The Secret Ingredient is Love.
How did this all start? As I sat looking at the blank page of my journal, I couldn’t help but wonder. Where had my love of food, cooking and feeding others begun?
Perhaps more than food itself, I fell in love with cooking because of the magic that lives in and around places where food is prepared and shared; kitchens, tables, outdoors over open flames or in outdoor ovens such as hornos. These places all played a significant part in how I have become who I am, and why I am making the choices that I am at this moment.
Every night during my childhood, my family would return to the same place, the dinner table. My mother, father, two brothers and myself sitting in our respective seats. No matter what else was going on; what disagreements were happening, who was upset with who, if someone had a particularly challenging day, or had experienced significant happiness or joy, if something big and scary had happened in the world, or if something magical was afoot and cause for excitement, at the end of the day we all gathered around that table and ate together. Our table was in the very center of our small home. Who and what we were as individuals, and as a family, moved around and visited that table. It is strange for me to think that I was the first one in our family to leave that table in search of myself and who I wanted to become. It is only as I began writing this that I have wondered what it was like after I had left and my chair sat empty and unoccupied.
Then there was my grandmother’s kitchen. To me, this was a warm, inviting, magical place. She was my experience of unconditional love. She offered it freely without restraint or expectation. In my grandmother’s eyes, I had nothing but good parts. When I have tried to recall my earliest memory, I always find myself in her kitchen on Clark Street. My older brother is there as well. We are not yet as tall as the white metal cabinets and kitchen sink. My grandmother is holding out her hand offering us some sweet treat that was not available to us at home. In this memory, she is always smiling like there is absolutely nothing better in the world than looking at us. The decision to purchase my house was in part as a result of the white, metal, vintage cabinets that I saw when I first stepped into the kitchen. It felt like my grandmother’s house, it felt like home.
Family holidays consisted of aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives traveling from what at the time I considered to be far away and magical lands. They would all come, and we would gather around the table. Everyone brought dishes that they had made, or more exotic items that came from the city or other distant places, to add to the feast. These moments around the kitchen were pure magic. Actually, anytime that the adults could be found around the table talking, playing cards, laughing, crying, making art, or talking in hushed tones, were moments that I found irresistible. I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame. It was my preferred location and I wanted to be near it more than I wanted to be hanging out doing what the children were “supposed” to be doing. My child brain had somehow come to understand that staying close to the table would reveal everything that I needed to know about life and its mysterious workings. This was the place where stories were told, deals were brokered, tempers and excitements flared. And then, there was the food.
My mother was an amazing cook. The food that she prepared consisted primarily of solid down-home cooking and it was delicious. I cannot remember her making something that I did not like, except for Brussel sprouts, when I was young. Side note: I love those tiny cabbages now that I am older, especially when I smash them and roast them in harissa sauce and garlic—yum!
Part of our family's food supply came from our annual garden. We planted and tended a garden almost every year during my childhood. The garden became a direct experience with, and relationship to, the food that we ate. I knew how carrots became carrots and what bean plants, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes looked like before they became the food on our table. I also knew what it was like to wander through the garden picking peas from the vine and popping them into my mouth. Fresh and delicious.
As I grew older and planted my own gardens, I embraced this connection and relationship that I had with food on an even deeper level. My gardens became some of my greatest, beloved and most important teachers about life and about death. Tending and caring for the plants that graced my table with their bounty and who became the ingredients and stars of delicious and nutritious dishes to feed those whom I love and are in my care, is an act of deep passion and love.
When I moved to New Mexico, I experienced the enchantments of the land and its people, Felipe, his kitchen, his wood-burning oven and his magical hornos. To provide even a brief description of who Felipe Ortega was simply is not possible. He is a novel unto himself. In this particular chapter of this story, I will share that Felipe Ortega was an Apache Medicine Man, a master micaceous clay potter and the person that I know who has cooked for and fed more people than any other human being that I have ever met. I spent one extraordinary year living with him doing my best to keep up. It was during this year that the once separate places and experiences of studios and art, kitchens, cooking and feeding people, medicine and love merged and forever became part of my calling and purpose. Felipe’s last words to me were, “You have to cook, you have to feed the people.”
One of the last memories I hold of my grandmother’s later years is her sitting by the window, gliding back and forth in her rocking chair while reading recipes from magazines and cookbooks. Although she no longer cooked meals in the same way that she once had, the alchemy involved in mixing and combining of ingredients continued to hold her interest and imagination. The same was true for my mother in a slightly different way. As my mother was dying, she decided that she wanted to share one last Thanksgiving feast with her family. So in October, days before her death, we gathered at her house and all sat down at her table for one last shared holiday meal. Although she could not eat more than a couple of mouthfuls, what was important to her was to see us all together, sharing food, stories and laughing.
My mother, grandmother, and Felipe, left me with memories that continued pointing me in the direction of purpose and the path that I am currently on.
This past New Year’s Eve, as the old year gave way to the new, I sat looking at the page of my journal where I had just copied the affirmation that had accompanied my horoscope. I reread the words.
“With unflinching honesty, I come to the table knowing what I want to offer and what I need to regenerate.”
A seed that had been planted very early on in my life, one which had continued to be tended, watered and made visible in various ways suddenly began to sprout.
I had set the intention of leading and living this new year with love and authenticity. What if there were a way to bring cooking and food into the equation? What if me “coming to the table” was more literal than I had originally thought?
What happened next was a series of rapid-fire connecting thoughts that I am fairly certain were not entirely generated by me. What if I created a YouTube show about my experiments and experiences in the kitchen? What if I really put myself out there right now, exactly as I am. What if I stopped trying to maintain such a curated image of myself and instead shared my most authentic and vulnerable self. What if I stopped saying the big “When I’s” and “But I don'ts”? When I lose weight… When I have more time…. But I don’t have professional cooking experience… But I don’t know how… What if I let people experience me exactly how I am and this encouraged and inspired other people to do the same? What if there were a variety of guest hosts who would join me and while we cooked and shared food? We could have the type of conversations that people have in kitchens and around tables. Conversations about love, authenticity, being human, our challenges, our victories, our sadnesses and our joys. Yes! What if I married the magic of kitchens, tables, and food with the intentions of love and authenticity in order to foster connections and community? Yes again! What if I called the show “The Secret Ingredient”?
And just like that, within a week there was a theme song, a logo and the pilot episode was being shot in our kitchen. We have since filmed two additional episodes and now have plans to bring the show on the road. Because what if there is a little red van with “The Secret Ingredient” logo going down the street playing the theme song (much in the same way as the music from an ice cream truck) and what if we went into people’s kitchens and made their favorite family recipes with them?
I am purposefully saying “we” because it is already working — the fostering connection and community piece. My husband is my biggest fan, an unwavering believer and supporter in what I do. He has already begun doing some research into that magical little red van. My son has researched lighting and microphones. My stepdaughter is behind the camera and doing the editing. My daughter-in-law was my first co-host and will be a regular on the show. There are already plans in motion for future episodes with other guest hosts and recipes.
Food, what happens in kitchens and at tables and places where people gather to break bread, it tells stories about who we are: who we are as individuals and who we are as people. It speaks to where we come from and what we have experienced along the way to where and who we are now. It bridges nationalities, geographies, and generations. Food is the great unifier; connecting families and friends. Food can also connect people from various and different backgrounds and experiences, calling them to gather together around the table once more.
And…what if? What if that magical secret ingredient is now, and has always been, Love?
Thank you for taking the time from your day to read my words and take in my thoughts.
If you have memories of kitchens, tables, cooking and food that you want to share, I would love to hear them.
Life is short, make it as delicious as possible.