Life From Scratch by Sasha Martin by Sasha Martin - Read Online

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Life From Scratch - Sasha Martin

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This was supposed to be a spirited book about the four years I spent cooking my way around the world from my tiny kitchen in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The pages were going to be filled with sweet stories about overcoming pickiness and teaching my husband and daughter to love the world cuisine I featured on my blog, Global Table Adventure. It was going to be an easy book to write—one that wouldn’t make me cry, or make my relatives so nervous that I’d be obliged to employ pseudonyms.

But try as I might, I couldn’t stay within the parameters of such a narrative; the easy truth is as much a lie as any. What drove me to obsessively cook a meal from each of the world’s 195 countries cannot be explained by a simple passion for cooking alone.

Most people who have had a rough background will admit there’s something unsettling about finding happiness after difficulty—that even after we unwrap this gift, we don’t know how to stop searching, rummaging, pilfering for something else. We walk haltingly through life, ready for the other shoe to drop. The question is not if, but when.

There is a hunger for peace so deeply rooted in me that I cannot trace the origins to any one moment in my life. So I had to start at the beginning, from the foods of my wayward childhood, to those that shored up my teenage years overseas, to those I discovered in my blog. Together, they helped me learn to love my world as I cooked my way around it.

Everything depends on the moment the spice hits a hot pan: whether it sizzles with a mouthwatering fragrance or turns to ash. Once, I thought happiness was the sizzle in the pan. But it’s not. Happiness is the spice—that fragile speck, beholden to the heat, always and forever tempered by our environment.

This is the story I share with you.


Conflict of Heritage

Good kitchens are not about size.

—Nigel Slater


Living Room Kitchen

IAM MISSING TWO FINGERPRINTS on my right hand. The neat spiral of lines on my ring and middle fingers suddenly flatten out, melted into circles that fan outward like the tail of a peacock. I first noticed the marks in fourth grade, when my school started filing fingerprints for the police. I wondered why mine looked so different from those of my classmates.

After school, I asked Mom about it. But she was driving. She couldn’t inspect my fingers. Decades later I found out the truth: At age one I’d toddled over to an open broiler while Mom was making hamburgers. Her back was turned for a second to grab a pot holder. When she came back from the hospital, where they treated my third-degree burns and blasted her for child abuse, she found the shrunken pucks of meat on the still open grate. Cold. Congealed.

She never made hamburgers again.

My older brother Michael and I spent much of our early childhood under the kitchen table, dancing wooden animals across the linoleum. We pretended the old trestle was a cave while Mom stitched odd jobs above us to make ends meet. Our father had vanished long ago: Mom was the only parent we knew. Sometimes Michael would inspect my scarred fingertips. Maybe you’re an alien! he’d exclaim over the hum of Mom’s ancient Singer. I can still see those laughing blue eyes; even in the shadows they sparkled.

I loved to watch Michael laugh. His wiry body wound up from the effort, tears filled his eyes, and his dimpled cheeks puffed out like sails. When he teased me, I’d sulk, lowering my face until my straight-browed, four-story forehead was all anyone could see, my tiny chin and owl eyes buried in my chest. But with the wisdom that came from being 21 months my senior, Michael knew just where to poke my sides until a giggle escaped.

Decades later, whenever I sat alone looking at my marred fingerprints, regret would overwhelm me, as though the rough and tumble course of our childhood had been set in motion by my careless curiosity as an infant. My injury instigated our initial visit from the Department of Social Services; though the judge dismissed the case, there was no wiping the slate clean once our names were in the system. Over the years, the kitchens I grew up in and around continued to draw me in, like a moth to a flame, as though I might recapture whatever innocence I’d lost in that warm, fragrant space.

There are mysteries buried in the recesses of every kitchen—every crumb kicked under the floorboard is a hidden memory. But some kitchens are made of more. Some kitchens are everything.

A few years after I burned myself, when I was four and Michael was six, Mom moved us to a streetcar suburb of Boston called Jamaica Plain (though whatever plains had been in those parts had long since been covered by concrete). Our one-bedroom apartment was on the first floor of a skinny triple-decker house with cream siding and evergreen trim. In those days, gangs roamed the parks, and shifty figures lurked by the towering railway known as the Elevator Train at the end of our street. But the meager rent was all Mom could afford.

I still remember our first night there—how the empty rooms echoed, how the December air made the tip of my nose cold, and how Mom turned on the oven to warm the rooms more quickly. Michael and I sat on the bare mattress—the only item in the apartment, borrowed from a friend. It felt like midnight, but we were too wide-eyed to sleep.

Mom stood, hands on her broad, bony hips, scanning the inky windows and the snow beyond. She was short; barely five foot two, with a petite, oval face that made her cocoa-bean eyes and frizzy curls more prominent. But Mom could fill any room she walked into with one of her signature looks: dark angled brows knit tightly together in what appeared to be a scowl.

A car screeched by as she stood in front of the windows. Or maybe it was a truck. All I remember is the loud bass rattling the windowpane and Mom’s capsized eyebrows.

Why are you always mad, Mom? I whispered, peering up at her.

She turned to me, her Peruvian knit skirt catching a puff of air.

Don’t be silly, she said, her brow smoothing. That’s just how my face is shaped. She rummaged through her bag. What this apartment needs are some curtains. She left the room, returning moments later with a sheet that she draped over the window nearest our heads. For about a week the three of us slept huddled together on the mattress under a scratchy wool blanket.

The final sleeping arrangements soon became clear: Mom in the bread-box bedroom on the other side of the kitchen, Michael and I each against our own wall in the living room. Since he was half a head taller, he got a huge, twin-size mattress, while I slept on a smaller bed cobbled together out of reclaimed two-by-fours. Mom sewed curtains for the windows and then another, from an old lace tablecloth, to drape along the posts that rose up at regular intervals across the length of my bed. She called it my castle.

In the morning, we’d shuffle into the kitchen to pick out our clothes for the day. The room felt enormous, despite the meager floor plan, lack of counter space, and awkward, freestanding stove. But the deeper we explored the space, the more the room offered. It was not just for cooking and eating; it was also a closet, Mom’s sewing room, and with nowhere else to convene, our living room.

Since our beds took up most of the actual living room, the kitchen was the only place to put our dresser. Never one to let a perfectly good surface go to waste, Mom found a piece of scrap laminate and placed it on top to create a makeshift prep area. She screwed hooks into the side to hang her cast-iron pans and bolted an old, hand-cranked mill to the edge, showing us how to grind our own flour. Shaking clouds of flour out of my socks became an inevitable part of our morning routine, despite Mom’s constant reminders that I should close my drawers all the way.

As time went by, Mom added more and more inventive details to our new home. One day while exploring the Bunker Hill Monument, she found an old railroad tie. Impervious to the stares and whispers of strangers, she lugged it home in the trunk of her car and bolted the enormous timber to the wall above the dresser. Here she stored a jumble of brown glass spice jars. Spices do better when kept in the dark, she explained. It keeps them potent. The finishing touch was a few silvery branches of eucalyptus suspended from the railroad tie. They filled the air with their honeyed, woodsy scent.

Every morning after breakfast, Mom would take out her old Singer and begin her freelance work as a seamstress, hemming the wool trousers and silk skirts of lawyers and bourgeois homemakers while Michael and I played at her feet. She found the work from ads tacked to billboards around town. When things were slow, she made our dress clothes too, converting a 25-cent pair of XXL pants from the thrift store into a Christmas dress for me or a blazer for Michael. With the scraps she made my doll’s clothes. My job was to collect the fabric from the linoleum floor and thread the needle.

Through the years, Mom approached food the same way she approached sewing: Not a scrap should be wasted. Beggars can’t be choosers, she’d always say, promising to ship our leftovers to China if we didn’t eat up. So we choked down what we were given: heaping mounds of spinach tossed with nutmeg and green onion, fried liver, rice-stuffed cabbage rolls, corn chowder, and the dreaded block of welfare cheese, as long as my forearm and as thick as my thigh. The processed bites tasted like wax, but Mom said we needed the calcium.

Mom practiced what she preached. When our molasses sandwiches were flanked by slices of suspiciously fuzzy bread, she would shrug off our complaints, saying a little mold never hurt anyone. If we had browning bananas, she’d whip up a batch of her Hungarian crepes—a recipe she learned from her father—and let Michael and I roll them up together with some yogurt and maple syrup. The result, endlessly drippy and sweet, was one of our favorite childhood treats—one that made us believe that our lives were as ordinary as any other.

Overnight Crepes

Even though she’s half Hungarian, Mom calls these thin pancakes crepes instead of palacsinta. And perhaps they are crepes; most palacsinta are prepared with carbonated water to lighten the batter. Mom omits this trick, instead relying on an overnight rest to make a silkier batter. Like magic, all the lumps are gone in the morning.

Still, like any good Hungarian, Mom makes an art of rolling up the crepes with a wide range of sweet and savory fillings. Her simplest preparations are smeared with apricot jam, sprinkled with crushed walnuts, and stacked under a dusting of powdered sugar. Sometimes, they’re rolled around leftover chicken paprika and reheated in a warm oven. My favorite is a Hungarian-American hybrid: sliced fruit (whatever is on hand), a spoon of yogurt, and a drizzling of maple syrup. Speaking of syrup—traditionalists will say to keep the batter fluid; it should pour like cold maple syrup. Thin as needed with extra milk.

• 2 large eggs

• 1 cup milk

• 1 cup flour

• 1½ teaspoons almond or vanilla extract

• Pinch of salt

• Butter, for cooking

Finishing touches:

Seasonal fruit (bananas, pears, apples, peaches, berries), apricot jam, maple syrup, yogurt, powdered sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, flour, extract, and salt. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, whisk the batter smooth. Preheat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat with a little butter. When it sizzles, ladle in ¼ cup batter. I lift the pan a few inches and slowly twist my wrist until the batter spreads evenly over the surface to fill the entire pan. Return to the burner and cook until the top of the crepe changes from shiny to dull, then flip. Cook a few more seconds, or until done. The first one is always a mess. Eat it, and carry on with the rest. Store cooked crepes in a warm oven until they are all cooked.

Finishing touch: Roll each crepe with desired fillings.

Makes 8 crepes

Though she could easily have plunked Michael and me down in front of a TV as she worked, Mom felt that this particular appliance should be used with caution. If we complained of boredom, she’d sit us down to write letters, design our own paper dolls, or read from her extensive children’s book collection, which included Leo Tolstoy’s Fables for Children. She kept the boob tube in her bedroom closet. No matter how many seams she had to stitch, she’d only bring out the two-dial black-and-white set once a week, for what she called educational shows, like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Leave It to Beaver, or Julia Child reruns. Sometimes Michael got to watch an old Western or a cop show called CHiPs.

Though I’m not sure how it qualified as educational, I was allowed to watch The Addams Family, starring apparent witches, a disembodied hand, and a big ball of walking, talking hair in sunglasses. Part of the fascination was that strangers liked to tell me I looked eerily like Wednesday Addams, the small black-haired girl with too-big eyes and straight-lipped face. Like her, my quiet stares seemed to unsettle the adults around me.

But it went deeper than that: These oddball TV characters made sense to me. Like Mom, they found the habits of conventional society ridiculous, and were genuinely surprised when neighbors abhorred their eccentric lifestyle. These misfits stood their ground, triumphing over their neighbors’ judgment and criticism.

I also loved watching Julia Child bumble and laugh her way through the kitchen. I must have been five when I told Mom that I wanted to make the roast lamb I’d seen Julia make on TV.

OK, she said, Write down what we need to do.

But I don’t know how to write—

Nonsense, she said and handed me a slip of paper and a pencil.

I filled the small sheet with graphite waves—my first recipe. Mom sat behind me and jotted down the basic instructions. To pay for the ingredients, we collected change in an old jelly jar, Michael helping me scour the sidewalk for pennies. A few months later, once we had enough, we bought the lamb and a one-ounce jar of mint jelly just in time for Easter.

I don’t remember Julia’s recipe any more, or if what we ultimately cooked even was her recipe—and perhaps that was never the point. The point was to get creative in the kitchen, and that’s what Julia Child inspired—what she always inspired. With Mom’s guidance we rubbed butter and fresh rosemary over a rack of lamb, pressed fat knobs of garlic into slits throughout the flesh, and blasted it in a 500-degree oven. We didn’t have white paper caps to keep the exposed bones from burning, or a fancy roasting pan like what Julia might have used, but we shaped the rack into a crown and the rosemary-encrusted meat came out tender and juicy all the same.

Great work, Mom said with a serious nod as she drew her knife between the bones through the buttery flesh, releasing a puff of gamy steam. Her words made me grin, showing the gap in between my two front teeth.

The three of us devoured the feast at the living room kitchen table silently, alternating between the soft meat and bright bursts of mint jelly. We hadn’t trimmed the thick, white fat from our roast; Mom said it was the best part. She showed us how to chew it and drink the blood pooled up on our plates. As she tipped the porcelain to her mouth, we watched in rapt horror as the swirling, red juices slid between her lips. The brine tasted faintly of metal.

Waste not, want not. It’ll help you grow, she winked.

After that Mom let me cook at her side whenever I wanted. She sewed me an apron from a scrap of bright orange fabric, and I paraded through the kitchen in that simple cloth with regal swagger, a wooden spoon for a scepter. And with Mom as my royal counsel, I learned that food never had to be pedestrian.

Instead of serving up plain hard-boiled eggs, Mom tucked whole raw eggs in a braided nest of challah dough; after it finished baking, Michael and I clamored to excavate and peel our edible treasures. And instead of feeding us uninspired bowls of Jell-O, she drilled into raw eggs and taught us how to blow out the insides. After we washed the shells, Michael and I took turns pouring Jell-O through a funnel, into the cavity. Peeling back the cold shell to find a quivering raspberry egg was magic we could create.

Fueled by Mom’s inventiveness, my imagination grew unchecked. No meal was beyond the realm of possibility. As time went on and I learned to write, I’d record recipes for such unlikely delicacies as Julia Child’s pâté en croute. If we lacked the time or the means to make a dish, Mom would hand me a pencil and butcher paper.

No reason to go without, she’d smile. Draw it—make me hungry!

When I was done, she’d feast her eyes on my crude illustrations as though the graphite lines formed an edible banquet. Her inevitable approval always came with one word, exclaimed loud enough to make me jump: "Yum!"


A Lifetime Past

OVER THE YEARS , Michael would occasionally ask about our father. Oh, what do you want to know about him for? Mom would say, ruffling his chestnut mop. That was a lifetime ago.

But the two of us spent many afternoons swinging side by side at the park across the street, trying to imagine what our father might look like. Michael said he was probably a firefighter or cop, like Ponch on CHiPs. I secretly hoped he was Mr. Rogers.

In the absence of a flesh-and-blood father, Michael became my de facto protector. If someone suspicious wandered too close to us while we played, Michael would whack a stick, rat-tat-tat, along the underside of the swinging bridge until the offender wandered off. And if the neighborhood kids teased me during a game of kick ball, he’d give them what for, even if it meant he got kicked out of the game.

Though Mom continued to be tight-lipped about her early life, children absorb more than adults might like to admit. This much we knew: Our mother had once had it all—the American dream. And our father was the con artist who ruined everything.

Of course, I now realize that life is never so simple. There are many dreams in a lifetime—dreams that flourish or flounder for reasons much more complex than can be pinned down to any one person or situation. Such is the case with my mother.

Mom was raised in a Catholic immigrant home in Boston, with three generations and several branches of the family tree under one roof. She speaks of her Italian Grammie’s bubbling, sweet-sauced kitchen with the sort of giddy admiration some scholars have for the Roman Empire: Through her young eyes, that kitchen arena was as wildly entertaining as any amphitheater and filled with equally staggering feats of acoustical engineering.

On Sundays, Mom and her best friend, Patricia—a tall, redheaded cheerleader from the tenement apartments down the road—often convened around the kitchen table to watch Grammie make the kitchen sing. With a click-click-click, the stove would start the show, followed by hiccuping pots, a humming refrigerator, and the bombastic babble of a language the girls would never learn.

The ingredients were the true stars, wheeled home from the market in Mom’s old wicker baby carriage. Every time Grammie unloaded bagged fowl or severed artichoke heads from that unlikely chariot, my mother was thrilled. Not to be outdone, Grampie brought home the daily catch, wrapped in brown paper parcels from his tavern on Atlantic Ave.—fish so fresh it seemed to leap into the pan on its own. By lunch, the table would be a cornucopia: stuffed artichokes; a batch of zucchini pie, a crustless slapdashery of eggs, thinly sliced zucchini, Parmesan, and parsley; Grammie’s homemade ravioli; spinach with a wisp of nutmeg; or soft nubs of boiled potatoes tucked in nests of spaghetti. (This last was made by Mom’s magpie aunt Fina, who’d eaten the dish in Genoa as a young girl.)

And then there was the torta di riso.

I like to imagine the scene: Grammie frying onions in lard, dancing around the grease until the onions mellowed and she could beat them into day-old rice, eggs, Parmesan, and a ragged handful of parsley. Then she’d knock hunks of carrots and potatoes into a sputtering pot of fowl. Every few minutes when she’d push the bird’s bony feet back into the pot, Patricia would ask, Does anyone actually eat those?

Mom responded in her thick Boston accent: No, but they’re good for flay-vah.

Grammie always gave the girls three squares each of torta di riso and a few plucks of the once stringy bird. Mangia, mangia! she’d sing. Eat, eat—too SKINNY! Even as Patricia grew curvy, the savory rice squares never filled out Mom’s beanpole limbs.

For Mom, this was a spectacle of heritage; for Patricia, curiosity. The Italian food adventures were so different from those of her Irish upbringing. With her mother regularly resting her nerves, Patricia found comfort in her friend’s loudmouthed, hot-blooded brood.

By age 15, the girls discovered a different sort of attraction: dating. On Saturday nights, they went down to the local church hall to dance the bug with boys in letter jackets and slim-jim ties. The boys lined one wall, the girls the other. It always took forever for the first guy to muster the courage to cross the invisible divide. One night, too eager for formalities, Mom flounced across the room and asked if anyone wanted to dance. A boy named James, the only one with a sensible haircut in a sea of ducktails, stepped forward. After that he always took her to the Saturday night dance.

Five years later, Mom and James were married.

Mom went on to earn her B.S. Ed., double majoring in math and science, with credits toward a master’s degree in the psychology of adolescents from Boston State College. She worked as a math teacher at a nearby school, he as an architect.

By the time she turned 25, in the mid-sixties, they had three children—Connor, and the twins Tim and Grace. Mom quit her job after the twins were born. I’ve seen pictures from that era—little Connor with a trim vest and a balloon of black curls, Tim’s ear-to-ear grin, and Grace, a blond angel in pink seersucker. But it’s Mom who makes me look twice. With her neatly styled curls tamed beneath pillbox hats, she resembled Jackie Kennedy.

Though Connor, Tim, and Grace were more than a decade older than Michael and me, I still remember how Mom would gasp if we deigned to call them our half siblings. That doesn’t make any sense, she’d scoff. "There’s no such thing as half family. Just call them what they are—your brothers and sister. Anything else is splitting hairs!"

Mom’s friendship with Patricia was a rudder in those early days. The women knit matching sweaters, received matching full scholarships to the Museum of Fine Arts certificate program, and were each other’s bridesmaids. After Patricia and her new husband, Pierre, had three daughters, the two took turns hosting playdates and potlucks.

In the beginning, the food was easy—maybe a quick noodle casserole, a garden salad, a pitcher of lemonade. But when Patricia moved to the suburbs, their gatherings evolved into sit-down dinners with cloth napkins and etched stemware. As she learned the exacting recipes of her new husband’s French family, Patricia began dabbling in velvety salmon mousselines and cheese soufflés. Mom once told me that, though the food was excellent, after a while, there was too much white porcelain. Either Patricia’s plates were growing, she said, or the portions were shrinking.

It wasn’t long before Patricia and her girls followed Pierre’s career out of the state—and, by the end of the sixties, out of the country. The women wrote letters, but the distance made visits few and far between.

Drawn in by the culture of the times, Mom transformed into a wild child, her knit sweaters and pillbox hats replaced with belted tunics and hair so big that it looked like an Afro.

Some might say they married too young. Some might say they should have lived a little before having a family. But by 1970, James and Mom were headed for divorce. When it finally went through, Mom was 29; the kids were 7 and 4. She successfully fought to get an annulment, to the bewilderment of her navy-man father: How can you get an annulment? You have three kids! he exclaimed.

Mom stood her ground: She and James had been too immature when they made their vows for the marriage to count. She wanted to be free to remarry, not just in the eyes of the state, but also in the eyes of God.

Although Mom was awarded custody of the kids, she agreed to transfer custody to James, since he was a good father and had a secure career. She knew it was better for the kids to have that stability. In the bitter turmoil of their split, James decided to move to New Jersey, so he could raise the children near his mother, sister, and her four children. Mom still gets mad when she talks about it. She says the six-hour drive might as well have put them on the other side of the world. From then on, she only saw them a week or two out of every year.

As Mom likes to say, When it rains it pours. By 1973, her brother and mother had both died, months apart: he, murdered by his drug-addict tenant, and she after succumbing to cancer. With the kind of blind, mechanical resolve that can only be mustered in the face of extreme grief, Mom opened a leather shop on Cape Cod with her new boyfriend, Ed. She used her savings and borrowed a couple thousand dollars from Ed’s brother, which she repaid in two months. Mom’s true talent and passion was sewing, learned at her Grammie’s side. It allowed her to express her creativity without the rigid rules that had come with working in the school system. But she still made good use of her math degree, setting the prices, tracking overhead, and keeping the books.

With modest pricing and creative designs, business boomed almost immediately. Within months, Mom and Ed had eight employees. Give Mom