“Cool and Store” by Caitlin Leffel
- Is it clear enough in the piece why the narrator makes the Christmas nuts over and over again, even though she doesn’t really like them?
- Which of the three “matriarchs” is the most appealing? Least appealing? Should any of them be more or less developed as characters?
- This piece is intended to be both meditative and instructive. After reading this, would you try making your own Christmas nuts?
My mother was fanatical about cleanliness and order, and I was not welcome in the kitchen, even when, as a young adult, I expressed interest in learning to cook. Her temperament would have been perfect for a pastry chef, but it was horrible for a teacher: precise, perfectionist, and uncompromising. Some people cook to share love; my mother cooked to maintain control. She also couldn’t enjoy anything if she knew there was a mess behind it, a trait I have inherited. By the time she died, when I was in my early twenties, my culinary repertoire consisted of the great Microwave classics (Amy’s burritos; Lean Cuisine pizzas) and my confidence in the kitchen was nil. So I taught myself to cook by making the same recipe over and over again.
The recipe I chose was not a recipe that was originally my mother’s, or something I particularly like to eat. But when my Aunt Marsha gave me her nut recipe the Christmas after my mother died, it was the only recipe I owned. It turned out to be a good place for me to start. As my earnest, urban father says without irony about his brother’s wife, Aunt Marsha is not an adventurous cook. Nor, I would add, a self-conscious one. She lives in Pittsburgh, doesn’t drink or eat spicy food, and is the only person in whose home I have eaten baked goods sweetened with Equal. Her recipe for Chinese coleslaw calls for uncooked packages of Ramen noodles, six tablespoons of sugar, and not a single spice. The preparation instructions include fewer words than the ingredient list: “Toss ingredients well. Chill.” The nut recipe fits within this precise flavor profile and has a similar unfussy, economical use of language I’ve come to appreciate in my cooking. It fits on a single index card, contains no ingredient more exotic than pecans, and consists of only seven steps, including heating the oven. The last step is “cool and store.”
My mother and Aunt Marsha were not blood relatives and had very different tastes in clothing, manner, and food. The nuts are the only things I can think of that they had in common. The first time I remember my mother making them was for a New Year’s party, around 1990 or 1991. Because the recipe came from my aunt, we called them “Marsha’s nuts,” which is exactly the kind of name that will make an eleven-year-old giggle when she thinks of a prim, grown-up family member. When I started making the nuts, people called them “crack nuts,” but even though I liked what the name implied—that something I made was good enough to be addictive—it didn’t encompass the most significant characteristic of these nuts to me: that they were seasonal. A treat with a purpose. Now I call them “Christmas nuts,” which, though we are not very close, I imagine Aunt Marsha might object to—she’s Jewish. I don’t think my mother would mind this name, but I can’t imagine her saying anything to me about the nuts besides telling me not to get sugar all over the place.
It’s pretty hard to mess this recipe up. You don’t need to turn on a burner or take out a knife. You could burn the nuts in the oven, but any idiot with a Microwave can prevent this by checking on them at fifteen-minute intervals. (No need for a special kitchen timer!) Checking the nuts, incidentally, is step six of the recipe. Two of the five ingredients are things that you really are likely to have in your home, even if you never cook (salt and sugar). Two are things that are probably available within a quarter mile of your home, no matter where you live (eggs, butter). Only the pecans require a dedicated shopping trip, but if you only have one ingredient on your shopping list, it is relatively easy to avert disaster, so long as you note the quantity required. The first year I made the nuts, I spent half an hour in the grocery store trying to decide whether to buy salted butter or unsalted. (Verdict: it doesn’t really matter for this recipe.) When I realized I had forgotten to note the quantity of pecans needed (one pound), I had to return home to check the recipe. Like many inexperienced cooks, I thought recipes were rules, and I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t follow them. Around year three, I started doubling the salt to what I thought was one tablespoon. This year, I learned that a lowercase “t” means teaspoon, so in fact, by adding a full tablespoon, I’d actually been tripling the salt. So now I just add a tablespoon and don’t bother with the math. If the batter tastes too salty, I add more sugar.
Don’t be scared by the butter. Put an entire stick in the roasting pan, then warm it in the oven. The first time I made the nuts, I felt like I was learning a dirty—if not very well-kept—secret about cooking. My mother used to say that she could solve any problem by throwing money at it. Now, I solve problems in the kitchen by throwing butter at them.
Neither my brother nor I would touch the nuts when we were kids. We had strict definitions in our heads of “kid food” and “grown-up food,” and the nuts, even though they’re sweet with an almost maple-like taste, have a gravelly texture and brownish color that put them in the latter category. Though I still don’t care much for pecans, I’m always excited to taste a few from each batch I make. In the five years since my mother died, I’ve become more independent in many ways, and now that I cook, I’m not afraid of things I think I don’t like. When I try something homemade, I’m more interested in choices the cooks make than whether I prefer the flavors. I tried to explain this to my other aunt, Aunt Judy, the last time I visited her in California. “I can’t believe you make things that you don’t like to eat,” she said. Aunt Judy is my mother’s sister. She drinks, is childless and unmarried, and loves spicy food. She is different than Aunt Marsha, but also different than my mother. In the kitchen, I often feel these three matriarchs surround me in an imperfect shape, like the rough circles I get when I roll out dough. (A filled water bottle, incidentally, makes a pretty good substitute for a rolling pin.)
As we talked, we were making a salad of roasted pumpkin and shallots from a recipe I found, adapting it to the ingredients my aunt had in her kitchen. Instead of cilantro, we used fresh thyme from her garden. We were too lazy to mash anything for the sunflower seed pesto, so we made vinaigrette and threw a few salted pepitos on at the end. We had fun. We had a mess. Neither of us had seconds. To be honest, the pepitos were a little weird. I don’t love seeds either. Maybe they’d be better with butter.
© 2011 by Caitlin Leffel
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- 04/08/2011 / 3:12 pm
- Creative Nonfiction