Archive for May, 2008
My mother’s in her glory. Finally, she can teach her daughter. Finally, I said yes. Finally, I pay attention. Her voice is clear as glass. “Rinse out four Ball jars – they must be squeaky clean – and put them on a kitchen towel. No, not that one, terry cloth! No, not like that, upside down.”
This is the first time she has come to visit our new home on Midcoast Maine, soon to be opened as a Bed and Breakfast. Her suitcase full of German cookbooks, she came prepared to help. Immediately, she started cleaning that which I considered spotless. She rearranged my kitchen, “Like this! It makes much more sense.” Then, way back in the garden, outside the sauna shed, my mother saw the rhubarb. “What do you think about compote? Your guests will love it.” She stood inside the doorway, sharpened knife in hand. “I’ll show you what to do.” Her large, green eyes were glinting. How could I refuse?
Now we stand side by side, peeling two pounds of crisp, fresh rhubarb, that is I peel, she cuts. Each filament I peel releases rhubarb mist. Each cut an exclamation point. Next to her, on the stove, the compote water simmers, scenting the air with spring. “No more than half an inch of liquid! Add lemon peel, no more than half a lemon. And one cinnamon stick. And now one real pound of sugar. No, not all at once! You must remember, hot liquid always tastes a little sweeter. You have to sample, frequently, to get to when it’s sweet enough.”
Since we started working I’d swear, she’s grown about an inch.
“Here, take these strawberries and slice them. How much is this, a kilogram?” She hands me the container – it’s store-bought, too early for the local crop – and nods with satisfaction when I convert into familiar grams. “See? That’s what I thought. One thousand grams, two German pounds.” She resumes her cutting, the cadence of our lives.
The timer rings. It’s loud, old-fashioned, made from heavy chrome. Two years ago, she sent it as a present, packed between Christmas Stollen and German marzipan. The timer of my childhood, it once had a coat of Bakelite; creamy white when I was young, it yellowed to a grunge with time. She told me on the phone that before she sent it she cleaned it down to chrome. Scraped it with a paring knife. For two weeks, each night, she sat and scraped the kitchen timer while she watched TV. It’s now my prized possession, scraping marks and all.
“Dominika, stop dreaming. It’s been a half an hour. Time to fish them out.” She points a pair of tongs at me, then nods, once, twice at my stove, my pot. When I don’t comprehend, she shakes her head and sighs. “The lemon peel. The cinnamon stick,” and then does it herself. “It’s time to boil the rhubarb. Just for a few minutes, though. Until it softens, see? In with the strawberries, mach schnell. Now we add a little of the liquid to one of the Ball jars, see? Swish it around to heat the bottom, then fill it with compote.”
When my mother concentrates, she gnaws her bottom lip.
“Here, it’s your turn.” She hands me my big ladle, pointing at the jars; nods as I go, repeating every word she’s said already, twitching to my every move.
“No. Not too full. Wait! Yes, that’s good. Enough! Now wipe the rims, inside and out, with a paper towel or you won’t get the lids to open later; they’ll be stuck with that sweet goo. And close the jars. And turn them upside down. No, not here – over in the corner where I put the towel. You have to let them sit untouched for a day or two. Then you can put them upright and they should last you for a year.”
Both our foreheads have a sheen. I sink onto a kitchen stool. She draws a glass of water and drinks it down in a few gulps. Rinses it out and dries it and sits down next to me.
“I can’t wait to try it. I bet you it’s delicious with Vanilla ice cream, the kind we had the other day.”
“Yeah, the one we get from Round Top… but wait – haven’t you made this before?”
She shrugs. “It’s how I can my peaches for the winter, but rhubarb? No. I checked the German cookbooks. Patched it together from two different recipes.
“I thought this was how Oma taught you…”
She laughs out loud. “Your grandmother? You’re kidding. Yeah, Oma’s rhubarb was the best. But I could never take instruction from her when I was young.”
My mother’s bright eyes mellow and she smiles at something far away. “I bet you Oma’s sitting right now on her cloud nine, laughing that I made rhubarb – so hard she’s almost falling off.”