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A Spicy Palette

Once upon a time, my kitchen was beige.

Not literally – it’s been painted antique white, cantaloupe orange, and palest blue, but never beige. No – it was the food itself that lacked color. The palette of my palate was beige.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know how to cook. Meal prep involved either a drive-thru window or a can opener, with a bag of microwave popcorn on the side. Life was bland – well-salted and shelf stable – but bland.

This is the story of how my kitchen changed, from bland and beige, to spicy and colorful.

It all began when I met the man of my dreams – a tall, red-headed construction worker who made me laugh and liked to read. We made plans: we’d marry and have kids; I’d stay home while they were young. Life would be perfect. But first, I needed to learn how to cook (in fairness, my husband already knew how to cook – it’s how he romanced me).

I started with meals from my childhood – “cream of” casseroles, (undercooked) bean soup with cornbread, soggy fried pork chops, big pots of collards, and mashed potatoes with gravy. The first time both the potatoes and the gravy were lump-free, I thought I can cook!

But the recipe I most wanted to make was my great-grandmother’s anchovy pizza.

My great-grandmother was from Sicily. My dad says that when he was a child, she had a pizza drawer in her kitchen. The grandkids would come over, open the drawer, and ta-da! Pizza! It was probably the warming compartment of an old stove, but still – a pizza drawer. It’s the stuff that childhood fantasies are made of; I’d always wanted to make that pizza.

So, I drove to Maryland, to visit my grandmother and learn about yeast dough. She made pizza like her mother did – kneading the dough, letting it rise, then dividing it into two rectangular pans. She pushed anchovies into the dough and smeared their oil on top – followed by tomato sauce, parmesan, and basil.

After the first successful pizza (I added pepperoni, mozzarella, and spinach), I thought now I can really cook. I moved on to grandma’s yeast rolls, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, manicotti, and layered bell pepper casserole. I’d discovered basil, oregano, olive oil, and, of course, anchovies. I’d discovered slow-simmered tomato sauces; my kitchen was the colors of an Italian flag.

Until my step-sister married an Indian man. My husband and I came to visit, and she made butter chicken for dinner. It was a flavor revelation. Sure, I was pregnant and eating for twenty at the time, but it was also just that good. I begged her to teach me, and she did.

It was a whole new world of flavor – did you know there’s more than one kind of curry powder? Indian cooking painted my kitchen yellow, green, and rosewood red. It’s not just curry, either – there are other spice blends just as complex and impossible to live without, like garam masala. It’s in rajma, the Indian version of red beans and rice; you’ll also find it sprinkled on my bowl of popcorn.

My step-sister opened my eyes to flatbreads, too – they’re so quick to make, you can throw them together in less than thirty minutes and cook them to order on the stovetop. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew about flatbreads.

Now I had it all – Southern, Italian, and Indian cuisine. My kitchen was complete. Until my dad married a lovely lady from Nigeria.

The first time she cooked for me, she prepared a stew that made me want to marry her, too. She’s made it many times since, varying the meat – sometimes it’s fish, sometimes it’s chicken gizzards, beef ribs, or turkey necks. Sometimes, I don’t ask. She serves that stew with fried plantains, jollof rice, and black-eyed peas pureed with coconut milk. She encourages me to take a second helping, a third, a fourth, to take some home for later. From my stepmother, I learned to always make enough extra to send home with guests.

She also taught me to blend my own seasoning pastes with fresh ingredients. The pastes are poured into a pan of hot oil to pop and simmer. The scents of ginger, garlic, and onion fill my once-bland kitchen. Their colors are pale yellow, turning to golden brown and bubbly.

My kitchen is no longer beige – it’s a colorful melting pot of spices, recipes, and family. I’ve learned to cook, I’ve learned to listen, and I’ve learned that food brings us together. That education has been delicious.


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