I have a small pink onion in my hand, smaller than the brown onions still in the refrigerator drawer, and I think about the swiss chard lying on the cutting board. It's the right size, has a good weight in my hand. Five cloves of garlic join the onion. These are always the first, the beginning step of this preparation of frittata.
I rummage around in the next drawer of the fridge, and my fingers find some remnant chunks of pecorino romano cheese and some aged goat and cow's milk cheddar from a local dairy. I picked it out a month or two ago at the farmer's market. I size it up, feel its heft, know it's right for the recipe. There's a small head of Italian swiss chard from a farm in Watsonville, another product of the farmer's market. Chard is a hardy plant that grows with a kind of resolve and firmness that resides within its leaves even after cut. It is not a delicate plant, and I like that about it.
A carton of milk, another of eggs, a memory of cooking quiches and frittatas years ago for people I love. It's as if just touching the food products clicks a projector on in my mind's eye. Sounds, words, fragrances and admonitions by an older woman who taught me to cook emerge in my presence as if they had been sensed only seconds before. As I was told, I keep the heat "low, low, low" and use only the merest amount of olive oil in my heated skillet. Minced garlic becomes golden as it cooks. I salt it and grind in some pepper. The little pink onion is minced also and hisses as it meets the hot pan. "You heat it too much? It's bitter. It's no good." Once the onion is wilted and has released its sugars, the heat is turned off. The savory mixture rests and cools for a bit while I take the knife to the chard and cut its leaves down to even squares.
Four eggs and some milk look golden in my big yellow bowl. The fork clicks against the sides as I beat the mixture rapidly. I chose to use a fork on purpose, not a whisk, although a whisk is fine to use, believe me. But, my grandma did not use a whisk; she used a fork. She used a fork, so I use a fork.
The memory of my grandma beating eggs with a fork, its tines clacking against her bowl, overtakes me. She taught me all this. Or that is, I copied all her movements and watched her carefully when I had the chance. Her cooking wisdom and her flavor opinions became mine as much as I could make them mine. Of all the people I knew as I was growing up, her cooking stood as the most exemplary, the most awe inspiring, to me. It was absolutely my intention to make food like my grandma made her food. I memorized flavors, layers of seasonings, inhaled fragrances to the deepest part of my mind, the primitive core of myself, where they must have met inherited wisdom passed from the women before me who knew how to cook food so that their families would thrive and be content.
Cooking my frittata this morning, I re-experienced my grandma's movements, voice, sounds, beliefs about what is good and bad in the kitchen. I have been asked how I know which herbs to use when I cook something. Well, I just know. But, I know because I watched and tasted carefully, attentively, with absolute belief that what I could learn was the best that anyone could teach, and it was my heritage, my job to learn. It was my responsibility. I felt like a relay runner being handed a baton from many hands before me, back in time.
This food knowledge was mostly practical, involved frugality and cleverness, represented a resiliency in the face of adversity. She called it "poor man's food" a lot. Bait fish breaded, fried, eaten crisp and whole. Sausages ground and packed right in the kitchen. Albacore that far exceeded any canned product I've ever had in my life since, cooked and bottled in her kitchen, accented with Meyer lemons from her tree. She needed some greens once, to make a little salad to go with our fish, so she went out into her yard and came back with what I thought were weeds but were most likely dandelion greens, miner's lettuce, and who knows what else. She dressed them lightly in olive oil, "a little vinegar, a little salt and pepper." She was strong but had a light hand with seasoning. She winked at me while she sopped up extra juices on her plate with a crust of good french bread, conspiratorially, letting me know we had put one over on the rich people who had no idea how good "junk fish" tasted with weeds from the garden.
I smile about that as I scrape my skillet clean of every last bit of chard and onion. The chard is lying in its casserole pan now. I pour the golden egg and milk over it and the grated romano and cheddar and scatter the remaining cheese over it all. It looks good. It smells right. Into the oven it goes for about 30 minutes.
I like that I have not measured anything, done it by memory, by feel, that I have the baton in my hand and am running with it. I was right to have learned her, to become essentially her when I cook and experience food. The learning honored the heritage of all the women before her who all knew. They just knew. Right down to their bones.