The Gift of Food

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 11/20/19

I was 22 years old, living in a one room studio apartment in Greenwich Village, and unemployed. My kitchen was comprised of miniature versions of appliances that fit snugly against a small wall. The fridge, which was under the counter, had a solid metal door, leaving precious little room for necessities like condiments, milk and cheese. It had a tiny space for two ice cube trays; that was my freezer. 

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The Gift of Food

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I was 22 years old, living in a one room studio apartment in Greenwich Village, and unemployed. My kitchen was comprised of miniature versions of appliances that fit snugly against a small wall. The fridge, which was under the counter, had a solid metal door, leaving precious little room for necessities like condiments, milk and cheese. It had a tiny space for two ice cube trays; that was my freezer. 

One day I went to the supermarket and bought a package of soup greens and a few other vegetables and returned to my apartment to make a pot of curried split pea soup. I walked around the corner later that afternoon and brought a bowl of soup to the day bartender and a patron friend at the Kettle of Fish Bar, my local hangout. The gesture (and the soup) were met with such enthusiasm that I cooked and shared mushroom barley soup the following day.

A few weeks later, still without a job, I offered to cook stuffed mushrooms, crabs, and spaghetti for the owners of the Kettle, where they had a small kitchen space. Before I knew what was what, one of the proprietors had taken the liberty of inviting more than half a dozen regular bar customers. I ended up ditching the crabs for chicken and nervously prepared food for 10 people.

A few years earlier in my dorm room at the University of New Paltz, I knelt in front of a hot plate upon which sat a pot of hot oil. I painstakingly sliced potatoes paper thin, then rubbed each one on both sides with curry powder. I dropped a few at a time into the bubbling oil, and soon they morphed into potato chips. As I worked, I scooped the crispy, cooked chips into a paper-towel-lined bowl. Dorm mates walked by and invariably I offered a small handful of my exotic chips. As the last few orange-red potato slices sizzled in the pot, my roommate came in. She devoured the remaining chips after they’d drained. It was then I realized I had none left for myself.

When my dad was confined not only to a nursing home, but to a clunky wheelchair as well, my sister, Janet, and I visited him twice a week. There were many rules: No refrigerators in the resident’s rooms and food could only be brought in if the visitor watched the family member consume it. I had to try to time bringing my dad some good dishes (in sharp contrast to the atrocious institutional food) at just the right moment when I thought he’d be in the dining hall. More than once, on Thanksgiving Day, I brought a mini version of the traditional meal, with all the fixings, for my dad and his table mate, Vincenza. One year my dad announced, “I don’t really like turkey,” and another, “I’m not much for green beans.” Yet, he kissed me profusely and thanked me for my efforts. 

When Jerry, a dear friend and patron of the Kettle of Fish where I was, by then, bartending, decided to throw himself a 50 birthday party in his brownstone in Park Slope, he asked me if I would help him. We began making a list of people with whom he wanted to share the experience. Like my boss Peter all those years before, Jerry began to invite everyone who walked into, or by, the doors of the Kettle. Eventually, when the list exceeded 50 and I realized I would not so much be aiding Jerry as preparing most of the food myself, I gently put my foot down and called for a suspension of invitations.

 In the following weeks, I went to a party supply store in faraway Brooklyn to help Jerry pick out good-quality plates and cutlery; made lists of which platters we would use from his home’s arsenal; worked on the extensive menu; and cooked and froze some of the dishes I could easily make in advance. The day of the open-house, I spent the entire seven hours in Jerry’s tiny kitchenette, making sure the buffet table was stocked and peering into the living room where my dear friend was surrounded by well-wishers, coworkers and some questionable guests alike. My gift to him that day was preparing the food for the party. He subsequently told me it was the best day of his life.  

I have cooked for boyfriends; a husband of six years; friends and relatives. For the past three years, I have prepared food for Janet three times a day, serving both of us something like 3,000 meals that (I hope) are tasty, innovative and interesting. There is a feeling I get when giving others the gift of food. Food is not just sustenance. It is the bringing together of people to nourish not just their bodies, but their hearts and souls. 

Curried Split Pea Soup

Serves 4

1 1/2 cup green split peas
7 cups water, vegetable or chicken broth
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped into small cubes roughly the same size as carrots and celery
1 medium red or white onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (preferably ancho)
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons Worchester sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Sour cream or yogurt for garnish (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, onion and sweet potato and sauté, stirring, until vegetables soften, about five minutes. Add the garlic and all the spices, except the salt, and sauté for one minute. Add the split peas, water (or broth), soy sauce and Worchester sauce. Bring mixture to a boil, then immediately lower heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water or broth if soup is getting too thick, though the soup is more like a porridge and is meant to be thick. Just before serving, season with salt and add cilantro. Ladle into bowls and add a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, if you like.

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