A two-part tale
(jump to Part 2: cast of characters)
Where there is food there's a story. If you want to know a neighborhood, go to its markets. If you want to know a family, go to dinner. If you want to know how two people feel about each other, watch them in a kitchen together.
Celinabean is a lot of things. It's about an unsung city and its food. The people who cook and the people behind the shop counters who will teach you their secret recipes. And, of course, the people who eat. It's about foraging for fresh curry leaves, glistening porgies, and the best $6 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. And it's about cooking for a multicultural, multigenerational family. But, most of all, it is a place for our stories.
I am, in my heart, a storyteller and a story listener. Stories are paths through the dark, the way we reach out and find each other. So gather round and pull up a chair.
I will start with my own story.
In my 20s, I loved nothing more than meeting new people. Strange towns and distant countries held the same thrill. And if I had only a few hours to immerse myself in a city, I would visit the supermarkets, the big ones with bright lights and piped-in music and the little shops with rickety glass doors, narrow aisles, and unexpected finds lurking in back coolers. Four colors of tomatoes tell a different story than a small stack of half-wilted iceberg. Take in the warm whiff of cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds and you're in one place; if your nose tightens with the sharp hit of hanging pig carcasses, you're in another. And because most people shop for food, and how they shop reflects everything from the way they were raised to what they do for a living, you could do worse than spend an hour watching people choose their dinner.
This did not make me a great travel companion. After high school, I spent a year criss-crossing the country in a red Honda Civic named Trigger. I didn't own a credit card and barely had enough cash for a can of refried beans, but I still found myself arguing to whoever was riding along that we really needed to check out the local Winn Dixie or Safeway, or talk to the guy selling plums and fresh corn by the side of the road.
Stories -- it always came back to stories. Italy. Asia. Greece. The housewife in Hokkaido, Japan, who'd never had her own birthday cake. The opera singer in Italy who taught me to wait for the smell of olive oil to rise off the pan. The Southern woman on the worn front porch whose eyes got a faraway look when she described catching catfish with her mother. What she remembered was the smell of her mother's snuff box and the motion of her hands as she skinned the fish. My obsession grew.
Somewhere along the way, I started traveling alone so I didn't have to argue about spending four hours poking around the food stalls in Paris or an afternoon in Georgia talking to an old woman about the different schools of peach cobbler.
My 30s feel different. I'd much rather discover something new about an old friend than do the get-to-know-you routine with a stranger. The same goes for geography. I roam the streets of Albany, NY, and its surrounding cities, towns, and farm stands the way I used to roam the country. It's how I'm teaching myself to put down roots after 30 some years of wandering. To feel at home, for me, is to know where to buy thin-sliced marbled beef for sukiyaki and to be greeted with a friendly nod of recognition by the lady who sells it. I'd rather stumble across Albany's best place to find a 2 a.m. breakfast or get to know the local apple farmer than be the outsider looking in on an unfamiliar scene.
And when I'm done foraging, I return home to cook for an ever-shifting clan of people who know that they only thing they have to do if they want dinner is show up at 6.
(jump back to Part 1)
Come meet the cast of characters who gather around my table.
Bean and Rae are my 4-year-old twins. They eat with enthusiasm, and often fall out of their chairs. Bean loves everything I love -- fish, leafy greens, rice and, of course, beans. She would take every meal sitting in my lap, picking from my bowl if she could. Rae has an order to the universe, and those who mess with it do so at their peril. This includes her plate. She also loves to cook and lives for ripe, red tomatoes. When she likes something, she'll say, "Wow, this is really tasty." Tasty is a great word in the mouth of a 4 year old. I would cook just about anything for someone like her.
T is my 7-year-old son. He will eat just about anything, except tomatoes, as long as he can eat with his fingers. (I struggle with this because when no one is looking I also prefer to eat everything with my fingers.) Maybe the solution is to move the whole family in with our in-laws in Senegal, where we can sit on the floor and eat with our hands.
My husband grew up eating meat and potatoes and drinking milk from his mother's goats. When we met, I was a chopstick-wielding vegetarian who didn't like dairy. We've both adapted. He started eating salads as if he were raised by Alice Waters. I learned how to make gravy, which in the how-to-keep-a-farm-boy-happy book is almost as important as... well, let's just say it's important. We found our common ground in spicy curries, 27 different kinds of braised chicken, and anything with cilantro in it.
Baba is my 94-year-old grandmother, who lives with us. She won't touch beans and cilantro but will try just about anything else. She's the only one in the house who gets to order a separate meal, although she rarely does. I've seen her dig into plates of curried squash and bowls of Pad Thai with pleasure, but for her, paradise is a perfect piece of roast chicken and a matzo ball that floats in the mouth for a moment before it melts across the tongue. I make these just so I can sit and watch her eat them, a slow-motion fork rising to a smile.
That would be me, most of the time. I'm possessive of my kitchen and my husband treads with care. And I'm messy. There was a time when my husband tried to sell me on one-pot meals, but I still managed to cover every inch of counter space. (You can put a lot of things in one pot!) I gave up on shopping lists a long time ago. I forage and buy what speaks to me, as long as what is speaking will feed a family of six without busting our food budget. Then I take whatever it is home and try and figure out how to cook it.
There are several women who have a regular place at my table, either in body or spirit.
My mother drops by often for dinner (when she's not jetting off to China or Burning Man or some other place where she can be her fabulous 60-something self.) She will eat just about anything, but at any given moment there's often something she's not eating. Mom can cook, but after years of cassoulets and multi-scented shrimp curries, often she would just as soon throw together a tuna-fish sandwich.
My mother-in-law has a farm in Dutchess County and raises her own baby-beef calf every year. She feeds the calf on goat's milk and makes a pot roast that would intimidate even the most confident of daughters-in-law. She taught me that when you have meat this good, let it speak for itself.
My sister-in-law lives in California but graces my table on summer visits. When I visit her, I am a spectator. And who would want to mess with her; she is one of the finest cooks I know. She is from Senegal, and in the drawer of her fridge is a jar of habanero paste, which she and my brother put on just about everything, including spaghetti. She's the person who taught me to pour, rather than sprinkle, black pepper.
Gaby is my half-Chinese, half-Irish ex-stepmother. She floats into town every now and again on a business trip. If we're lucky, she'll make her lamb stew -- or anything else for that matter. She is one of the few women I completely surrender my kitchen to; her food is perfect in a way that makes me nervous, and I start flubbing up the seasoning when ever I cook in front of her.
My cooking buddy, Safa. We cook and eat together often and send meals between our houses. She is from Sudan and forever changed the way I think about cinnamon and bay leaves. I introduced her to cilantro and coconut milk. I love her falafel and she recently discovered matzo brei.
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