I laid out my produce across my kitchen table and it looked like I spilled my basket from the farmer’s market. Everything was raw and rough. Sweet potatoes still dusty under their coarse orange skin, red onions with their crunchy shedding outer layer, multicolored carrots whose color will pop once peel them. The broccoli sat in a bunch wrapped by a tight rubber band, heads of garlic look old but I know when I remove the layers of white crunchy shell, robust pungent succulent cloves will remain. I step back to look at my organic bounty and survey my vitamin-laden multicolored foods I will chop, slice, sauté, bake and spend an hour (or two) transforming simple groceries into a nutritious meal for my family.
I’m a good cook; great even. I have a callous on my right pointer finger from where it rests on my chef’s knife. I excel at rainbow cooking and the art of using unmatched leftover ingredients to create a valid meal. What’s leftover in the fridge? Mashed potatoes, cheese, onions? I make them into panko-encrusted bites of oozy artery-clogging deliciousness.
I begin most of my savory meals with onion and garlic (to keep the vampires and viruses away) and believe in spices in moderation rather than saturating a dozen flavors onto food, masking the real flavor. Mostly, my secret ingredient is ubiquitous and utterly cheesy: love. I cook with love. I do not wear an apron with this saying because I’d rather stain my old t-shirts and also I’m not a 1950s housewife and also gag!
But it’s true.
I learned to treat food with love by watching my father making donuts at our family donut shop. This was in the mid-1980s when Dunkin’ Donuts commercials featured a bald, mustached man seemingly making donuts at ungodly hours, constantly uttering the slogan catchphrase, “Time to make the donuts.”
Everyone we knew made the joke to my dad, but I never thought it was funny, I thought it was degrading. (I was uptight and couldn’t take a joke.) Many of my friends’ parents were white-collar workers and while I knew my father was a smart man, I somehow felt embarrassed for him that he had to work physically every day. My mother used to say, “You don’t know how to work with your head, work with your hands,” and I was insulted for him, how she had to bring him down to make herself feel better. This was years before micro-cupcakes, cronuts, and other fashionable treats became a career choice.
Baking the donuts, though, was ultimately my father’s choice. Never satisfied with bakers he hired year after year, he eventually gave up and resigned to being the baker.
I see this personality trait mimicked in myself as I’ll often say, “I’ll do it [myself]” rather than show someone else how to do it and wait patiently (or while sighing loudly) for them to master the task. Yes I know the “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” philosophy but just because I stared at a poster with the phrase for the entire length of ninth grade, doesn’t mean it penetrated through my stubborn thick skin. Even though you can teach someone a skill like chopping and cooking, there is an extra invisible layer of complexity because you can’t teach someone how to cook with love.
He was up by 4am each day (no days off) making the donuts and for all the resentment built up in his body, he never took it out on the product; his anger towards life and where he ended up didn’t go into the donuts. He respected his ingredients and the method, efficiently crafting these deserts which blew away our competition (Dunkin’ Donuts). When he rolled out the dough, he did so delicately as not to rip it. He used a stainless steel shaped cutter to create circles down one row and then the next until he ran out of dough. When he transferred the hundreds of dough circles onto the oversized still buttered sheet, he did it with the care he would give a newborn. When he transferred the donuts from the proofer to the fryer, he did it with the tenderness of a hospital orderly moving a patient post-operation. Donuts sat in the proofer to rise and to assess if they’re ready, my father would touch them gently, as if waking a sleeping child, to see if they sprang back to life. When he fried the donuts, he used giant chopsticks to turn each one at precisely the second it turned the quintessential shade of golden brown. “Finishing” the donuts was the final step after they were baked. This is when they were filled with creams, frosted with chocolate or decorated with sprinkles.
Our donut shop, aptly named Time Out 4 Donuts sat in a strip mall in Staten Island surrounded by the DMV and the OTB. Customers would come for our donuts from Brooklyn, even paying the ten dollar toll to cross the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. This was the “business” my father had gotten into and it monopolized our family’s time and life for the better part of a decade. Achieving the long sought after American dream, though, had its consequence. My parents’ marriage faltered, my mother became an alcoholic, my father abandoned the donuts shop in a confusing move I can only understand as being a midlife crisis meets minor nervous breakdown, and eventually my parents got divorced.
That decade of watching my father’s skill evolve into a mastery forever solidified in me a method of cooking and baking and creation which transcends time and ingredients. When I transform groceries into meals, I am adding symbolic drops of blood and my heart into the recipe. I give equal care to every element in a recipe, from the garlic to the vegetables, to the way I dust in the seasonings. Because when you put your heart in your preparations, I promise you will taste the difference.