I’m standing (barefoot, of course) at the counter humming a tuneless song and snapping the ends off a mess of beans. My fingers work quickly and automatically, finding that spot at the end of each greenbean with my thumbnail, that spot where it snaps just right. When there’s a lot on my mind, I cook a lot. Sometimes too much, and the leftovers pile up in little foil pouches and tupperware too mountainous for my hubby’s appetite to keep up with. When there’s a lot on my mind, the standing at the kitchen counter roots me. There’s little room in my head for long-lingering worries or orchestrated imaginary futures. My chatty internal conversations (and arguments) with myself reduce to a simmer. The kitchen counter is my moving meditation on chopping and measuring and whisking, for finding the just-right spot in the bean, for tending the onions as they soften. I am rooted, barefoot, into my kitchen floor and rooted into the women who taught me and my little-girl fingers how to snap the beans just so.
I picked and snapped mountains of beans sitting on grandma’s back porch at the cabin in North Carolina. A towel in my lap with a heap of beans, snapping the ends and watching the bowl to my side fill up. Often we’d pick wild blueberries and blackberries together, Grandma, Momma, Jenny and I. Blackberries are juiciest when fresh-plucked and hot-baked under the summer sun, with a few scratches on your arms from the stickers. Few made it to the intended cobbler.
Grandma taught me how to help in the kitchen and how to not get underfoot (although the latter lesson was only mildly successful). She is pragmatic, resolute and endearingly optimistic. She cooked solid southern fare in that practical, post-war way. She is okra and tomatoes, she is angel food cake with strawberries, she calls me her Strawberry Girl. The first time my Daddy met her, he took the lid off her rice and she smacked his hand. I’m so wildly nostalgic I can tell the old stories like I was there. My great-grandaddy who always dribbled gravy on his tie. Back when men wore ties to supper.
My Momma taught me how to cook. We love to eat together, yes. But we recognize the cooking as a special act, a creative and sacred place apart where individual ingredients are blended and married into something new. I recall very few “cooking instructions” but rather I was a participant in the process. I remember the first Thanksgiving I cooked Grandma’s squash casserole and greenbean casserole, using her recipes that Momma scanned and printed out for me. The torn-edge magazine page with her handwritten notes in half-cursive (like mine, of course) in the margin. I have many of her recipes, and Grandma’s and Great-Grandma’s. Dad does a lot of their cooking these days; his kitchen-counter-meditation is a lot noisier than mine (“If Dad’s raising a ruckus in the kitchen, he’s happy!”) and when we eat together we spend half the meal discussing how it was cooked. The method he used for the flank steak. We know the flank steak is love; the love we show our loved ones by taking time to put everything on hold while we immerse ourselves at the counter to create a nourishing meal.
And so I stand at my own counter – grown now, rooted, and wildly nostalgic. When I make homemade bone broth, I feel connected to the women in my family and women everywhere, from centuries ago, who (apart from the crockpot) would know exactly what I’m doing and what that first sip of broth from the ladle will taste like. We know it’s the marrow and ginger and garlic that’s healing. Tonight as I snapped the beans, Momma text me a photo of Grandma sitting at her kitchen table with her two dearest girl friends who came in town to visit her, they had a dinner party tonight. She’s mostly in her bed these days, the bed is in the living room now, and she watches for the squirrel in the tree and talks to (bosses around? probably!) the repairmen through the window as they fix the septic tank. I told Mom about the beans. “You said it! We have such good memories!” she said.
This is why I cry happy tears when I snap beans, my barefeet rooted in our kitchen.