The day after Sam and I return home, I have an overwhelming urge to cook. Drew suggests that we just throw some hot dogs on the grill and call it dinner, but the idea—usually welcome on hot summer days—sounds appalling. No, I want real food. Real, homemade, not-from-a-box, not processed, not cooked by someone else food.
Maybe it’s because Sam and I spent the previous week away from home in Maine, staying with my parents in their small apartment. I was making my once-a-month appearance at my remote office and Sam was at camp. We returned home every evening to my parents’ cooking: soups, crepes, stews, rice, potatoes, grilled vegetables and chicken, an apple cake baked in a large, cast-iron skillet. They both still work; this was not their way of spoiling their daughter and grandson because they didn’t have anything better to do with their day. No. This is the way you do things. This is how you feed a family.
My mom is not one of those super-pushy “eat, eat, eat!” kinds of people, but still—every meal has at least two courses. There’s always soup, even in the heat of summer. There’s always a main course and dessert. Cooking is a serious activity for them—sometimes my mom stays home from the beach or wherever we plan to go on the weekend, because “someone has to make lunch.” After my dad sips his afternoon coffee, he usually slips off to the kitchen to prepare the chicken for that night’s dinner, to peel potatoes, to boil water. We are still in the haze of breakfast and lunch when dinner begins to loom over us. When we leave, the smell of onions and paprika linger in our hair and clothes for days.
As soon as Sam and Drew head to the pool, I take out the ingredients from the fridge: a pork loin, cucumber, vinegar, onions. I start with the cucumber—peel it, wash it, and slice it thin on the mandolin my parents bought for me when I moved into my first apartment. I salt the thin slices to soften them and leave them in a bowl while I slice the pork loin.
I cut off some of the fat—but who are we kidding? The fat is delicious. So I leave some on and cut slices, then thin strips. Handling raw meat has always been one of my favorite kitchen tasks, even as a child. When my mom made meatloaf she’d let me mix the ground pork, eggs, and spices with my bare hands, my fingers going numb from the cold ingredients.
I heat up a pan while I chop an onion, sautéing it for a few minutes until it’s fragrant and translucent. I add the pork, a teaspoon or two of pepper, salt, a teaspoon of paprika—brought from Hungary in my suitcase. It sits in a small plastic bag now and when I open the tight knot holding the baggie closed, the smoky essence of the spice fills my nostrils. The color is like nothing you can find in a store—brown-red, bright, and deep.
I am not making a fancy meal—peppered pork, my mom’s recipe—but it’s enough to settle me back in my kitchen, in my home, in the routine. I make the dressing for the cucumber salad—a water, vinegar, sugar mixture. As a child it was always my job to make this for Sunday lunches and I remember that it always took forever for the sugar to melt in the cold water. I don’t know what it is about this American sugar—it’s probably finer—but it melts almost right away. I add the vinegar, then taste, then add some more sugar, stir, taste again, add vinegar, stir, taste. It goes like this until I find just the right balance of sweet and tangy. I squeeze the thin cucumber slices into the liquid, the salty juice stinging my skin. A drizzle of olive oil. A sprinkle of paprika and pepper. Fridge.
Yussef’s kitchen is a narrow, small space with a window on one end and the door on the other. He lives in this apartment in Budapest alone and after lengthy negotiations with my parents—I am 17, he is 23—I am allowed to visit him for the first time. He meets me at the metro stop near his place and we walk together in the rain.
We spend most of the afternoon in that kitchen. I sit by the small table as he makes me tabbouleh and shish kebob and shows me how to remove the tiny feathers on the chicken’s skin by holding it over the stove’s open flame. He tells me about his brother and his parents. He is wearing a pink shirt—it’s the first time I see a man in pink and I think he is the most gorgeous thing ever with his dark skin and dark eyes and hair. We talk to each other in English and he has that delicious, musical Arabic accent that makes me swoon even before we get to dessert.
Months later, in another apartment he now shares with a classmate, we sit in bed and he shows me how to peel oranges as he tells me about his family’s orange groves. Apparently, I’ve been doing it wrong all along. He teaches me how to say “habibi” and I say it to him over and over and over again as I climb in his lap and we fall over laughing. He takes me to the best falafel place in Budapest—a tiny storefront near his university. He orders for me and we eat on the bench just outside the store, the thin yogurt sauce dripping off our fingers. When I try to go back years later to find the place, it’s gone, as if it never existed.
My mom thinks that he is trying to fatten me up with the dinners and huge bars of chocolates and marzipan he gives me as gifts. It’s entirely possible that she is right, but I just want to consume everything he has to offer.