The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil. They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living. I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group. I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice. I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention. “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be. Would my dad be angry? they wondered. How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them? Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad. They accepted without hurt. But no one expected what followed. Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew. While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil. And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled. We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese. But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came. The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic. We checked with them several times on our orders. Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers. Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind. At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff. We thanked him. We laughed at our experience. We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed. We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers). Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible. And they had received no dinner at all! But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives. Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in. Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger. And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.
Nearly two years after immersing myself in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, and cooking many dozen delicious and beautiful dishes and desserts, I received as Christmas gifts two new baking cookbooks, which I had been not-so-secretly coveting. The first is Baking with Mary Berry. The second is Paul Hollywood’s 100 Great Breads. You may recognize both names from The Great British Baking Show, to which my daughters introduced me a few years ago. We have watched, with pleasure and intimidation, Great Britain’s expert amateur bakers, glad the hosts’ withering critiques were not aimed at us. With no judges but myself and my admiring parents, I spent January making several recipes a week. Hollywood’s first bread recipe is for a “wheat sheaf loaf.” He promised if I can bake that, I can bake anything in his book. Well, I did succeed in making a beautiful loaf. (Beware: cut the insane volume of salt by at least half.) Each of Mary’s recipes fits on a single page, faced with gorgeous photos. They have all turned out wonderfully so far: magic lemon pudding cake; magic chocolate pudding cake; white chocolate muffins with strawberry jam centers; double chocolate muffins; French pancakes; and, oat-butter-crunch “flapjack” bars (nothing like American pancakes). But the most beautiful so far is her orange-chocolate mousse cake, which I offered at Hyrum’s birthday. I heard on National Public Radio that millions of people have taken up the baking hobby due to Covid pandemic cabin-fever isolation. For me, the motivation is different. I love the metamorphic magic of taking an assortment of powders and liquids and combining them to create an edible work of art. Not to mix metaphors, I consider each recipe as a treasure map, some harder to follow than others, but all leading eventually to an unexpectedly delightful treasure. I hope I my cartographic talent is steadily growing. Mom and Dad are happy for me to practice on them.
Mary Berry’s Orange-Chocolate Mousse Cake
Paul Hollywood’s Wheat Sheaf Loaf
While I love to cook and eat an exotic French meal, I often opt for a salad for dinner. The raw vegetables are good for my gut. But mine is no ordinary salad. Dad says my salads are the most gorgeous salads ever made. Of course, I use the standard lettuce, celery, cucumber, carrot, and tomato. Then I add diced apples, raisins, roasted mixed nuts, avocado, slices of hard-boiled egg, and ground flax. (I leave out bell peppers and onions.) Toss it all with salt, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and I have a wonderful (and large) bowl of salad for dinner. I always make extra, offering some to Mom and Dad. I even prefer this tasty salad over a good burger and fries. It is so full of wonderful complementary colors, flavors, and textures. I can eat as much of it as I want. And after eating, I don’t feel like I have swallowed a hamburger bowling ball.
Dad’s daily lunch fare is—gasp—onion sandwich. (I do not like raw onions in any form or food.) He insists on the large Wala Wala or Vidalia mild sweet onions. With the onion cut in two, an inserted fork keeps one half in place while he cuts a large sandwich slice, which goes on multi-grain bread with a slathering of mayonnaise and spicy mustard, a slice of tomato, a square of Swiss cheese, and leaves of lettuce, with potato chips on the side and a cold Diet Coke for refreshment. Dad keeps telling me how delicious his onion sandwiches are, and I keep telling him I will try one someday. I don’t know that I will.
In the grocery store, Mom followed her prepared shopping list—penciled on a yellow legal pad—items grouped by type and store location, and if it’s not on the list she doesn’t need it, because if she needed it, it would be on the list. Dad, listless, followed the whims of his heart and his hunger: Jarlsberg, Swiss, and Gouda, cauliflower and broccoli, fresh salmon and parmesan chicken, frozen pizzas, bags of roasted nuts. Any why not be whimsical with foods that look beautiful and sound delicious and that one is sure to relish? Why not enjoy both the shopping and the eating experiences? Neither approach is inherently correct, of course; both are equally acceptable, and complementary. Mom and Dad each pushed a sanitized dual-purpose shopping cart, for filling with food, and for leaning upon. While Dad meandered among the fresh produce and artisan cheese, Mom and I walked to the dairy cooler via the cold cereal aisle. A pretty middle-aged woman walking by surprised me with a generous smile. Her sleeveless summer dress exposed significant portions of her enhanced bosom. She passed us twice more, and each time that smile. After the third pass, Mom hissed at me, scandalized, “That woman is flirting with you. It’s so obvious! And her boobs are practically falling out of her dress!” Mom’s observations filled me with a sudden and unexpected panic, and I was in junior high again, awkward, anxious, and utterly unable to flirt. She’s flirting with me? I thought, stupefied. Why? I could not understand it. And I could not respond. Even had I been interested, my flashback to adolescent anxiety left me perspiring and paralyzed. Which is just as well—now is not the time or the season. The parking lot sloped away from the grocery store, and Mom and Dad pulled back on the reins, as it were, to keep the colts from bolting. I drove silently home, disturbed at the stirring sensations I have worked so hard to suppress. I focused on seeing how many shopping bags I could carry into the house in one trip, and helped my providentially protective mother put the groceries away in their various nooks and crannies on the pantry.
One of my purposes is to make mealtime easy, healthy, and pleasant for Mom and Dad, by cooking dinner for them. For two years I have enjoyed cooking for them occasionally on a weekend. Now it can be every day, if wanted. It brings me pleasure to bring them pleasure. I have always wanted to learn to speak French and cook French. I study French lessons on Duo Lingo once or twice a week—I may become competent in ten years so. And after watching Julie & Julia in 2020, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This week we enjoyed (1) quiche in a buttery shell with green onions, mushrooms, spinach, and ham, (2) salmon soufflé, (3) crêpes with Splenda-sweetened fresh fruit and almond whipping cream (for my son Caleb’s 22nd birthday “cake”), (4) carrots and parsnips glazed in a buttery sweet sauce, and (5) cream of mushroom soup, all from Julia’s book. I have fun cooking delicious, appealing food, and we all enjoy consuming it. The recipes were hard at first, but have become second nature with repetition. Dad sent me an email today, “I will be cooking dinner tonight.” These six words implied so much: (a) I can cook, too; (b) I want to cook, too; (c) I love to cook, too; (d) I can do things; (e) I want to share the load; (f) thank you for your cooking; (g) I want to take a turn; (h) I want to do something nice for you like you do for us; and, (i) isn’t it wonderful how people take raw ingredients and make such creative, delicious dishes? So, tonight he cooked delicious “saucy pork burrito rice bowls” with ingredients and recipe provided by Hello Fresh. When I asked if I could be his sous chef, he said sure. As the three of us sat at the table with our fragrant rice bowls, Dad remarked, “We made this, together, didn’t we Rog!” We did. And it was very tasty.