It’s fall, and in the kitchen, my mom is whistling while chopping a pile of onions. She sits at the table, bags of carrots, potatoes, and other root vegetables waiting their turns on the cutting board. When it’s time for the carrots, she pulls her chair over to the trash bin, hunches over it, the sound of the peeler shushing. The sound is comforting. The peels fall off in strings revealing brilliant orange.
This is the time of year when she makes stews and when she seems to truly relish cooking. The rest of the year, dinners are efficient enterprises. She’s always been the primary cook in her adult household, and I think after raising two kids and working a full-time job and cooking dinner almost every night for years, I’d be a little tired of pre-heating the oven and throwing something together that will be eaten and forgotten in half an hour.
So these stews are different. They demand time, needing it for all of the flavors to develop and meld: beef and wine mingling, a mix of spices enriching chickpeas and squash. These stews have also earned a spreadsheet, rows and columns denoting how much crossover there is in turnips and black beans among all of the various recipes my mom has typed up in a larger font so they’re easier for her to read. And when she cooks these recipes, she plays some music or a podcast–last year she blared the newly released Hamilton cast album while chopping and stirring and sauteeing–and lets her mind wander.
I can’t remember when the stews became her autumn thing. She’d made some stews when I was younger (a particularly memorable one called Roadkill Stew; no, there was no actual roadkill, but I don’t remember what went into it). But now, every fall, she proudly (and rightfully) posts photos to Facebook of the fruits of her labors. Glad container upon Glad container of various stews, cooling and waiting to be stored in the freezer in the basement. They’ll be thawed throughout the winter and served with fresh bread, their colors and flavors waking up the doldrums of midwinter.
When my mom sets out to make her stews, it’s a process. Her shopping list takes up a full envelope, and the counters are covered with butternut squashes, potatoes, canned beans and tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and other innumerable root vegetables. The fridge is stocked with cubed beef, chicken breasts, okra, green beans. The kitchen almost bursts. She pulls out her slow cooker, the Dutch oven, her stock pots and then fires up those spreadsheets and recipes, and she sits at the kitchen table, chopping, chopping, chopping. Her whistling is supposed to keep the onion’s fumes from making her eyes tear up.
Now, instead of causing stress, I think cooking calms her. At least, cooking like this. There isn’t a time constraint. No one is waiting for dinner to be set on the table. She relaxes and moves at her own pace. Years ago now, she went blind in one eye, so she lines up her knife carefully, making sure her diminished depth perception doesn’t betray her. Her cuts are steady and precise, turning vegetables to cubes and slices and coins and rings.
When the onions and garlic hit the hot oil, the house wakes up to the sizzling. Meat goes in for searing. The vegetables wait their turns, and the slow cooker is already puffing out steam. Outside, leaves fall, wind blows, and deer browse in the woods. My father is probably out there, fertilizing, mowing, raking, weeding. He loves these stews. They both do. They bought deep bowls especially for them, and on winter nights, they ladle full those bowls and sit around the table, tearing bread, spooning broth together in the bright kitchen as darkness falls outside.