Dicing crunchy onions forces me to cry the tears I’ve been hiding; burning but also relieving. The timer’s pulsing beeps time the dance around the kitchen: spinning, arms swaying with the transfer of props, and bowing for a taste. The human movements are in concert with the sizzling, clinking, and aromatic rhythm of home cooking. The clatter of a pan being pulled from other steal dishes crashes into my eardrums before the clink of a pan on the burner and the sizzle of bulbous roots in the bubbling butter; this is the smell that instantly relieves my eyes and soothes my nose: onions and butter.
Reaching for my favorite hand-carved black walnut spatula amongst the array of plastics, I toss the aromatic onions that hiss on the hot pan. Spinning from the heat to the counter behind me, I slice through a crisp red pepper and crush the garlic with a satisfying crunch as papery skins crinkle and cling around the counter and my arms. This dance, these sounds, smells, and colors are learned from my mom’s vegetarian kitchen. A precious part of this home cooking is the fragrant garlic heating with the softening onions; sizzling, scraping, and smelling.
There were seven of us children that sat around the old hand-me-down table our dad sanded and stained and that our mom loaded with pots of home cooking every night. Missionaries were often sitting there, young Elders who were skeptical of the word vegetarian. My mom placed the cauldron of black beans with bits of green, red, and translucent that filled our olfactory glands in the center of our home. It was the vegetables that made our mouths water, but the young Elders wouldn’t admit it, and they couldn’t imagine a meal without meat; we couldn’t imagine a meal with some.
I’d watch the visitors, who mom always welcomed with food, as they tentatively scooped the beans onto their rice-filled plates. Their eyebrows raised when they placed their first bite into their bodies; surprise. Beans and rice are delicious. It didn’t matter that the forks didn’t match or that the plates were different sizes; the vegetarian spices and food fed the many souls and conversations. As I grew, my family was exposed to people from all over the world around an old table heavy with beautiful, colorful edibles.
Sometimes I cook the dried beans myself, but today the cans pop open with a click. An earthy smell drifts and sails around the kitchen until one of my children asks who tooted. “I just opened a can of beans,” I say, and everyone laughs. Hazel, my nine-year-old, chops the lettuce for the salad on the same cutting board that my youngest slices the cucumber. He takes knives seriously and feels taller than my waist when he holds one. I rinse the beans and add their black to the colors in the heated pan, sending sounds and visions of steam into the room where all of our hands, eyes, ears, noses, and mouths are busy with home cooking. We have our individual thoughts and opinions in the kitchen, but we are also connected through our senses.
In addition to my parent’s seven children, they unofficially adopted hungry humans from Azerbaijan, Germany, Norway, China, across the street, and across the States with home cooking. My dad’s rebellious sliced hotdogs tossed into boxed macaroni and cheese was a hidden delicacy; however, my mom’s seemingly effortless sauteed vegetables in a hundred different ways spoke parental love and opened a home when strangers opened their mouths. “Come for dinner,” she said, she begged, because she knew that if she could get a human to her table – a new hand-carved cherry table that my dad recently created for her – they would connect and become family; it worked every time.
The novel coronavirus has shrunk our home cooking rituals; no more missionaries or unofficial adoptions. Our table is smaller. But the other day, my kids used their hands to knead and press yeasty, plump dough onto the counter and then rolled it out to create pizza pinwheels in bulk. We left tin cartons full of the warm red and white rolled pizzas on quarantined neighbors’ porches. And now, here we are, creating my mom’s rice and beans as a small family, smelling her smells, and tasting my memories. We gather around a different table with empty chairs that will be filled again soon with hungry humans dancing, smelling, and tasting a history of home cooking.