Each spring, I waited in anticipation for the beauty and deliciousness of an artichoke. I would buy a large globe that was firm to the touch.
I’d make the kids an early dinner of Annie’s Mac & Cheese and send them off to do their homework. Then, I’d clean the pot and fill it with cold water, place it on the still-warm burner, and add my secret seasoning mix: half a lemon and its juice, half a head of garlic, peppercorns, salt. While the water was coming to a boil, I’d carefully trim the sharp spikes from the tips of the leaves. Then I’d gently place the artichoke in the pot, weight it down with a salad plate, and cook it until the leaves were tender and easily removed — which I determined by the feel of my paring knife sliding into the cut stem.
I would glance at the clock, counting the minutes, while dicing garlic and sauteeing a couple of cloves in real butter, adding lemon, more butter, and a touch of Grey Poupon. While delicious smells filled the kitchen, I’d pour my sauce into two separate ramekins and pluck two good plates from the cupboard above my head. I would drain the artichoke, allow it to cool, and place it into a lovely bowl with a pattern of cobalt blue on white porcelain.
He didn’t drink, but I’d pour myself a small glass of chardonnay. Minutes later, he’d walk in the door, catch the scent of garlic-butter and lemon, the slightly bitter scent of the artichoke. He’d walk in the kitchen and kiss me on the back of the neck. And juice running down our chins, we’d demolish that artichoke, together.
When summer was near its peak, I’d hustle the kids outside to pick grape leaves, guiding them to leaves of the proper size and tenderness. When the colander was full, I‘d show them how to quickly blanch the leaves and plunge them into cold water, a few at a time. Then we’d set up our assembly line: I’d place the bowl of soft-cooked rice flavored with garlic, lemon, olive oil, pine nuts, sometimes a few chopped cranberries or currants, and plenty of salt and good black pepper. We’d place a generous spoonful in the center of each leaf, gather the lobed leaves over the filling, and start to roll. Next, I showed them how to place the little dolmades seam side down in the steaming tray. While the water heated to a brisk boil, I’d make hummus from scratch, toss the tabouli that had been chilling in the fridge, and add more parsley, another squeeze of lemon. Many hands made light work, and soon our two layers of dolmades filled the steaming tray. I placed it over the simmering water and set the timer.
As the sun stayed high in the sky and the evening birds came to poke around the garden, we’d sit at the humble picnic table feasting like kings. We ate until we groaned.
When November approached, I’d keep an eye out for the lovely pomegranate, his favorite fruit, even though he was picky, and only the best would do. Large, heavy, and firm, but with a slight give to thinning skin, indicating perfect ripeness. I’d bring home a few experimental fruits to try — often they would not measure up and would go straight into the trash. He grew up eating pomegranates and could pick them straight off his Grandmother’s tree in Pasadena.
Cold storage and shipping seldom improve the quality of perfectly ripe fruit — but I tried to do the best I could, not wanting to disappoint. As the weeks of December tumbled by in a whirl of shopping and gift-wrapping, my hunt intensified, searching for the perfect, round, scarlet globe to place in his Christmas stocking. The rest of us preferred navel oranges or Satsumas.
He lives in the city now and our children are grown. I can’t bring myself to buy an artichoke — too big to eat alone. I seldom buy pomegranates now, because they remind me of him, and because I did not grow up with a Grandmother who lived in Pasadena.
I am back to eating apples and pears, beets, all manner of foods made from the humble cabbage, and the occasional kielbasa — foods that thrive in the countries surrounding the Baltic, not the Mediterranean. They remind me of my own Grandmother, who was both kind and a good cook.
Exquisite produce can still be a minefield. When my eye lights upon an artichoke or a pomegranate, I can’t help wondering: were they worth the effort, my small acts of love? For too many years, I have been the appetizer, the amuse-bouche enjoyed before the main course. I am so tired of being the woman a man meets and sometimes marries, right before he meets the woman of his dreams.