My father still teases my mother about it. After the first bite of a particularly elaborate dish she’s prepared, he’ll turn to her with a wry smile and say, “Jane, you almost outdid your daughter this time.” In fact, he’s not teasing her; he’s teasing me about an attempt I once made to outcook my exceptionally accomplished mother. I was 11 years old, an only child, and we were living in Paris then.
As far back as I can remember, my mother, Jane Kramer, the European correspondent for the New Yorker, has been in the habit of thinking about articles while cooking. The simple, meditative aspect of stirring risotto, reducing stock or folding egg whites into a soufflé base provides her with clarity and rhythm—and her family and friends with superb food. The kitchen is a place where her thoughts are stirred, reduced and folded together.
But to achieve serenity, or even its simulacrum, you need an assistant. Someone has got to do the irritating work: rinse grit out of the leeks, chop the onions and—my special grievance—wash the lettuce. That assistant was me. And when, at dinner parties, our guests praised my mother’s cooking, I waited with growing impatience for someone to declare ecstatically, “What perfectly washed lettuce!” This, of course, never happened.