As a child, I spent many hours perched at the kitchen table reading a book while my mother hovered over the stove cooking one of her many meals for her family. She was always in the kitchen and although I had no desire to learn how to cook, I was plenty interested in the end result.
My favorite childhood memories are tied to food. The sizzling sounds of the red beans gently frying in oil in preparation for traditional diri ak pois cole (red beans and rice) always propel me back to those intimate moments alone with my mother. Although we did not talk much, there was always a comfortable silence around us.
It was not until I lived on my own for graduate school that I realized my error in not learning how to make even the most basic of dishes. Pasta was easy and filling, it was my staple for a while. As were hot pockets, sandwiches, and Chinese take-out for the nights, I did not want to think too much.
The first time I tried to make diri ak pois cole, I spent twenty minutes on the phone with my mother trying to create a recipe from her cryptic instructions. My mother is an old school cook where exact measurements do not exist; you cook from taste, feeling, and memory. My memory although very good, was ill prepared to create the simple dish. In addition, I did not trust my taste, tainted from too many Chinese chicken and beef broccoli dishes. And my feelings told me I was not prepared.
My roommate tasted the dish and tactfully told me, “The beans are delicious.”
The second time I made the dish, it was for my childhood best friend who told me it was dry. At this point, I was certain I was destined to be a Haitian-American who could not cook authentic dishes from home.
I did not make the dish again until I met my future husband who was unapologetically Nigerian. I wanted him to taste my culture because I was also unapologetically Haitian. I was on the phone with my best friend for almost thirty minutes while I hovered over the stove in an unfamiliar kitchen cursing myself for promising this man a home-cooked meal. He lived in a neighborhood where I could only find the canned and not dried beans. Therefore, I made do and although he ate every bite, I knew it did not compare to the dish made in my mother’s kitchen.
Almost five years later, married to this same man, I made a dish embedded in his memory, Egusi soup. The look on his face when he tasted it made me realize I may have teleported him back to his own kitchen with his mother. It was then I fully realized the power of food and memory; I wanted to go back in time to that kitchen where it was just my mother and I.
With that thought, I found myself back in the kitchen gently frying those beans in oil and the aroma along with minced garlic and onions made me smile faintly.
When I tasted the rice and beans later on that evening, I smiled. It was far from perfect but the memory was attached.