Rory roams the playground wearing a green polo-style dress, purple sandals, and a white paper bag on her head. She stole the paper bag from the doughnut section in the town’s grocery store. Ruth, a tall, white-haired clerk who always calls me ‘kid,’ eyed the bag in Rory’s tiny hands. I think Ruth wondered if Rory was stealing donuts. But then Rory, with great panache and immaculate timing, loosened the bag’s creases and popped the bag on top of her head. “Rory, you look just like a chef,” I said and Rory smiled.
We come to the playground after Rory’s grocery store performance. Rory is in full chef mode when we arrive. She starts taking “orders” from the others at the playground as she wanders through the grass and sand. “I am Chef Rory,” she says. “May I take your order?” The bag slips jauntily against her silken golden hair, forcing her to keep pushing it out of her eyes.
“Egg soup?” she says to a confused toddler by the short slides. “Calamari?” she asks a freckled boy by the water fountain. “I am an excellent cook-ah,” she pronounces, which is helpful because everyone needs to show credentials in life. Once she has taken the orders of everyone at the playground, she marches towards the bench where I’m sitting, sits down next to me on the bench (plops, really), taps my shoulder – I am reading a book – and asks, “And what can I make for you, lovely lady?”
Rory is the byproduct of my not-so-small obsession with cooking and food writing. “Can I help you cook, mommy? Let me go get my stool!” Before I can answer, she runs to the bathroom, picks up a large blue plastic stool, and places it on the floor near where I’m working. She climbs the stool, peers up at me expectantly. I can feel the heat of her skin against mine. “So, what are we cookin’, mom?” she asks. At age four, there’s not much she can actually help me with in the kitchen, but I try to include her in the process of making meals: she does a lot of stirring, dumping, and taste-testing. I didn’t discover my passion for cooking until well after college; I don’t remember ever helping my mother make a meal in my youth. It might have been a space issue –kitchens in New York City apartments tend to be small – or perhaps it just wasn’t something mom thought to do, because she learned to cook for herself at age 14 while enrolled at one of the Ukraine’s then-ubiquitous polytechnical colleges. I obviously didn’t think to ask.
It’s important to me that I let Rory participate in the kitchen. Thus far, she loves food, so it only seems logical that she gains insight about its production and maybe accumulates some serviceable skills in the process. As we work, I think about the moment in the hospitalwhen the midwife placed Rory, still coated with afterbirth and blood, onto my chest and something inside me flooded with joy. I remember how dark her hair was, how she gradually wore away a long horizontal patch on the back of her head while sleeping in her crib; I remember blearily breast-feeding her, sitting in the sturdy rocking chair in the middle of the night. I look at her now, all bird legs and wild hair, and think, God, she’s growing so fast! And then I pretend that I’m crying because I’m chopping onions.
Today at the playground I order Elizabeth David’s ensalada from Chef Rory; I have been craving it ever since I read her collected essays in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Rory’s golden green eyes widen and she says, “En-saw-whatta?”
“It’s a simple salad with tomato wedges, raw onions, salt, olive oil, and vinegar,” I say.
“Ohhhh,” she says, her head bobbling underneath the white bag. “Now I get it! I wove tomatoes!” She takes a few steps away from me, then stops and turns. “You got it, Toots,” she adds, her hands cupped against her lips, suppressing a giggle. When we go home, we make ensalada for lunch.