Cooking With Carmen
I met Carmen while vacationing in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Carmen was the live-in chef for the duration of our stay. A tall, busty woman with almond-shaped eyes, rich chocolate skin and a loving smile, she was a domestic goddess who saut�ed, flipped, braised, roasted and toasted with the grace imparted by years of experience. She wore her dark, nappy and thick hair in a tight bun and wore a weathered pink house dress; that dress told a story of its own – written in splashes of shortening, stock and fruit juice. A pair of metal framed glasses always sat perched at the tip of her bulbous nose, which expanded like a balloon every time she smiled, which was often.
When moving from the stove to refrigerator and back, Carmen seemed to engage in a dance of sorts, with each step carefully choreographed. I became enchanted by her rhythm during my first night’s stay as I watched her butcher chickens. The ease with which she retrieved the poultry from cold storage and drove her blade through the birds’ flesh and skeleton enticed me. It made me want to learn more about her cooking experience and repertoire of ingredients. Each evening thereafter I would watch her carefully and with her hand on my shoulder (the other always busy spicing, skinning, or skimming) she would lead me into her private domain – the kitchen. She taught me culinary techniques I had never heard of and called me her “little chef”. I felt honored.
One particularly memorable evening, I stood by her side and helped as she prepared a mango glaze to accompany jerk chicken. I watched intently as she blended chicken fat collected from the bottom of a roasting pan, along with sweet diced mango and savory jerk seasoning (a blend of dried thyme, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, garlic, and more). Made with love, the sweet and spicy mango glaze smelled like the islands with wafts of cumin, nutmeg and tropical fruit, and looked like a bright orange sunset. I fell in love with the aromatic world that was Carmen’s kitchen.
Before I left Jamaica, Carmen gave me her address and an array of regional spices to take home, requesting that I send her a copy of my own favorite recipe. Since she had never heard of cheesecake, I sent my favorite recipe for it.
Since returning home, my experiences in Carmen’s kitchen have marinated in my mind. I have realized that real kitchen magic doesn’t have to occur in a three star restaurant. It can take place in the modest kitchen of a home cook.
It’s My Party and I’ll have My Cake
Every time I feel the winter begin to thaw, I begin to think about my birthday, which, in my family, means I start to design my birthday cake. The deadline for the design is weeks before my actual birthday in order to give Bennison’s Bakery (where my mom always orders our cakes from) in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, enough time to transform my two dimensional drawing into an edible masterpiece. Along with the physical design, I submit a detailed verbal description to my mother, to make sure there is no confusion; but that doesn’t always work. The year I turned six, I wanted a wedding cake. I told my mother I wanted a “layered cake” and sketched a design with beautiful white flowers. But what arrived in front of me on my big day was flat. I began to tear. What I had confused with layers, were tiers.
For my most recent cake design, I was inspired while admiring a variety of colored roses at a corner grocery. When I sat down to design it, vibrant colors – purples, pinks, yellows, blues, and oranges – poured from the felt tips of my markers. I had drawn the perfect picture of spring – invoking the tone of my early June birthday with shapes of beautiful flowers. When the much awaited birthday cake moment finally arrived, I sat at the head of our dining room table. Nervous with anticipation, I held my breath. The lights dimmed and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I silently prayed that it wouldn’t be another sixth birthday fiasco. My family began to sing as the candle-covered cake appeared across the room…Beautiful! I couldn’t have been more thrilled with what my original design had become – the cake whispered perfection. Each flower looked as though it had been picked directly from nature. I blew out my candles and made a wish. I took my first bite and the cake melted exquisitely in my mouth…delicious.