Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How I Learned to Chop an Onion

Whenever I chop an onion I think of Iréne, who taught me how to chop an onion. My mother never taught me how to chop an onion. I don’t think she trusted me with sharp objects. When I left home I could boil or fry an egg, and make toast, popcorn, instant pudding, instant coffee, and canned soup. These were my skills. I never would have learned to cook more than that if I hadn’t been born female. It would get to be late afternoon around the commune, and I’d realize everyone was looking at me. Being an obliging type, I’d make the effort, with widely varying outcomes and a lot of burned food. Of course when I was working and living alone a couple of years later, I could eat whatever I liked. Chunks of cheese and lettuce was a favorite meal, and lemon yogurt with granola. It was during this era that I forgot the eggs I was boiling one night and they blew up. Yeah. Cooking was not my passion. Getting back to Iréne, we were at her house up on Burton Hill for a gathering one day and as we women talked in the kitchen she was chopping up vegetables for whatever the main dish was, and I watched her dice an onion with a brisk efficiency that knocked me out. “How do you do that?” I asked. She was puzzled that I asked. Doesn’t everyone know how to cut up an onion? But she shrugged and she showed me: slice the onion in half, place the sliced side down on the cutting surface, cut vertical slices in the half, then turn it and cut horizontal slices. Voila! Now I can’t cut up onions with the swift precision that my friend Iréne has. When I chop up the onion, I slice it in half and then I do the vertical slices. Things go pretty well that far. Then I turn it 90 degrees and begin the horizontal slices. I’m holding the slices I just made tightly between my thumb and fingers, and I’m carefully making my crosscuts and seeing the beautiful little chunks of onion fall off. Then slices begin to slide against each other, and onion pieces explode up out of that tight grip, and the last row’s pieces are oddly shaped. Usually I let it go at that. I used to cut onions in half, then in quarters, then cut the quarters into little wedges, trisecting them with the knife. When I lived in Los Angeles around 1970, everyone was mad for the macrobiotic diet. I had no idea what a macrobiotic diet was, still don’t, except that it involved copious quantities of brown rice and didn’t taste good. Something I read at that time said that those wedges were the proper way to slice an onion for macrobiotic dishes, and that’s how I did it for years until that day I watched Iréne, and had my eyes opened. Iréne was kind to me, took this ignorant American in hand (she is Swiss) and showed me how to do it. That’s why I think of her every time I chop an onion. It is peculiar the little things that stick with you, the memories that pop up in the course of a common activity like chopping an onion, or perhaps when you catch a scent that swoops you back years to another time and place, to a person who may be long gone – a parent, a former lover, a friend who moved away. Smells especially can hook you and transport you to an internal leaning and longing. But Iréne – heck, I can send her an email or call her on the phone to thank her one more time, so that’s all right, and the stew was pretty good, although I put too much flour in the roux. No one ever taught me how to make a roux.

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