Cooking Onions

Sautéed onions, the slowly cooked gently coaxed mouth-watering aroma that fills a room kind, takes me back to grade seven Home-Ec.

Mrs. Boyko stands near her desk, every now and then looking up to make sure we’re all stirring conscientiously. Fifteen grade seven girls – four to a stove – taking turns at developing patience. The boys across the hall make noise and dust in Shop. Secretly I’m glad I don’t have to learn how to turn wood or screw in bolts – nothing in me aspires to one day build my own table.

The secret of producing delicious meals, that was what I hoped to find,  and cooking onions was the first step on the road to making soups, stews and sauces. to understand the chemistry of cooking, the alchemical potential of food. And the experience of turning onions translucent and flavourful over slow heat did stay with me for my entire career of being chief cook for my family of five.

I understood from the beginning that sautéed onions was a luxury my mother didn’t have time for when she worked full time at the factory. Her onions, like every other vegetable added to her stove top stew, were chopped into big chunks and thrown into a hot pot together with ground meat. I was always grateful I had the freedom to take time over my onions.

Well, to be honest, maybe ‘always grateful’ is an exaggeration. Gratitude wasn’t my first response to the highs and lows of the responsibilities of being a single mom. I had to find my way to gratitude, to first choose to see all experiences, the good and bad, as mine, and then choose what I was going to take from those experiences.

One Saturday morning when the kids were at their dad’s I got into my car and drove the two hours to visit my mom. I had an idea of what I wanted to say to her – “Thank you.” was what it boiled down to.

I walked into her kitchen and she jumped up in excitement. “Oh, look who’s come to visit.” She rushed around and made coffee and filled her kitchen table with goodies. When she finally sat down, she said, “To what do I owe the honour of this visit?”

“I wanted to thank you.” I said.

“Thank me?” She looked flustered. Then she pulled her mouth to the side and said wryly, “Well, in that case, you are very welcome.” And then she laughed.

We chatted for a while – her demanding I tell her everything I’d been up to, and me filling her imagination with the details of my day to day life. After an hour or so of this I got round to saying what was on my mind more than anything those days – I told her I was on a journey to find myself.

“Find yourself? What does that mean?” She gave me a puzzled look. ‘Why would you need to find yourself?”

I tried to boil down the process of self-remembering that I’d been practicing since reading In Search of the Miraculous and a few ‘New-Age-Self-Help’ books. I told her I’d begun to realize we humans are more than we think we are. She listened and nodded and when I was finished I waited for her to tell me what she thought.

She was quiet for a while before she said, “Well. OK. You say you need to find yourself? I mean, I don’t know why you’d need to do that. If I think, Oh, I need to find myself, I think, I’ve never lost myself, I’m right here!”  She laughed again and then she changed the subject back to earthly concerns.

After she’d retired my mother enjoyed her newfound time to prepare elaborate meals. Her favourite dish for many of those years was beef stroganoff. I remember the first time she served it, the overall taste was delicious but I couldn’t help but notice the onions weren’t as flavourful as they could be.

During another weekend visit I decided to gently help her understand the magic of spending time over onions. I opened a conversation one day with a reminiscence of her old busy days of speed cooking. And then I showed her what I’d learned about sautéing onions in grade seven Home-Ec, about slicing them into thin strips and letting them simmer in oil slowly over time to allow their essence flower.

For a moment I was Mrs. Boyko and my mother was a young me. She was a good student, she listened carefully, she learned quickly, and she was excited to think of how improved her meals would be by taking this simple step. From that moment, and for years ahead, whenever I heard someone give my mother a complement about one of her meals she’d say, “It’s the onions” and then wink at me.

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