Tender Parmesan

My first memories of the power and pull of cooking were born in my grandmother’s kitchen.

I’m not sure if it’s partly or wholly genetic, if it seeped into my blood and hands osmosisically, or if it has anything at all to even to do with nature, nurther, or neither. But I remember that kitchen and all of the food that came out of it. I remember big family meals, and smaller, quieter ones on weeknights. On nights I got to sleep over, I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of pancakes sizzling in the pan. On many an evening, I was lifted in my grandma’s arms just high enough so I could stir the sauce, and on summer Saturdays, it was to reach a strawberry from the army of flats waiting to be jammified.

But the significant days–the days whose tiny hands reached out to me and wrapped their fingers around my heart– were Sundays. For most of my childhood, Sundays were spent at my grandparents house “for dinner,” which was an all-day affair. Spoiler alert: we’re Italian.

My mom’s whole extended family moved from New York to Southern California when she was a teenager, so while born and raised just outside of L.A., I grew up in a sort of sunny version of Little Italy. My grandfather was a meticulous gardener, and I don’t know the history of how they landed their great little house, but it was small on dwelling and huge on yard. The lot was enormous, and it was filled with fruit trees. In the summer, when the trees were heavy with apricots, peaches, and plums, all the cousins climbed up inside them, and for hours and hours, we picked fruit.

Those fruit-picking days were great, and you could almost always find a game of croquet or Yahtzee happening; but for me, all the action was in the kitchen. Like I said, the house was small, and thinking back to those days, I can’t believe the meals my grandmother produced from that tiny space. The kitchen wasn’t a galley exactly, but there wasn’t room for more than one person at the stove, and the refrigerator was in its own little alcove, through a little doorway, on the way  to the backdoor. There was room for one to move between the sink and the stove, and across the room, in another little alcove, there was a small round table covered in a lace tablecloth, which was my grandfather’s grating station. There was no room to stand and loiter, and my grandparents, while incredibly warm and kind, were pretty much all business. And food was no exception. Cooking and eating were a serious endeavor. There was no hanging around in the kitchen shooting the shit, and I don’t remember anyone ever in there “helping.” My grandma was some kind of lone wolf cooking machine, now that I think about it.

But while there was no standing room, there was  a small stool–one of those old fashioned kinds with the slide out step underneath–right next to the stove, filling up exactly the eighteen-ish inches there was between the stove and the doorway. That was my favorite spot in the house. And if I was quiet and behaved like a little lady as opposed to an ill-behaved wild animal, I got to sit there. Mostly I watched, but I think my grandma knew how much I loved being in there, because whenever she could, she gave me little jobs. Sometimes that meant occupying the grating station to chop carrots or put olives in a bowl, and sometimes–more often than not–it entailed watching the sauce, and, when needed, giving it a little stir. When I got old enough, I was the designated pasta taster, testing for doneness, and as I grew through the years in that kitchen, the one constant was being invited into my grandpa’s lap to help with the cheese grating.

My grandparents didn’t have a lot of money, and I have no idea if they ever splurged on a single thing in their whole lives. But one thing they didn’t scrimp on was parmesan. It was perfect in every way. Just the right amount of dryness, nutty, light as fresh fallen snow when grated, with just the faintest sheen of oil on the outside of the block. My grandfather used a box grater with a plate underneath, and when he was usually about halfway done, he’d invite me off of my perch to come help him. What it really was was an excuse to let me eat the chunky bits that fell off the grater, but those afternoons grating cheese with my grandfather are the closest I’ve ever gotten to cognizant transcendence and pure joy. No matter what was going in my little child heart and head, all my pain went away in those moments. With every grate, the cheese fell to shards on the plate, and in return, I was made whole.

I’m old(er) now, and my grandparents are long since gone. I’m not sure how or when it started, but over and through the years I have built and found my heart beating right in the center of my own kitchen. Food equaled love for me long before I was old or smart enough to realize it. It wasn’t obvious or forced upon me, and I was never made to feel it was a debt to be repaid. It was an act of complete selflessness and the essence of pure generosity.

I know now, looking back on all the dinners, that while words have come up lacking more often than not, a hot bowl of polenta never has. I’ve said I Love You to many friends with braised short ribs on a rain-soaked night, and I’ve gotten to have my own family in my own kitchen, with a simmering pot of sauce on the stove. My kitchen’s a little but not much bigger than my grandparents’, and unlike theirs, it’s often full of people milling around and shooting the shit with drinks in their hands.

And as I look around my little kitchen space that I got to design just how I wanted it, I see that without even realizing it, I built into it, off to the side at the far end, in a little alcove, my very own grating station.


The root canal

I hate the dentist.

It’s not because I’m a coward or a chicken. I’m strong LIKE a girl (that’s right, not FOR a girl; I know what’s viral), and I can withstand a high level of pain. I’m no pussy. But when it comes to the dentist, I am basically a big fat baby. Everything the dentist does hurts. Spraying “air” on my teeth? I’d rather break a bone. “Tapping” with that pointy picky instrument of destruction at my gums? Torture. That new shooting water thing they use to clean your teeth that is like a high-powered stream of liquid nitrogen? Excruciating.

My teeth are sensitive to air, liquid, hot, cold, temperate; chewing anything crunchy, soft, hard, or medium; and to any level of touching. Breathing with my mouth open hurts (thankfully). Aside from causing my heart to race and sweat to drain from every pore of my body at the speed of breaking the sound barrier, novocaine does little except dull the pain for about six and a half seconds. There are spots in my mouth that, when touched, make me feel like I’m being electrocuted. I’ve asked every dentist I’ve ever had to replace my teeth with titanium studs, and I’m not joking. Sadly, none have agreed.

The unfortunate part of all of this is that I have shit teeth. I’m pretty sure every tooth in my head was filled by the time I could spell, and to date I’ve had two root canals and just about every molar is crowned. I’ve had each quadrant (dentist speak, yo) redone, which means old fillings excavated and new ones put in, at least four times. You’d think I’ve paid my dues. And yet, those little bastard remnants rot and die. I also grew up with a sadistic dentist who literally tortured me (so: MEMORIES. TRAUMA.), but that’s a whole nuther motha, people. Not happening today.

Anyway, a couple of months ago I started having the kind of pain you get in a tooth where you know  you are being sent a signal from some deep primitive place in your cells that you don’t want to hear from. The pain critter that is like a physical manifestation of morse code for “something bad is on the horizon.” It starts out worse than the normal everyday live-with-it pain, and it builds. First it hurts more than usual when cold things hit it, and then it bleeds into warm and hot things, and then throbbing happens. And then, you can’t sleep.

When I get this type of tooth pain I go into a state of denial that I should like to bottle and sell. I can deny the shit out this tooth pain and convince myself that this pain isn’t really that bad. And, it’s probably going to GO AWAY. Hahahahahahahaha!!!!

Over the course of the next ten days I proceeded to behave like a normal person. I ingested all the pain pills I had in the house from every surgery I’d ever incurred, and somehow managed to not die. Next, I  broke down and went to see the dentist, who prescribed a course of antibiotics, which I made my way through with the help of my friend Mr. Makers. Moaning and more sleepless nights happened, but no pain cessation. Finally, I called the endodontist.

By the time I arrived at the office of the endodontist, I was a little worked. I was in so much pain at this point that my brain was bubbling. I didn’t look very, um, fresh, let’s just say. And also, I was already sweating cuz dentistry was about to happen. The very nice dental assistant sweetly ignored my visage, showed me in, the doctor came in and examined me, and we all agreed that the best course of action was to go ahead and do the root canal that second.

I crazily turned to the nice lady and said, “YOU HAVE TO GAS ME!” She looked at me like I was some kind of wild animal. “Nitrous,” I managed. I think clarifying that I wasn’t asking her to kill me calmed her down, and she helped me understand that yes, they had the nitrous, and that yes, she would give it to me. The doctor then proceeded with the things: sunglasses, iPod+ headphones, tilting me back in the chair, and shooting me up.

As soon as the novocaine hit my bloodstream, I basically turned into this:


Dentist: Whoa there, how are you doing?

Me: I’m really hot.

Dentist: I can see that. How bout we clear out of here for a little bit and let you get some air while that novocaine does its job?

With that, he turned tail. The nurse set up THE TRAY, hooked me up to the nitrous, and she was right behind him.

Me: loooong yoga breaths. Cold but hot too. Sweating, sweating, sweating.

And then one of the nitrous delivery tubes sprang from it’s connector location and started flying around the room. I panicked and tried to grab it but it was like a chicken wing springing free. I hit the tray with the instruments, and sent them flying. Then the other nitrous tube flew out. Room filling up with nitrous, dentist tray with all those instruments all lined up in rows crashing to the floor. Loud and quiet and fast and slow. And now very, very, very sweaty.

The nice nurse ran in to address the commotion, and said only, “Oh my,” and then shut the door. “You don’t want us on the nitrous too, do you?! Though, that might be fun!” Then she went to work like a squirrel in the fourth dimension. Nitrous off; tubes reconnected; then back on; instruments off floor and whisked into some re-clean-later chamber; new tray out, replete with proper rows. Door open.

An hour later I was on my way and completely out of pain. I vowed to thank them by choosing a new endodontist next time. Cuz I know there’ll be a next time. Because at the end of the day I know that this root canal is how it’s going to be; how its always been. The pain comes in waves, small at first, and then big enough to knock you over and drag you out to sea. And if you’re lucky and strong enough, and most importantly, interested enough, you fight your way back to the shore. Maybe you even pause a few times along the way, rest in the sea’s arms, lie back, look up, take note of how weird and hard it is to be human and alive. Then, when you’re ready, gathering up the strength you can and swimming back.