But to call this a cookbook is inexact, inadequate.
This book is a guide to a Moroccan way, a glimpse into the living soul of a cuisine, and perhaps of a man.
The opening essay is a memoir of how the author came to cooking. His loving stories of childhood in a multi-generational home in the medina of Marrakech are tempting and compelling.
The conclusion of one section — he accompanies his grandfather on the daily market run to the souk, with produce first, then meat — ends with the arresting sentence I quoted at the outset. That sentence grabbed me and caused quick, happy tears as memories of similar learning exploded in my mind.
I did not know my maternal grandfather; he died when I was six.
But I have much of my father in me, and much of his father.
Pop Carter, who died in 1985, had a short fuse. I do too, although I like to think this is mellowing with age and self-realization.
He also had a patience about him, and an orderliness that came with being a draftsman. I remember the organization of his workbench, with screws and nuts and nails and washers and tools and implements all carefully sorted and stored. I remember how he used the word “kindly” in unexpected places in sentences. He was gentle. And respected. And sincere.
I never really knew him, though. We lived apart, and we saw each other in visits several times yearly. I have no idea of his politics, or what he liked to read (if he read at all).
What I have now, in my late 50s (how strange it is to write that!), is a lasting memory of love, of kindness to others, of the gift of banter and putting others at ease, of watching him at ease in his world. Of being centered.
And I think that is a part of what it is to learn to be a human being.
I pause to wipe my eyes and love a bit on MacCarthy, my new companion who is more at ease today as I write than he was yesterday. This poor damaged dog, so in need of love . . . .
My own father had that same gift of banter. I saw him do this any time I went to the bank with him. He had a kind word for anyone he met there. I’ve written on this blog previously of this gift that I do think he passed on to me.
I am writing on Sunday, after watching this morning the Sunday Eucharist from Washington National Cathedral. A mention of a Red Cross blood drive in the District of Columbia pinged quickly to memories of my father’s involvement with the local blood drives in Lee’s Summit. And again: strong recollections of him greeting, joking, counseling, soothing.
Unless I’m delusional, I think this same spirit lives in me.
Watching him with others = learning how to be a human being.
The kitchen was a central place at family gatherings. While others were watching sports on television, I preferred to be in the kitchen with my mother and other female relatives who were cooking our feast. I am not part of large extended family. That relative was most often G-ma, and sometimes Aunt Esther. I don’t have strong memories of chatter or gossip or teasing in the kitchen, though I’m certain that kind of chatter happened. And if I was in the kitchen, I was listen and observing . . . and learning how family works.
Wads of my domestic memories are wrapped tightly “with those whose rest is won,” as the great hymn text says. Last Friday, I was in the kitchen working on lunch while I attended a virtual meeting, my camera and mic on mute. And I had a sudden flashback to Aunt Esther’s kitchen. She’d be cleaning up the breakfast dishes and prepping for lunch whilst listening to the daily Kitchen Klatter talk show from Shenandoah, Iowa. In an instant I felt as if I were channeling her spirit . . . .
From these strong women I learned how to be a human being.
I don’t know why that phrase struck me so forcefully Sunday morning. Perhaps it’s a result of the physical isolation brought on by this damn virus. Perhaps I was just in a place of tenderness and emotional need. No matter. I’m glad to have had the nudge to remember, and reminisce, and realize.
This lovely lady, gone six years now, would have been 108 years old today.
I miss her every day.
From a September 2001 letter to her:
Thanks for your own letter this week. I think of you often. You’ve been more than an aunt to me in so many ways. I’ve always held you more close to my heart than Flora, in part because of our physical proximity and in part because you were the grandmother figure who taught me how to cook and entertained my childhood imagination (vacuum cleaner hose, Battle Hymn and all). Now with Ruthie gone and with Mom gone for over three years, I’m even more aware of how much a part you’ve played in my life these forty years. As I put up pickles this afternoon I thought of Grandma and learning this art from her, but my Saturdays in autumn are ladled with memories of football days in Columbia, of your kitchen, of dinner at your table, of you and Uncle John and all those things that Columbia and Saturdays and that week in the summer was to me as a kid. Sometimes now, as middle age firmly sinks in, those memories overwhelm me. Thank you a thousand million times for being who you are.
I was in the those early-sunrise hours, where random ideas and sounds and people dance in the semi-awake mind. My alarm had sounded. Somebody was making noise out on Lawn Place. I heard the furnace kick on. NPR was on the radio.
And I had rolled over for another 30-minute snooze.
We were in quarantine, Aunt Esther and I. She was staying with me in a studio apartment. And suddenly, in my right hand, I felt her soft, fleshy skin. She said something I couldn’t make out, and then I was awake.
And in tears.
Aunt Esther had, in my memory, the softest skin that any lady of a certain age could have. I remember she would take the remnants of the egg white from an egg shell and rub them on her face after clearing up breakfast. She’d let that dry, and then rinse, all as part of her skin-care regimen.
Her hands and forearms showed no sign of really having worked the earth or toiled in labor.
And as a child, I loved holding her hand.
Truth be told, I did an an adult as well.
I’m taking her rêve visit as a sign that I am now on my 33rd day of not having touched any living soul. Handshakes will be most welcome soon. Hugs will be even more needed.
That same morning, I breakfasted on something I used to make at Aunt Esther’s neat little house on Clayton in Columbia — honey butter.
The table honey had crystallized, and I wanted honey with my toast, so I put the plastic bottle in some boiling water. “It’ll be too hot to put on toast,” I thought.
And then I saw my butter dish.
So it was that a knob of butter and some hot honey were mashed and stirred until I had a childhood treat to put on the toasted bread (supplied by my friend D).
Uncle John died 36 years ago today. He was much too young at just 65 years old. An Army veteran and then federal employee, he took early retirement and traveled part of the world with his wife, my beloved Aunt Esther.
She lived as a widow for another 30 years.
His memory lives on in tactile ways. I have his brown fedora, and wear it during wintertime. After she died, Aunt Esther left me his wedding band, which along with some of my father’s jewelry I traded in for the gold and diamond ring I now wear daily.
Uncle John was a good and patient man who I adored, very much.