Wednesday, January 02, 2008

I'm Just Here For The Food: In the Kitchen with Auntie Joy

“Did you bring workout clothes, Holly?” my darling aunt asked. From across the grandiose table laden with festive holiday candles and knick-knacks, her question sounded like a shout from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the lookers-on above.

Work out? I’ve been known to sweat a few drops here and there, but it’s mostly from a ten yard sprint to the refrigerator to make sure my cilantro hadn’t wilted or to grab a knob of smoky gruyere cheese.

“No, Auntie,” I replied with an impish smirk. “I’m just here for the food.”

One of the reasons why my aunt and I get along so famously is because we share a disquieting obsession with gastronomy. She’s the illustrious baker of the family, famous for sending beautifully dressed tins of homemade cookies in an astonishing array of varieties to family for the holidays. Sometimes, the empty tins get sent back to California from the East Coast, where the rest of the family resides. Luckily, my aunt gives free refills to her fans.

I am, on the other hand, of course, the cook.

` These facts, garnered with our complete obsession with perfection in execution and product, turned her kitchen into a laboratory of grande cuisine for the duration of my stay during this week, turning out everything from a cast-iron frittata to a four-hour exploration of the wonders of pie made from fresh sweet cherries (but that’s another blogpost). As soon as I booked my flight to San Diego, in fact, I began imagining the wonderful things that we would make together.

As soon as I walked in their enormous front door and was lovingly attacked by my ever-charming and long-suffering uncle, I was assaulted with food. My plate of Christmas dinner was practically already on the table when I walked in piled high with verdant asparagus, golden sweet potatoes, ruby-red cranberry compote, and several slices of tender-at-the-bone turkey. I took special note of the crosses my aunt had painstakingly cut into the bases of the Brussels sprouts, ensuring an even cook, and the care she took in shaving the trunks of the asparagus with a peeler, keeping the stalk of the plant just as tender as its delicate shoot. While present a startling lack of seasoning (the addition of salt, I would come to find out a few days later, was left to the discretion of the eater), the dinner was complete.

Often, when I have carrot cake in a restaurant or even make it at home, it’s unbelievably dry. And it only gets worse as the days pass. The carrot cake my aunt makes will turn any skeptic of the vegetable-in-dessert camp into a fervent believer. Auntie Joy has been making her carrot cake with cream cheese icing for over 30 years, and the recipe (at least the one in her head) is nearly perfect. A moist, round cake emerges from the oven and is covered with the gooiest icing you can imagine. The texture of the cake is unimaginably moist, almost melting as soon as you place it in your mouth, thanks to the addition of almost a whole cup of vegetable oil. But never mind. The cake is a religious experience, and I, even in my complete disillusion with religion, never use that phrase lightly.

Spending Christmas with my aunt in her fully-equipped gourmet kitchen turned out to be an infectious excitement. My usually-absent cousins joined in over bottles of Veuve Cliquot and Bella Sera Pinot Grigio. Even when I didn’t want to cook this week, I did, because it was impossible not to be in the kitchen.

While my heels ached and the knife callous on my right index finger began to mysteriously reappear after months of dormancy, cooking with my aunt has not only given me material for countless blogposts, but reminded me of the power that radiates from the kitchen and inspires not only cooks, but those that love them, to participate in each other’s lives.

1 comment:

Veronica said...

I'm still waiting on the next blog post! There are only so many times that I can read about Auntie Joy. :) Let's go girl! I check everyday!
Your biggest fan.