me. Sometimes, I suppose you don’t need to wait, you just have to DO, and the people you love and the moments you need simply arrive.
Discipline is one of those funny things, because we often only appreciate it in its absence. What I mean is that when you are disciplined you build an expectation that is only truly recognized when it is broken.
This week was a difficult one for me, thankfully, not in any major tragic way. It was difficult in that I felt that every hour of my day was accounted for, and there was nothing to get me through it but discipline.
Discipline lives within a silent world of its own making, and it is anything but fair. It is interesting because there is natural tendency to judge others based on their actions towards us without recognizing the many millions of actions they could have taken, the worlds they’ve seen but held silent, the moments they wished they’d won but lost. We admire dignified, mature and respectable responses to stressors, knowing full well we all harbor fantasies of abandon, selfishness, release. Yet when we judge ourselves, it’s easy to keep in mind all the vicious and petty things we may have wanted to say or do, and silently wish we would be commended on our discipline.
But discipline doesn’t care about all the calories you could have had, the secrets you could have told, the lovers you could have taken – but didn’t.
It only cares that you shut your mouth, or your heart, and kept things as people would expect.
All week Max was asking me to make the Tres Leches French Toast again. I agreed on the condition that he’d eat protein and veggies with me for the rest of the weekend.
On Friday night, I stayed in and up late working on a project. The fact that I didn’t shirk my assignment and take my kids to the movies, or better yet, have my mom come over so I can escape to happy hour for a bit, made me wake up Saturday with that totally misplaced and malcontented feeling that the world owed me something.
Either way, I still owed Max French toast.
I got up and did my motherly duty and stuck to my promise. That’s always a big deal isn’t it? Isn’t that often how we judge the value of a person’s character? Doesn’t it mean something to us when a person does what he says he’s going to do?
It’s definitely that principle that had me bogged down all week. I had a constant chatter in my mind about
“I said I was going back to the gym four times a week.”
“I said I was going to get my oil changed”
“I said I was never going to text him again”
“I said I was going to make the damn French toast”
Still, I thought how somewhere within the mushy darkness of broken discipline is who I really am. Sometimes I feel like the only truth I know is the one that goes back and forth from the person I think I should be for my family, friends and colleagues and the one I should be for the woman I wish I was.
It’s like I don’t know to whom to be committed. It’s very easy to say, be yourself, Pao, listen to your heart…but what does that really mean?
Every new-agey, pseudo-psychology motivational bon mot tells us to be ourselves, let our hair down and share our emotions. But what if my dominant feeling some days is to allow my children to eat Tres Leches French Toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
That’s what I did.
Saturday I stayed in bed most of the day. My body was throbbing from all the physical and emotional self-restraint I’d demonstrated all week.
It throbbed from the words I didn’t say when a colleague passively accused me of incompetency. It throbbed from the TV shows I didn’t watch because I lifted weights instead. I throbbed from the ways I had demurred when I wanted to say I had been thinking of you all week, hoping to see you alone, soon.
But even as I reflected back on the week I’d had, I judged myself on the moments when I broke. I had lost my temper and cursed, even though I could have said more. I went for a jog instead of the gym, still I missed out on how Stabler solved the crime. And I reached, even if ever so modestly, when I knew I needed to let go. Still, I was holding back so much more.
By Sunday I had shaken some of the fog of the previous seven days and got myself some veggies and set out to make Chicken Lettuce Wraps. I had attempted the previous night, but the veggie filling required more chopping than I was willing to do. Instead I stood over my kitchen counter, smeared the chicken breast with that wonderfully delicious peanut sauce and ate the whole thing over a napkin.
On Sunday I actually got plates, chopped the mint, cucumber and basil. I used the correct vinegar (rice) and served up a lovely meal. I even made enough to take to work for the next few days.
I can be disciplined, if that’s what you want, if that’s what it takes. I know how it goes. You have to see beyond the immediate desire and focus on the greater goal. If that wasn’t valuable and effective we wouldn’t have skyscrapers, Homeland Security and calculus.
Discipline is where it’s at.
It takes a certain kind of discipline to remember to forgive, and to be kind. It takes a certain kind of discipline to get the kids to school on time and to rehearsal. It takes discipline to sit and read, to get up and run, and to walk away and not look back.
It also took a good amount of discipline to keep me from sitting in front of the television watching Law and Order: SVU with nothing but a spoon and bowl of peanut sauce.
My mother turned 72 this weekend. To celebrate, I gathered all the Matriarchs of the tribe (my mother, my Tia Tere, my godmother Carmita and my cousin Teri) for an appropriate celebration. For the first time in my journey to turn myself into a viable cook, I felt nervous about the reception. I don’t come from a line of women who dominated the kitchen and necessarily hinged their femininity on their ability to prepare a meal, but I do come from a line of women who have opinions, attitude and volume.
When the Matriarchs arrived they were warm and loud in their greeting. They celebrated the look the table I had arranged, the quesadilla grill I used to make the Tres Leches French Toast and my apron. They giggled with irony (and mimosas) at the idea that this girl had somehow embraced cooking when in fact, for me the idea of home and hearth was rarely associated with the kitchen.
My mother left Cuba over 50 years ago with only a box of cigars and a cook book. The cigars were meant to be a source of income. Each cigar could sell for upwards of $20 and in the late 50’s that’s a good deal and obviously an important resource for a band of immigrants trying to make their way in a new world.
But a cook book?!?
That bit of information sent me into a tailspin. With all the books available in the midst of a regime change, all that would be lost, forbidden and attacked, my mom left armed with tobacco and a cook book?
At first I was offended, thinking how small minded my grandmother was, a lady who tackled domestic chores with the grace of a bull. I saw her in the kitchen quite often but it was always in ferocious contempt.
I kept thinking about why this was her choice. Why not the poets of Cuba? Why not political writers? A law book or Orwell? I honestly couldn’t reconcile it in my brain other than they had no idea what the world and the second half of the 20th century were to hold. Maybe she was concerned about preserving the culture and the hearth. Or maybe all she knew was that her young beautiful unmarried daughter had to leave home, and somehow and somewhere she had to find money and…love.
Cigars and a cook book.
This got me thinking about the attractive power of food. It so often used in our culture as a means to an end, that end being some form of expression of love. From first dates to the Last Supper, food is at the center of a lot of what we consider a show of affection or a desire to unite. After all, it was my mom’s birthday and I knew that along with a mani-pedi at our usual salon, the perfect gift would be to gather for a meal.
So does no food mean no love?
I grew up in a home where my mother rarely cooked. She was a working mom and a widow with three children by the time she was only 43. She heated, drove thru and boiled, but she didn’t really cook. I never even associated the maternal role with fresh baked cookies and steaming pot pies until I went to college. As care packages filled with brownies and cookies flooded the dorm mailroom, I started to see motherhood and affection in a different way. I recognized that it brought my dormmates a sense of home and of nostalgia.
I didn’t get care packages, nor does the smell of fresh baked anything remind me of home or my mother, but I was never deprived of love. I wasn’t deprived when she first dyed my hair purple at 14. Or when she drove me two hours north to catch a wave and practice long boarding. Nor was I deprived when I told her I was moving in with my boyfriend or later when my I told her my marriage was over.
The subtleties and grandeur of that love can’t be put on a plate or in a box, but at so many other times it is.
My mother’s birthday breakfast was an example of that. There was a meal and there was love. As pick up began, I set aside a piece of French Toast and a dollop of homemade whipped cream drizzled with dulce de leche in the hopes of seeing my good friend. He and I have been somewhat estranged lately. Work has made our seeing each other nearly impossible, still I think of him often. In the midst of the storm of being a mom, working and cooking, I miss sitting across from him. There’s always a calm there. So I’d planned on showing him just how much I still care about him by sharing with him the breakfast I’d made with some much – love. When I heard from him later that morning, it became clear we weren’t going to see each other. I wouldn’t get a chance to tell him about my morning, the stories about my brothers, my odd night before at a country bar. He wouldn’t get a chance to eat the breakfast I spent so much time preparing not only with the Matriarchs and my kids in mind, but him.
Later the next day my kids came back home from their dad’s house. They ran into the kitchen right away looking for something to eat and even though it was 6 p.m., I said, want some French Toast?
So, Sofi and Max sat at the dinner table and I served them breakfast. I sat in the family room on my computer, watching them from afar. I was sitting at my computer reflecting on the last 48 hours, about the gestures of love that make us feel connected to one another and the gestures that stay stowed away in the back of fridges. Just then my teenage son Max stood up, came to the sofa and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Sofi said “I can’t believe you actually gave her a kiss over French Toast.”
Maybe there’s something to this cookbook thing.
My son Max eats only gray matter. That’s what I call the colorless, conflict-less preferences of his palate. He’s a macaroni and cheese, chicken nugget, cheeseburger hold the veggies kind of guy. His favorite meal is breakfast – all gray matter. There’s rarely a risk of a veggie or fruit making its way on to his plate during breakfast. Breakfast is safe. Breakfast is gray.
I had had an unexpectedly eventful weekend. My best friend Annie came to visit from San Francisco and I hosted a breakfast for her and “the girls” where I served up Pina Colada Pancakes and we drank passion fruit mimosas. I made extra for the kids. Sofi loved it, but Max doesn’t like pineapple.
“How about coconut, Max? I’ll make you regular pancakes and you can add the toasted coconut.”
I guess coconut is not gray enough.
Either way, Annie, Diana, Elena and I sat down to a fun breakfast where I marveled, once again, at the brilliance of my friends. There we were – a psychiatrist, an attorney, a media planner and I – catching up and exchanging stories about our parents, our love lives, our kids and our gray! Yes, we are at an age where the how-to’s a why’s of gray have now become meal time topics.
This was a particular concern for Annie. See Annie is one of those natural beauties for whom the usual maintenance of womanhood does not apply. She is 5’8, thin, green-eyed and fair. She’s our own Athena with a prescription pad. Annie has never had to worry about many of the things that consume so many women’s thoughts and wallets. Annie rarely gets a manicure and she’s never worn Spanx. With a simple brush of red lipstick she can transform a pair of hospital scrubs into evening wear. She is sharp, edgy and at times severe. You always know where you stand with a woman like Annie. There is never any gray with her – except now – in her hair.
So after consulting three women with graduate degrees and Sofi, we booked her an appointment at a salon on Sunset and just like that we took care of the gray.
But it’s not always that simple.
I spent the rest of the weekend running errands with Sofi and Max. We’d gone everywhere from the ballet store for tights and pointe shoes to the Apple store for a new iPad. Still, and for the first time, I had found myself looking forward to preparing a meal.
I decided that on Sunday night I would make Mongolian Beef served over jasmine rice. I found my thoughts were consumed with getting the ingredients. I went to two grocery stores and asked five different aproned grocery guys for hoisin sauce because apparently Miami was experiencing a critical shortage. There was an almost meditative relief in driving around and getting so many things done while my mind quietly obsessed about hoisin, soy, garlic and ginger. Usually, I find myself emotionally checking out of a stressful situation by engaging in text messages, but I’m doing a lot less of that lately. This weekend it was the tacit mental check list of my Mongolian challenge that kept my emotions steady in the midst of everything that needed to get done.
Late Sunday afternoon I made the Mongolian marinade and left the meat sitting in the sauce while I went BACK to the Apple store to see about Max’s iPad.
On that drive I got to touch base with Diana again before she left to Mexico and do some major media deals because that’s what she does. We continued chatting about some things from the morning before, like the men in our lives and how often it seems tempting to just check out instead of staying to fight. How sometimes we wish it could just be conflict free and easy when just then I received a text:
“Been thinking of you and wanting to talk. Call me when you’re free.”
This was from a man for whom for years I have been his macaroni and cheese. I have been his colorless, conflict-less bit of gray always hoping that if I pretended to be easy and available, the comfort would force him to want to stay or commit. Over the past year, I’ve pulled myself out of that gray, because it doesn’t matter how you serve it, macaroni and cheese will never be treated like a gourmet meal.
Then I got to thinking about my own tastes, my own proclivity towards gray. After all, Max is my son. Maybe his taste for simple easily-digestible bits comes from me. I have to admit, for all my bravado, when it comes to relationships I’m not really one to endure too much fire or too much crunch. I like it simple, reliable and easy. I wonder at times about how many relationships I haven’t allowed to evolve because of my own underdeveloped tastes.
I know I’ve pulled away lately from a close male friend because the intensity of our friendship sometimes makes me toss and turn at night like a hot sleep after a heavy meal. He’s been a friend, an inspiration and a support but I admit, I don’t always know what to do with all of that – flavor. I, like Max, want to know what I’m getting into when I get to the table and I’ve found myself running away from something that I just don’t understand like when Max picks up his fork and looks at me and demands “what is this?”
So as I took refuge in patting dry the marinated beef, prepping the steamer and cooking the rice, I thought about my brilliant friends and the risks they take. For Annie it was getting her hair dyed for the first time and flying back to the home she and her husband made on their own on the opposite coast. For Diana, it was leaving her son for the week to make deals and brighter future and I wondered what it would be for me. Do I have it in me to be a risk taker…in my career, my ambitions, my emotions?
I let the question sit quietly in the back of my head as I called Sofi and Max to the dinner table. I went ahead and poured the beef on to the plates allowing the garlic, scallion and ginger to fall without contention. The kids started to eat while I waited on the rest of the veggies when I heard Max say,
“Wow Mami. This is really good.”
And just like that, there was a break in the gray.
I don’t date often and I don’t date well. That said, it still happens from time to time.
So on Saturday night I decided to invite to dinner a man whom I date from time to time. He’s a man I met through a friend because we seemingly have “so much in common”. We were set up several months ago and really hit it off. In the months subsequent to our initial meeting things got increasingly complicated. For one, I’m a single mom and I don’t usually go out on the weekends when I have my kids. It’s sort of a big rule of mine. Sometimes I see the distant judgment in the eyes of some of my other divorced mom friends, especially the ones who have successfully found other relationships. The truth is that you have to make time to find the right companion and, in all honestly, I don’t make that kind of time.
It’s been over four years since my marriage ended. Since then I’ve had relationships. I think I’ve even fallen in love. If it wasn’t love, there was definitely its two side dishes – ecstasy and devastation. I haven’t really had a “serious” relationship in that time, but I have had moments of real seriousness. I have had moments so honest, so beautiful and so revealing that I almost can’t remember what my life was like before them.
This was not one of those moments.
I had decided to make Mango Chicken Quesadillas. It was the perfect dish. The ingredients were simple enough that I knew that what I was reading on the paper was going to work for the palette. Sometimes it’s tricky for me. Sometimes I’ll read a menu item or a recipe and what’s on paper doesn’t always work for me when I actually try it. This recipe was so easy to follow and I was so comfortable with it that I even knew how to manipulate it to fit my needs. I was going take out the cheese for me (no girl wants to feel bloated on date night) and hold the onions for both of us.
Cooking for a date is actually a big pain. Cooking is messy and smelly and those are two things that don’t go well with a hot date. A hot date alone has its own series of preparations that are just as messy and time consuming as prepping a meal. Here I was attempting both.
There were all sorts of cutting and marinating that had to happen…that is not even the cooking part. You know what I mean. First thing in the morning I went for a jog, at 12:30 manicure, pedicure, eyebrow waxing and you know, waxing.
Since I was hosting the dinner I had to make sure the house too was prepped.
My date was set to arrive at 8 o’clock. That meant by that time not only did the Mango Chicken Quesadillas need to be hot and ready, so did I.
And I was. I stuck my hands in lemon pepper chicken. I made a mustard, honey (I used agave) and tobasco sauce. I got sticky from chopping mangos, but still I managed to be in high peep-toe heels, black leggings and a tube top (not to mention the apron) by 8 on the dot.
He didn’t arrive until 9.
By then both the food and I were droopy and cold. I had eaten my portion of the quesadilla alone in front of the TV while watching The Godfather on AMC. When he texted me that he was around the corner, I took his plate out of the microwave and added red onions.
Anyone who knows me well, knows what a stickler I am for timeliness. I don’t run on “Cuban time” like the rest of Miami. I’m punctual and take punctuality as a sign of courtesy.
Something in me didn’t really care though. I didn’t give him any grief. I sat in my heels and aprons and listened to his compliments on my appearance and the food. We drank wine. And then we drank more wine.
By the time we were ready for the Guava and Cheese Empanadas, I was a little tipsy. Still, I looked at my date and knew that it would be our last.
We had great conversation and there is definitely physical chemistry between us, but it’s not the right fit. On paper we’re a perfect match. We’re the same age, same ethnicity. We both love reading, philosophy and movies. But sometimes what’s on paper doesn’t translate off the page. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right.
So many things are changing in my life. I’ve started to cook, dance (more on that later), write. I’ve made relationships with people that I never thought I’d know or grow to love. I have to admit that a lot of these changes, as great as they are, are unsettling and stressful. I wonder why I invited him instead of someone else, someone closer to my heart, to dinner. I wondered how willing I was to compromise myself to follow what looks good on paper. I wondered how willing I was to deviate from what is expected of me in a mate or otherwise.
The rest of the night felt a bit disjointed and forced. This was all exacerbated by the battle going on between his digestion and the red onions.
The truth is I didn’t take a big chance on this meal and I didn’t take a big chance on this date.
There’s a strong temptation to just want to follow the recipe and force a certain formula or even relationship down my own throat even though I know, at least I hope, there’s something greater waiting for me if I’m just willing to deviate from what’s been written on the page. But instead I wore the apron and played the part, sensing that somewhere in me there is that person who is willing to write my own recipe and find the courage to follow it.
This is not really a cooking story. Yes, I will be cooking. But there’s so much about cooking that has nothing to do with – cooking. First of all, something that is obvious in the 21st century – cooking has little to do with eating. In the fast-food-microwave world, eating can almost exist completely without cooking. I’ve always loved to eat, but I can’t in all honesty say that I’ve ever liked to cook.
Still, there is something to cooking despite all of my objections – and there have been many – that I’ve never been able to ignore. From Fourth of July barbeques, to Sunday lunches at Abuela’s, to Friday night Shabbas, the truth is, there is a lot of pressure in cooking.
When in 1992 Hillary Clinton made the comment “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but instead I decided to fulfill my profession” she furthered her image as a polarizing figure in politics. Regardless of which side of the political line you stand, she revealed quite a bit more to all of us. She showed how even a high-profile, powerful and highly educated woman is still self-conscious about the fact that she doesn’t cook.
I admit I am one of those women. I have masked my insecurities about cooking with a haughty disposition because I am a woman, a mom in fact, who does not like to cook. There I said it.
For years I refused to learn the fundamentals. I didn’t want to chop, baste, or broil. I didn’t want to be associated with the kitchen. I resented that the men in my family got to play outside or at the office until dinner was served without the slightest sense of obligation. I did too, in all honesty. I was never overtly called to come to the kitchen to prep or serve. But even in the presence of what I now realize was a tacit revolution, I still felt the pressure.
You know the pressure I’m talking about. It’s the one that says that no matter how many late nights at the office, how many degrees on the wall, you should still know how long it takes for an egg to harden or to keep the pasta from being too mushy.
For years I was married to a man who was kind, supportive and yes, cooked. Still within that post-feminist love that brewed in the late 90’s, I never felt truly free of the pressure. And no doubt, if even in the smallest of ways, the resistance in me to yield to so many kinds of traditional roles factored into that love’s demise.
Cooking is definitely a personal thing. That much I have always understood. There is no question that it is an expression of creativity and love. Yet, it’s taken me over 30 years to see it that way. In the past I saw it as something that got in the way of work or studying and even love. It’s true. There was always something in me that felt, worried really, that someone might just love me for the role I played instead of the woman I was. In a manner of speaking, I feared someone would love me only because I cooked.
While I still have many of my obstinate attitudes towards societal expectations, a lot has changed. For one thing, I’m now a single mom. That means I manage the household on my own and I have to account for all aspects of it from food to finance. Those things have definitely prompted me to rethink my attitude towards cooking, both financially and emotionally. So here I am after my first night using… The Pressure Cooker…
The recipe for Chicken “Ropa Nueva” was simple enough. As a matter of fact, the chicken is already cooked. But here was an opportunity to refashion it, make it my own and sit my kids to a meal I had prepared.
I realized a lot about recipes and cooking. One thing is that recipes don’t necessarily tell you all the things you’ll need. Sure, you have the ingredients, but it made no mention that I should have appropriate knives for chopping and cutting boards for all the chopped things I’d have scattered around the kitchen.
Mostly, I realized the pressure.
I realized that I had caved into the pressure over cooking in the same way I have caved into pressure in so many other aspects of my life. Since I didn’t think I could do it well, I just didn’t do it at all. In a life where I walk around often feeling like an over-educated nerd, cooking makes me feel dumb.
The pressure cooker hissed and steamed and I couldn’t see what was going on inside. My stomach grumbled and I got cranky. The kids kept asking if it was ready yet and the truth was, I didn’t know. The instructions weren’t clear to me and the glass of wine I drank to calm my nerves went straight to my head. Every time I turned around all I saw was another mess I’d have to clean and quickly this cooking thing was feeling like a really bad I idea.
After 20 minutes of heat and steam and pressure building in my brain, I took the cooker off the burner. To my delight, the chicken looked and tasted pretty good. To no surprise, I watched as my son Max picked away all the veggies and as his sister Sofi politely reminded me that she “reeeally” didn’t like tomatoes. The rice I attempted in the caldero was crunchy (apparently I need to turn up the heat).
They tossed their half full plates into the garbage and filled their dissatisfied bellies with the banana hazelnut dessert we’d made in the Empanada Maker. It obviously wasn’t a perfect meal, but it was fine. They didn’t stand in revolt or go to bed in pain from malnutrition. They hadn’t suddenly rejected me as their mother. And even as that bit of guilt rose in me from all the food that had been tossed away, I had a small moment where I realized – I can do this, as long as I get my head right, I can totally do this. It’s not an indictment on me, Hillary and all of womanhood that I now own a rolling pin. I haven’t given up my identity because on a Friday night you will now find me pouring over a stove instead of a computer or a new outfit to go out in.
The next day though I still needed to break away for a bit, so I met my friend James for lunch. I had set aside some of my food for him to taste. We don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but we’re close in that way doesn’t require having everything in common. It meant something to me to have him see me in this way, this new Paola.
He sat across me at a picnic table in the park and I could see in his eyes how strange I looked brining him a hot meal, serving it to him.
As he sat there and ate the chicken and then tasted the dessert, I realized how little it mattered. He didn’t love me any more or any less because I cooked him a meal. I don’t even know if he really liked it and it didn’t matter. He was going to sit there on that day, like he has so many other days, and support me in this new phase because it’s not about whether I’m a woman who cooks or not. He just wants me to be me, he wants to be beside me, cooking or not. No pressure.