Philadelphia is buried in snow — snow falling from low, leaden skies that turn the afternoon to dusk — snow falling in fat, silent flakes that seem to scrub the city clean in layers of starchy blue-white. Now the sun is out again, monster icicles dripping from the porch roof. My wife Julie, who is a teacher, and our children, twelve year old Trixie and seven year old Micah, have been out of school most of the week. We’ll pay for these snow days in June, but right now they feel magical, like a gift. Still, it’s a lot of togetherness in a tiny row house on our little block in Germantown – a whole neighborhood of togetherness, in fact — the hum and buzz of laughter and conversation on the street, the roar of snow-ball fights, kids soaring and diving off the mountain of snow the plow left at the end of the block. All week, packs of kids have tumbled into the house, wet and salty, for hot chocolate and popcorn and movies in the basement. So I’m glad to send the family ahead and catch a few quiet moments alone before I join the neighborhood snow day potluck at Kate and Pete’s, just down the block. My excuse is that I’m roasting Brussels sprouts from our farm-to-city winter share, with olive oil and kosher salt, and they are not quite done.
When I finally arrive, Kate and Pete’s house is teeming. I’m laden with the sprouts and also half the sticky buns I baked this morning with Micah and his friends, Ada and Zady. Micah likes to measure and mix and roll things, but he hates sticky fingers. Ada and Zady, though, are girls after my own heart. When it came to smearing soft butter on the rolled-out dough with their bare hands, they couldn’t get enough.
“Ooohhh! It feels so good!” They giggled, pinching off more butter and finger-painting it on the rectangle of soft, sweet dough. Micah sprinkled the cinnamon, I rolled it up, and everyone helped pinch the seam. I cut thick slabs and arranged the pin-wheels in a slurry of sugar and butter the kids had just spread with a spatula all over the bottom of the baking pans. The warm, sticky buns are — well, possibly too much. I’m taking half of them to the potluck.
Kate and Pete’s house, like ours, is entirely open on the first floor, living room, then dining room, then kitchen in the back. Everything is warm — the sunflower yellow walls, the shimmery pine floors, the crackling fire in the wood stove. I make my way through the crowd and put my food on the counter. My Ada Ruby, Kate and Pete’s oldest, greets me with a hug. I took care of her when she was a baby, and she feels like my third child. Folks keep arriving, with salads, corn bread, cake. There are brownies in the oven, and the whole house smells sweet and chocolaty. The main course is sheer perfection: tortilla soup with lime and cilantro, avocado and red onions to sprinkle on top. I can’t find a plate to put Brussels sprouts on, so I just pinch a few with my fingers, then lick off the salt. Zady’s dad sees me and smiles. He leans in and whispers, “I did the same thing.”
“Marta, those are so good,” says Pete as I squeeze out of the kitchen. “Brussel sprouts are much maligned and I just don’t understand why. I love them.”
“Me too!” There’s not much food I don’t love, though. Licorice is the only flavor I really can’t abide. Everything else is about texture: oatmeal, tapioca, rice pudding – they all make me gag. It’s a shame too, because I love the idea of all those foods — a bowl of oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and raisins just seems so cozy and comforting.
“Hey Aaliyah, can I have that baby?” Aaliyah and her sister Qudsiyyah live right next door to us; we share a wall between the staircases to our second floors. They have been best friends with my daughter Trixie for almost a decade, since they were all two and three year olds. For several years I took care of them before and after school, the same years I had baby Ada during the day. “Marta’s Daycare and Taxi Service,” the kids used to call it.
Aaliyah smiles and hands me Kate and Pete’s baby. I settle on the couch and bounce him on my knee. Someone has just arrived with an LCD projector, and more neighbors are hanging a sheet on the wall. Movie night on the Terrace. I turn to listen to Shelley, who is next to me on the couch. She’s talking about food. “We had a lunch meeting at work, and I’ve been trying to recreate this green bean dish ever since. With cranberries and pearl onions. Oh my, it was so good. I can’t quite get it right though – I think I’m putting in too much olive oil.”
“Shelley, how many years have I known you? Seventeen? And I didn’t know you like to cook.”
“Has it been that long? Really?” Her voice has a soft, lilting quality that I never get tired of. Almost southern, though I know she grew up right on this block. “You know, you mentioned recently about knowing my father, and I didn’t realize you’d been on the block that long until you said that.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember your dad. We moved here in 1992. I was just trying to remember how old your son was then? About Micah’s age now, maybe a little older?”
“Yeah, that’s about right. He’s grown now.” She sighs. “But food, yeah, I love food. I love everything about food. You know, some people say they like to eat, but don’t really like all the preparation – all that chopping and cooking, you know? But I just love it all.”
I smile, nodding. I remember last summer, when there was a huge block party to celebrate because Shelley had completed her degree. I do remember now eating some amazing barbeque pork on her stoop that day. That was when we talked about her father. How he went to Tuskegee. How proud he was – never bought anything on credit. Walked to the car dealership on the Avenue, paid cash, drove home with a new car, no note. Her parents were good people. Shelley is too. And I don’t doubt she can cook, because that barbeque was amazing. It’s all coming back to me.
“Mmm, hmmm. I was talking about this once with a girlfriend at work,” says Shelley, nodding her head in a sort of circular motion. “I said, ‘I love everything about food. I love the way it looks, I love the way it tastes, I love the way it feels and smells….’ And my girlfriend, she looked at me and she said, ‘Shelley? Are you talking about food or are you talking about sex?’”
I touch her arm, laughing. “Shelley, good food and good sex? Just two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.”
“You got that right!” She’s still chuckling and nodding her head. “You sure do got that right.”