Experimenting in the kitchen has been one of my hobbies since I was a little kiddo. It all started with an Easy Bake Oven, progressed to children’s cookbooks and eventually to recipes from the newspaper and real cookbooks. While my parents and grandma seemed to enjoy my concoctions, my mom was less than thrilled with my impact on the grocery budget. Our collection of spices grew, but, alas, many of the little jars were used only once, hardly justifying the expense.
Over the years, I had fun experimenting in the kitchen, but I didn’t have a real culinary mentor. I learned from cookbooks. If one cookbook called for a can of cream of mushroom soup, and another required a roux, I didn’t really appreciate the difference. Then, in my late twenties, I found myself on a plane, flying to San Diego, to manage the monastery kitchen for a community of Benedictine nuns. (It’s a long story that I won’t delve into just now.)
Sure, I liked to cook and putter around in the kitchen, but feeding 30 nuns three meals a day was daunting. By definition, monks’ lives aren’t exactly filled with sensual pleasures. Their days stretch out in silence, solitude, self-denial. The pleasures of the palate are one of the few indulgences in their daily routines. Serve them something unpalatable, and you’ll have some cranky ascetics to console.
I arrived in San Diego in late summer, which meant that within a few short months Thanksgiving and all its culinary challenges would descend upon my shoulders. God help me. Which She did–in the form of a tall and lanky angel named Sr. Mary Salome. Managing a kitchen is a physically challenging job, and Sr. Salome was ready to hang up her apron and hand the spatula to someone younger. She promised, though, that she wouldn’t retire until she had taught me the ways of the monastery kitchen.
We spent hours huddled over cookbooks in the tiny kitchen office as she taught me menu-planning basics and pointed out the nuns’ favorite recipes. We toured the pantry, refrigerators and freezers, and she taught me how to use the industrial food processor, mixers, meat slicer, bread slicer, and enormous gas range. With all the heavy lifting that managing a kitchen demanded, I developed some real biceps and overcame my fear of schlepping giant pots of boiling potatoes from stovetop to sink.
Was I ready for the daunting task of a Thanksgiving banquet for 30 nuns and their guests? It didn’t matter. Thanksgiving week was upon us, and it was during this week that Salome’s passion for the art of cooking from scratch infected me completely.
We baked whole pumpkins and scooped out their savory innards for pies, experimenting with the delicate balance of spices. Chefs knives in hand, we cubed and chopped bread, onions and celery for stuffing. Salome instructed me to use celery with lots of fresh leaves and explained how those leaves, coarsely chopped, would add flavor to the stuffing. We simmered industrial-sized skillets of butter, onions and celery until the fragrance wafted down all the monastery halls and permeated us from veil-covered head to monk-sandaled toe. We trussed turkeys and made cranberry relish by grinding cranberries and oranges, skin and all. I was in awe of Salome’s culinary wisdom. The flavors and textures she created were magical. I vowed never to use prepared foods again. Ever. (That would be one more vow I haven’t quite kept.)
Salome eventually retired from the kitchen, bestowing upon me the responsibility of nurturing a monastery of quiet, gentle monks with a little culinary happiness every day. I learned to brew up a pot of hot lemon juice and honey (with a little whiskey) during flu season, so the nuns could toddle off to bed with a steamy, comforting mug. I acquired a reputation for surprising the community with warm baked goods on Sunday mornings, but I never felt I quite filled Salome’s shoes.
A few years later, I would make a wrenching decision to retire in my own way–leaving the monastery for life in the secular world. But Salome’s passion for cooking had infected my soul, and as I made a little home for myself, I purchased many of the same pieces of culinary equipment that Salome had taught me to use (the nonindustrial version, of course). One at a time, I collected the cookbooks that contained her favorite recipes and eventually learned to prepare them in quantities that were more appropriate for a few dinner guests, rather than a monastic community.
As I chop and sauté onions and celery on Thanksgiving, I always send up heartfelt thanks to Sr. M. Salome for sharing her love of cooking with me. If you’ve ever had a culinary guru, take a break from the heat of the stove on this holiday and wrap him or her in a messy, sweaty hug of thanks, literally or figuratively.
The day of my monastic profession. Published with gracious permission from C. Bruce and J. Hong, my cousins.
© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.