A true demigoddess of the kitchen is Mary Vyn, a young woman I've met on only two occasions. The second of these, most happily and improbably, involved her inhabiting my kitchen for two days straight; she'd been asked to make food for a special gathering, and since I'd offered my place as the venue, it was there she arrived with her astonishing bags of ingredients, and her equally astonishing beauty: great height, pink cheeks, and a kind of breathless, swirling calm. I know that sounds like bad writing: how could breathlessness, how could swirliness be calm? But her presence seemed equal parts vigor and serenity. Hers is the calm of a hundred birds all taking to the air at once.
During these two days she filled the kitchen with pots and pans, oils and beans and grains and berries, music and grace and heat, crumbs and puddles and spoons. She invited my children to sample her test batches - yes, she actually made test batches of things in preparation for the party - worked late into the night, and left everything spotless. She spoke of love and camping, travel and books, letter writing and dreams. If I hadn't already begun thinking of cooking as something close to holy, she would have been my road to Damascus.
I came to cooking late, and then more sideways than head-on. Though I am told I loved food as a child (my mother talks about watching me eat; she claims it could take me a full minute to enjoy a single grape, during which time I might alternately lick and bite it, take it out of my mouth to examine it in the sunlight, extract the seeds with the tips of my teeth and chew or spit them out, roll the fruit around on my tongue, pack it in my cheek and juice it against my teeth, and so on), it took my writing a book in which I explored the grim and unhealthy resistance to food I developed in my adulthood to set me back on a path of embracing the act of eating. Now I love to make food, love to touch it with my hands, drink in its colors, coax it into concoctions, serve it to people I love.
I thought about Mary Vyn the other day. She and her business partner make an elixir that contains, among other things, such fantastical-sounding stuff as royal camu, blue manna, and wild propolis. I have not tasted it. The word elixir means a sweet solution with medicinal properties; it also suggests the elixir of life, or, in Arabic, "dancing water," a legendary potion that grants immortality, like the philosopher's stone, or the fountain of youth.
I thought about Mary Vyn and her elixir the other day because my mother called to tell me she'd gone ahead and made the arrangements to donate her body to science. (See The Happy Phantom, May 7, 2007.) After she dies, she'll be a cadaver for medical students. "Mazel tov," I said. I didn't actually say that, but I should have; that would have captured precisely the spirit in which she was telling me and spirit in which I received it. Instead I said something like, "That's big. I feel lucky to have you model this for me." I meant it, too. But as soon as we hung up, I descended into a pit of grouchiness. It was very selfish, very small. I would not elevate the feeling by calling it despondency or sorrow. It was a well of tetchy complaint. And from this place I found myself wishing I could order up a bottle of Mary's elixir and have my mother all better again, have her cured. I wished it to be that simple, that arithmetical. Cancer + elixir = wellness. If the oncologist's cocktail of chemo drugs wasn't the answer, wouldn't this demigoddess, this kitchen sprite, be just the one to come up with the winning solution? A little camu, a little manna, a little wild propolis - mightn't they do the trick?
Yet I knew these thoughts were small. Tiny, mean, tight thoughts, unworthy of my mother's spirit and of her deed. In choosing to make her body useful after she dies, she is choosing a final creative act, a choice of vigor and grace not unlike the vigor and grace of Mary Vyn, weaving her kitchen dances of spice and pith.
Just now, I am thinking of my mother's death. I am imagining that when it comes it will be like the calm rush of a hundred birds rising in flight.