Authors: Christina Baker Kline
The Way Life Should Be
Christina Baker Kline
To the memory of my own grandmothers,
Ethel Seay Baker and Christina Curtis Looper,
who knew all the secrets
Invariable repetition causes the excessive prolongation
of a settled condition: therefore, says the poet,
change is in all things sweet.
book 1, chapter 11
My grandmother is stirring the soup. “It’s almost ready,” she says
without turning around. “You want some?”
It’s a Thursday night and I’m in New Jersey visiting my father and stepmother and grandmother. I usually take the half-hour bus ride from New York City to Nutley every week, but I haven’t been here once in the past month. I call on Sundays, but none of them is much for the telephone. My father and stepmother don’t like to chat, and Nonna frets about my phone bill, no matter how many times I tell her my cell phone is free all weekend.
“Sure,” I say. “What are you making?”
“Stracciatella alla Romana,”
she says. “But this is only stock. I haven’t added the rest yet.”
When I was young, my father used to take the family out to dinner once a week. After my grandfather died and my mother ran off with her gynecologist—the same year, when I was nine—my grandmother moved in with us, and she scoffed at this habit. Mediocre restaurant food, she declared, was soul destroying. “In the same amount of time it takes to go to a
I could mash nice plum tomatoes with a little garlic in some good olive oil and have a fine, simple meal. Why waste time and money on food that is no good?
Non lo gradisco.
I will not do it!”
In Nonna’s kitchen, life was pared down to its simplest ele
ments: flour, yeast in water, an egg. I loved coming home to a warm kitchen, the windows steamed from baking, the presence of a woman who didn’t seem to wish she was elsewhere. I was grateful to her for taking care of us. She sewed buttons on my father’s shirts; grew herbs in the yard; baked
, spicy cookies, in the afternoons. I’d stand by the stove and watch her make tiny meatballs, the size of large marbles, and plump gnocchi from scratch. As soon as I was old enough to wield a knife, I began to help her—as I’d never helped my mother, who didn’t teach me anything about food, who equated cooking with indentured servitude—by chopping vegetables. “
. Slice it thin,” Nonna would say, handing me a garlic clove. “Like a fingernail.”
I learned the importance of the
the first step in many Italian dishes, a foundation of flavor: Put olive oil or butter in the bottom of the pan and add finely chopped onion. Cook it slowly, stirring often, then add a sprinkle of fresh garlic, which will turn a pale gold. The next step,
or “to bestow taste,” involves adding parsley, celery, carrots, possibly some ground meat. If the
is not cooked precisely, the flavor of the dish will be compromised. The onions must be sautéed until they are translucent. The garlic must not be allowed to burn.
” Nonna told me one steamy August evening before I left for college. The gift. A light touch, an instinctive ability to substitute and improvise. I knew I had it—it was one of the few things I was certain I did well. Though hopeless at chemistry in the classroom, I intuitively understood the alchemy of cooking. Once I learned the basics, the
I was on my way.
Nonna is eighty-eight now, and she moves slowly. Yet despite all the changes of the past fifteen years—I moved to New York; my brother settled in Westchester; my mother died and my fa
ther remarried—Nonna continues to rule the kitchen. More often than not, my father goes to the store to pick up ingredients for her after she dictates a list. She stands at the counter making dinner and listening to the radio, her hands trembling as she minces the onions and the garlic. When she has finished everything she needs to do, she sits at the table staring out the kitchen window at the driveway, her hands in her lap.
“So how do you make
?” I ask. I know how to make it; she has told me before. But I want her to tell me again. Nonna doesn’t use recipes; she cooks by feel, by touch and taste and sight. She takes out the spinach, the eggs, the pecorino romano cheese, and instructs me to add a handful, a sprinkle,
una punta piccola,
a little pinch, just enough.
In my other life, in New York City, I am Angela Russo, Italian-Irish-American, not too much of any one thing. I don’t conceal my Italian heritage, but I don’t make a lot of it, either. It is hidden in plain sight. But in Nonna’s kitchen I am an Italian girl, just as she used to be, learning to cook from her grandmother, who knows all the secrets.
After college I wanted to apply to culinary school, but my father,
who is an accountant, objected. “Cooking isn’t a real job,” he said.
“Too much hard work,” my stepmother chimed in. “Terrible hours. Take my advice, Angela: Get a normal job where you can leave at five. You’ll thank me when you have children.”
“Nonsense. Carpe diem!” my mother exclaimed long-distance, but I wasn’t inclined to take her advice. When she ran off with Murray Singer, she didn’t just leave my father, she abandoned my brother and me. I overheard the arguments before she left—she needed a clean break, she wasn’t emotionally equipped to deal with needy children, my father had always been the better parent anyway. She and Murray moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, and I only saw her three times before, in my midtwenties, she was killed in a car accident. My brother and I flew out to the funeral, but it was hard to feel much for a woman who had written us out of her life fifteen years earlier, when we needed her most.
So after college I moved to New York City with Lindsay, my best friend from high school. We rented an apartment near the river on the Upper East Side and did temp work at consulting firms while looking for normal jobs where we could leave at five.
I cast a wide net for positions available to liberal arts majors with no discernible skills except the ability to make lists, follow directions, and look fairly presentable. As in a game of musical chairs, the music stopped at event planning, and I sat down.
For the past five years I’ve been planning events at the Huntsworth Museum, a modish showcase for contemporary art in lower Manhattan. While I like some things about my job—the long-term planning combined with last-minute urgencies, the immediate gratification of momentary accomplishment, the blinking red light on my phone and the jaunty sherbet pop-up Post-its in a little box on my desk—I also have to admit that it’s no longer much of a challenge. For the first few years the learning curve was steep, but now my days are spent gliding across a smooth plateau of predictability. I can’t erase the nagging sense that there’s something else out there for me, if only I knew which direction to take.
It’s midmorning and I’m sitting at my desk sipping my second cup of coffee, researching novelty circus acts online. My big project at the moment is a black-tie gala four weeks from now, a benefit for a new wing of avant-garde art featuring the works of the French artist Zoë Devereux. Mary Quince, the curator and my boss, has said only that she wants “color, pizzazz, an element of the outrageous.” My idea is to stage an evening that animates figures from Zoë Devereux’s paintings—circus and carnival performers, acrobats and fire-eaters and jugglers.
Mimes, jesters, clowns, you name it, apparently they’re all for hire, à la carte or as a group. I print out a selection of options to discuss with Mary and start e-mailing several of the acts to see if they’re available to perform on September 19. As I’m tapping out an e-mail, my glance strays to the small ad at the bottom right of the screen:
Looking for Your Love Match:
DO SOUL MATES EXIST?
My finger hesitates for a moment over the mouse, and then I click on the tiny blue typeface.
I have found that the biggest moments in life, the ones that change everything, usually catch you by surprise. You might not even recognize them as they happen. Your finger is straying over the mouse and you click on the icon and suddenly you find yourself at the portal of a website—an embarrassingly named website, one that makes you wince: kissandtell.com.
Now why would you ever be drawn to such a place? More important, why would you linger?
A few days ago, during our usual Monday morning check-in, I told Lindsay about the abysmal blind date I’d been on the Saturday night before, and then waited to hear the details of hers.
“Well,” Lindsay said, “it wasn’t, actually.”
“Abysmal. Believe it or not.”
Riffling through the cluttered filing cabinet of my brain, I retrieved a scrap of memory: Lindsay joined an online dating service about a month ago. An amateur photographer took her picture. The resulting image, an off-the-shoulder embarrassment in soft focus, provoked a deluge of responses, mostly from shady guys on Long Island. “Don’t tell me—it’s Hot4U,” I joked.
Lindsay laughed uncomfortably. It was clear she regretted sharing this detail. “Actually, it is,” she said. “But the name is tongue-in-cheek. You know, an ironic commentary on the whole online-dating thing.”
“I see,” I said dubiously.
She sighed. “This guy is so great, Ange. So cute, so nice. So
smart. I don’t know. This is going to sound crazy, but I think maybe I’ve found my soul mate.”
“Are you kidding? It’s—pretty soon to be talking soul mates, isn’t it, Linz?”