WHEN my sons were small, I often took them to the fabric store. Dailyn, my youngest, would run his fingers over waterfalls of satin, velvet like ripe peaches, the slubby resistance of silk, assessing texture and drape with the touch of a born connoisseur. As a five-year-old, his colour preferences leaned toward bright yellows smeared like broken eggs over charcoal, but even then he knew instinctively that knowledge resides in the hands. Back at home, I pinned, cut, then sat down at my Elna and whirred pieces of cloth into archers’ tunics, wizards’ robes resplendent with comets and starbursts, jazzy tasselled two-toned jesters’ hats. We played made-up games in made-up countries, with made-up characters, attired in our fantastical outfits.

Each boy gravitated toward my chefs’ whites as they hung in my closet after laundering, smelling of fresh air instead of garlic or onions. He would wrap the mark of my trade around himself, lost in the folds of material, plucking at the knotted cloth buttons marching down the jacket-front as he paraded down the hallway to the kitchen. It wasn’t that my whites or what they represented were mysterious, or foreign territory to them. Far from it. My sons were intimately acquainted with the landscape of food, and my chef’s uniform was the most comfortable and comforting clothing they knew.

• • •

Dailyn, visiting from Calgary, finds me in the kitchen of the old Saskatchewan farmhouse I now live in. He takes the bowl of bread dough from my hands, plops it on the counter, yards off his sweater to reveal a baker’s biceps. “Here, let me,” he says, dusting his hands with flour and starting to knead, hands working in a double-time crossover-rhythm that is smooth and effective, rapid, unhurried.

“It’s a braided Finnish bread called pulla,” I tell him. “Five strands, like challah.”

“Show me. I don’t know how.” So I roll ropes of dough, fold the ends, interweave the strands, chanting the braiding sequence like a mantra: two over three, five over two, one over three. After I finish the first loaf, he steps in. “It looks a bit rough, Mom.”

“Been awhile.”

“Yeah? It shows.” As he rolls and shapes them, the ropes are well behaved, mooring themselves one to the next without twists or tangles, as guylines heed a skilled deckhand. Within minutes, he’s made seven loaves, each snug and matter-of-factly tidy, waiting to bloom in the oven under a tempera-like glaze of egg yolk and cream. His hands on the dough are sturdy, not as delicate or as long as his brother’s piano-playing fingers, but workmanlike, an artisan’s hands, fine-tuned through the generations for doing, making, gauging, assessing. When he catches me studying him, he winks and flexes his left arm. “I make bazillions of buns and loaves every morning at work,” he says with unabashed pride. An hour later, when the loaves emerge from the oven, he pulls apart the intricacy of the crusted braid with fingers as facile as a jeweller’s, sniffing delicately—a rabbit assessing a carrot crop before tasting. “That’s cardamom I can smell under all that butter, right?” Between us, we consume half a loaf while it is still warm.

• • •

If flour is of earth, and water is water, then yeast is of air—that which elevates. Fire is the element of transformation, what magicks the other three. Cooks know this, are drawn to gas ranges, woodstoves, open-flame barbecue pits, beachside grills, anywhere fire is visible. That transformation—the heating blast of the sun and its hint of the Beyond—turns raw ingredients into dinner, untutored children into young men and women, citizens of clay into golden heroes. Fire is the cook’s first and best tool. Life is the crucible.

• • •

Both my sons outgrew my whites years ago. They wear their own each day, both in the same restaurant—one the baker, the other a line cook. I visit them at work, sit at the counter on the guests’ side, my boys a world away from me in the open kitchen that is the restaurant’s nerve centre. Darl, his face covered with shining beads, is at the wood-fired rotisserie, its heat drawing sweat from me ten feet away. He sets down my plate, crosses his arms, leans against his side of the counter, studying my reaction as I slice through the hash marks of tender grilled scallops perched on a quarter-head of grilled romaine dressed in olive oil, capers, and lemon zest. “Good, eh?” I nod, my mouth full. Dailyn delivers molten chocolate tart and ice cream and cookie and coulis, elements arranged on the white plate like art, then hangs around, grinning, as I match up textures, bite by bite.

Cooking is an intensely physical profession, drastically underpaid for the stamina, skills and contribution it demands. I don’t expect either of them to make it their life’s work, and have encouraged them to have a plan, a skill beyond the stove so they can exit the kitchen before they hit thirty-six, as I did. Their adult years in commercial kitchens have already wrought changes in them, changes that began inside and manifested outwardly, as bulging biceps and muscular hands, as tough skin that seems impervious to hot pans, as the grace of dancers pivoting at the stove, as calmness when pots boil over and flames gutter out. Over and over again, I remind myself that they are independent beings, young men responsible for their own growth and wellbeing. It’s difficult to remember, though, whenever they call in an upset, their voices raised or strained, to rant about the long hours and poor pay of their chosen jobs. Electricians, carpenters, and plumbers earn double or triple a well-paid line cook’s hourly wage, without the exposure to hot ovens, deep fryers filled with searing oil, seven-hundred-degree rotisseries. I struggle to remember then that my sons have chosen paths that fit their ethos, that paths take turns, labyrinthine at times, without obvious endpoints, the maze’s core invisible during day-to-day living.

We—my sons and siblings and I—are descended from off-colony Hutterites, peasant pacifists renowned in central Europe not just as farmers but also as artisans. One of my brothers makes wooden furniture, the other is a metal sculptor; my sister has spent years at a potter’s wheel, throwing clay into useful and gorgeous shapes. My hands, formed from the same last, have the same shape and look of my grandmother’s, and of my youngest son’s. It’s a gift you are born with, to have the hands of a maker, to be grounded in the natural world, to take primal elements and shape them, transform them, and in the doing, serve as the focal point and translator for those at a remove from the natural world. It’s not independence, although when I see my sons standing tall in front of the stove, I see their self-reliance glowing around them like an aura; it’s interdependence. In cooking, we express our deepest feelings about the nature of the universe, our deepest faith and connection to all that is primal and irresistible. In cooking, we express our choices—to link with nature, to be self-reliant, able to care for others, to manifest the humility and generosity we were born into. But cooking for a living isn’t the only way to experience any of those realities.

• • •

Darl was seven, Dailyn three, when my husband and I bought a restaurant. Thirty-seven seats, a split-level with a pair of elaborately carved carousel ponies mounted on the spindle railing of the divider. Fading hardwood floors, pressed-back chairs, Key Largo fans and floor-to-ceiling windows—a joint Lauren Bacall would have been comfortable in. A small four-burner Wolf range sat at the heart of the cramped kitchen, a convection oven hemming in its heat on one side, stainless-steel dishwasher humming on the other, with just enough space for one person to stand in front of the Wolf. After school that fall, the boys sat on stools at the narrow counter, watching me work, Darl’s long legs swinging, Dailyn’s stubby calves folded like a nesting bird’s. I gave Darl an apple and a short-bladed serrated knife with a rounded tip. “Peel this,” I said, and went back to rolling out my pastry.

“What kind of apple is it?” Darl asked, his fair eyebrows climbing as a long comma of peel dangled floor-ward from his fingers. “Can I eat the peel? Is it a Gala or a Newton or a Granny Smith or a Mac?”

“Of course eat the peel! Then taste, and tell me.”

He rescued the ribbon of peel, scrunched his face. “Gala,” he answered through the crunching, “it tastes like a Gala.” He handed his brother a slice. “Try it, Dailyn.”

The next summer, during cherry season, I gave them cherries like tiny fairy globes, some golden, some ruby, others so dark a purple they were almost black. In peach season, they ate peaches, clingstone, freestone, juices like melted amber dribbling down their chins. They watched me whisk vinaigrettes, taste sauces, plate salads, and simmer short ribs, build mousses and meringues, then they rummaged in the shelves of the dry stores in the basement prep kitchen, searching for snacks, eating again and again, then going home to their own suppers with our nanny. I read notes from them when I stumbled home late at night, exhausted, reeking of garlic and caramel and roasted meats and coffee. Mama, we miss you, come cook at home. I didn’t have the words to explain the compulsion that drove me to feed others instead of them, couldn’t even explain it to myself. In photographs from that era, my face is haunted, gaunt, my bones almost showing through, my flesh consumed by the fire that fed on my ambition. The compulsion burnt its way throughout my body, and a couple years later, we sold the restaurant. I staggered through several years in a daze, wondering who I was if I wasn’t a chef.

• • •

Darl’s face is tense, his eyes shadowed, when he arrives on my snowbound farm six hundred kilometres from his apartment. I’m surprised to see him; he and his brother have moved on to working six days a week at a hot new resto in Calgary, a place so jumping that time off is nonexistent. “I quit my job,” he says over coffee and a plateful of muffins. “I found myself crying in the dish pit. Couldn’t eat. Worrying about work before I went in. I just can’t cook at that stress level.” He looks at me, knows I’ll understand. “I care too much about food to cook for a living anymore, Mom. I want to make things with my hands, but I don’t know what.” I understand his conundrum, but don’t know either, no matter how badly I’d love to have an answer for my boy.

A week later, the muscles that line his face are beginning to relax. He stays up late, communing with the far-off Northern Lights as they lean closer to the earth to hear the coyotes carolling. Like the cats perched on the heat register and rocker in front of the fire, he sleeps in. When he surfaces, I hand him a mug, remembering the years it took me to find myself, the artist separate from the cook. We make supper together. As he dismembers a chicken for the pot, slices an onion, slivers garlic cloves into shards, I am relieved, watching his sure hands wielding my knives. It isn’t cooking that has damaged him, but the trade of cooking. His love of making is intact. The path has turned beneath his feet, and will carry him closer to the heart of the maze, to the man he is meant to become.


© 2015 dee Hobsbawn-Smith. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, June 2015.


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