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"We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." David Mamet

Monday, March 01, 2010

The 38th Practice of the Kitchen Bodhisattva

Mystery food packets, Miracle Whip, and compassion 
Through Facebook I've recently been in touch with the grown children of good friends of my mother's family in France. When I wrote to Carole, she recalled how kind my mother had been in a time of need. I kind of remember this. But I remember more vividly the uncharacteristically bad meal she served to Carole and her brother Jean-Louis the first time they came to visit. At the time, my mom was living in Manhattan, briefly separated from my father after 20+ years of marriage. Her one-bedroom upper east side flat had a tiny kitchen which never stymied her masterful culinary skills.
My mother's skills in the kitchen were known throughout her Jewish pied noire community. The Meyers also knew from good food, as Mme Meyer has always been known as an excellent cook. But on the famous day when Carole and Jean-Louis arrived one night for dinner, nothing went right. The appetizers were soggy, the meat bland, the salad a little too oily. Nothing inedible, just not my mother's norm of stupendous.
Mom apologized profusely and charmingly, until everyone was laughing as they sipped her excellent coffee and ate the buttery and beautiful store-bought desserts. To me this was the model of graciousness and compassion for her guests that elevated her to a new realm of culinary guru.
Throughout our decades-long tenure in our mother's kitchen, through her sickness and health, and even on her worst days, each meal was a little treasure. So it's no surprise that the Night the Meyers Came for Dinner became a joke between us. Whenever the topic came up, her eyes would meet mine and, with a little rueful laugh she'd say, I still don't know what happened that night. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, but also knowing that the jig was up, I'd have to agree.
The other night I made a meal that would have made Mom feel better about the Meyer incident. The recipe came from a flavor envelope that I found on the shelf disembodied from its box of jasmine rice, wedged between two cans of garbanzo beans.

Printed on it was a recipe that called for ingredients that were within arm's reach. Because I had pounding headache this seemed like just the ticket for a Sunday night. Its official name was Oriental Chicken. It doesn't show up on google, otherwise I'd show it to you.
The recipe on the back of the envelope told me everything I needed to know - none of it good. It called for boiling (yes, boiling) thin strips of chicken in a bath of coconut milk, chicken stock, and the envelope of gingery spices. There was no expiration date on the package.
But like a sailor ignoring a red sky in morning, I pushed right past the instructions, my head pounding harder with every misstep.

There is no synonym for tangy. When I look it up in the thesauraus, I see words like spicy and piquant, flavors that I admire. In my mother's Mediteranean kitchen, we revered piquant, and reserved opinions about spicey. But we never did tangy.
When I first tasted Miracle Whip in my late 20's, I wondered what could make perfectly good mayonnaise taste so strange. So alien was this flavor that I did not have words to describe it, until I read the label bragging about it having “Tangy Zip.” Tangy was a flavor category reserved for NASA-derived orange drinks and sour candy, not for anything savory. When you add tang to meat, it tastes like you're trying to cover something up.
I should have known to abandon ship when the recipe insisted I boil the chicken. Nothing good can come of boiling chicken, unless you're sacrificing it to broth. Boiling chicken will always have the same result: it will sap every ounce of flavor and color from the already doomed bird. Wincing as I approached the gangplank, I dropped the chicken slices into their watery grave. (Remember, I had a headache.)
I tried to fix it with my limited bag of tricks. I added flour and salt. I tried mixing in butter and pepper. Butter and salt can almost never do harm, and it did improve the taste slightly. But on the flip side, it created a  putty-colored mixture that matched the blanched chicken, and gave it the consistency of gruel.
When I served it to my starving son and husband, I wish I could say that the horribleness of the food was redeemed by my jolly humility (SO sorry, everyone! It was the headache cooking, not me.) Or that I could have laughed it off graciously and apologetically, as my mother did with Carole and Jean-Louis. Instead, I was glum and defensive.
What saved the meal? My son and husband who laughed out loud with every bite. It started as a giggle from Jack who could hardly believe what he was actually eating, then a surprised lifting of eyebrows from Peter.
When I grimly admitted that the meal was no good, the compassion came from Pete who, between guffaws, recalled his old East Village bachelor days when a dinner like this would have been a treat. He swabbed the plate with a very good baguette  (the only good part of the meal). The tenderness came from my son, who tried to reassure me that it "wasn't that bad, really" but that it was the worst meal I ever made.
Peter and Jack dubbed it Sour-Sour Chicken Delight. They measured every meal against it: better or worse than Sour-Sour Chicken Delight?
After dinner, I went straight to bed and somehow the leftovers never got put away. Did no one want to touch the stuff so soon after consuming it? Or was it just that, out of yet more compassion for me, they didn’t want to toss it – yet couldn’t quite bring themselves to preserve it in tupperware either?
Mysteriously, the anemic grey strips were gone the next morning.
Over the last half of her life, our 18 year old cat Addy kept herself spry through a habit of hopping up to the couch, across an African drum and taking a flying, increasingly well-studied leap onto the kitchen counter to sip water from the faucet. We indulged this routine, given her age and innate largesse; Addy was the transcendental soul of our household and we treated her like a queen. But we never served her food scraps. We held to the belief, peculiar among our friends, that this kept her young.  But every so often she‘d get a wild hair up her tail and hop up to the dinner table to snarf a fry, or snag a few licks from a stick of butter.
Maybe the Sour-Sour flavor was like a cat whistle, appealing only to felines. That night Addy powered right through the entire plate of leftover Delight. I woke pleased that at least someone had gotten something out of the mess, and bragged about it at breakfast. See, I said, It wasn’t all that bad. Addy liked it!
That’s when Peter pointed out, one by one, the little puddles where Addy had retched early that morning. The streaky spots were an evaporating memory of Sour-Sour Chicken Delight, leaving behind a great recurring joke, and a reminder of my mother, whose acceptance of her flawed moments was as much a part of her as her superb talents.
So this, an homage of my kitchen guru, my Mom, in honor of Pete-sri and Jack-sri, in memory of Addy, and with equal parts gratitude and humble apologies to Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo*, a 38th Practice of the Kitchen Bodhisattva:

If in the company of several people, one among them reveals a culinary fault that we would have liked hidden, not to become irritated with the one who treats us in this manner, but to consider him as a supreme guru, is a practice of the bodhisattva.

Thogme Zangpo is author of The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, available widely online in many translations, including one on Amazon by Geshe Sonam Rinchen.

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