For three days now, a pile of honey-glazed carrots has sat on the table in the middle of my flat. It lies amongst the various fruits of my labor; to its right, yesterday’s cornflakes, by now stuck hard and fast to the bowl; to its left, a plate dyed brown from old stir fry, surrounded by a halo of rice grains that went overboard during the eating process. At the tables edge, an apple core browns; at its opposite, a banana peel blackens.
I’m living alone for the first time and I’m learning to cook. Bean and cheese quesadilla, microwaved to perfection and lathered with taco sauce has always been my specialty, but I’ve always wanted to expand on that and this is clearly my chance. I’ve been working on the fundamentals. I’ve developed two basic pastas, one with smoked salmon and onions, and the other with tomato sauce and onions; the ratio of my oil and vinegar salad dressing is slowly but surely oscillating closer and closer to the golden ratio; now when making my rice, I only need to consult Google once, max twice, for clarification. Poco a poco, they say.
The first thing I did when I moved into my flat was go grocery shopping. In the glory days of my youth, I loved grocery shopping with my mom. It was exhilarating, a rare taste of the wild-world of adulthood. Often, I would veer off, make-believe that I was doing the shopping for a family of my own, that I was the adult. For a few moments, all took on a surreal incandescence and the world expanded around me and I was in command; then something – maybe the sudden burst of the vegetable sprinklers upon my hand – would snap me out of the lull, and I’d remember that my real familial duty was to make sure mom got the right flavor of Goldfish.
As the doors of Mercadona parted before me, I laughed as I reminisced of this more innocent time. High school was done; now I was in Granada, the real world. I was an adult.
The carts at Mercadona are chained together, and in order to take one, you need to put a euro into a slot. Of course, when you return the cart, you get your euro back, but I didn’t know that and thought it a shameless and gratuitous money-grab by the Mercadona ownership. “Baloney!” I thought, and in a solitary gesture of rebellion, I instead took a basket to carry my months’ worth of food.
I didn’t have a list, but I got the things that I figured normal adults get. Oil, garlic, candles (I wasn’t content with my flat’s feng shui), that type of thing
Not wanting to only buy the “cheap stuff” and thus set a sorry precedent in my initial foray into real life, I instead opted for the middle-priced brands. I got almost no pre-prepared food, nothing even in a can. Everything was fresh and middle-high end. “You are what you eat,” I thought.
Three grocery bags to an arm, I strolled up the hill into the Albaycin, the old town where I live. There was not a single piece of dog shit on the cobblestone, and the cool mountain air whispered through the Darro valley below.
The kitchen in which the magic happens is illuminated by a single uncovered stale-white light bulb. There is an electric stove with two burners, placed just close enough together that it’s only possible to use one at a time. There is also a sink and an eight by eight inch area in which I cut and stir. I don’t like to do the dishes, so usually I have a couple days’ worth of crusty food and greasy plates stacked about as well.
At first I kept matters simple. Day one: basic pasta. Day two: chicken and rice. But these felt childish, immature, reminiscent of the youth I once was, and not befitting of the adult I had become. Day three, I got serious. My ambitions unfurled.
As a rule, Spanish food is quite mediocre. However, Pilar, the mother in the host family with which I lived my first month in Granada – she made some of the dank-a-dank.
My favorite dish of Pilar’s is called tortilla de patatas; it’s essentially a big pie of eggs and potatoes and whatever else you might want to throw in. She’d shown me her techniques, so I had an idea of the process, but now the training wheels were off.
In the first attempt, I made a rash judgment as to the status of the eggs, so when the crucial moment came – the flip of the pie – a molten liquid mush flew from the pan, to my wrist, to the burner, where I could only watch as it sizzled to the plump consistency for which the recipe originally called.
For my second effort a few nights later, I over-compensated, leaving the eggs on the burner too long, and again it was during the flip when all went awry; they stuck to the pan and smoldered, choking the kitchen with smoke. The next morning, my friendly Australian neighbor Susan asked me if I’d smelled something funny the night before. “A short circuit in this old Spanish wiring,” she supposed.
Recently, finally, third try, my tortilla de patatas landed intact onto my plate. A bonafide adult, I enjoyed it with steamed asparagus and a couple glasses of the La Atalaya that Susan left to me. If I’ve retained anything from her teachings, I would say it was a middle-palate wine with a Galician terroir. For the hors d’oeuvre, I had freshly baked bread and a garlic oil vinaigrette in which to dip it. For dessert, I had chocolate pudding. The next day, emboldened by my triumph, I thought I’d do something “out there” for lunch. I checked my All Recipes app for ideas, and sure enough, the very first meal on the day’s front-page beckoned. Even through the scratches on the iPhone screen, the honey-glazed carrots sparkled like a summertime lake.
It struck me as the type of thing only an exceptionally mature person would make for lunch. It sounded sexy too. “If I can make honey-glazed carrots that look like that,” I thought, “its game over for the chicas.”
I steamed my carrots; I melted my butter; I mixed my honey and lemon. I cut and I poured and I stirred and I watched and slowly, slowly, steadily, the glaze, the wonderful glaze, it claimed my carrots. There they were, sizzling away, wind through a forest of oaks. Just as it began to seem as though the carrots were themselves producing the light of which they merely reflected, that some kind of fission was taking place deep within their core, the mid-afternoon Granadine sun did pour forth through my windows and onto the table at which I would enjoy my creation. I scooped the carrots onto my plate, and walked them into to the light. Their glow intensified still. A pure, uncut pride enveloped me as I grasped my fork and stabbed this validation of my profound competence as a human being in this world, my maturity, my undeniable adulthood.
Then the sprinklers turned on.
Not even the most youthful of imaginations would be able to reconcile this urgent message of my senses with what my mind had been feeling just moments before. Empirical reality ain’t got time for make-believe.
My honey-glazed carrots were not the worst thing I’d ever eaten. The taste was somewhere between a fermented grape and candied yam caked in salt. I had two bites, and tried to convince myself that there were redeeming qualities yet, but when my body literally would not permit a third, I knew I was only kidding myself. I slumped down in my chair; I pushed my honey glazed carrots away in disgust; I got up to make myself a sandwich.
Three days later, appearance is now somewhat more aligned with reality. The carrots have shriveled and lost their shine; they look like apricots except with a more potent orange, like the color of a traffic cone. They are still soggy to the touch; they feel a lot like how I’d imagine an ear drum would.
I’m not sure why I haven’t thrown them away yet. They don’t smell bad or anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to eat them, and I don’t think they’d impress a chica to the degree that I’d initially hoped. Perhaps it’s my heroic aversion to wastefulness; perhaps it’s that for a brief moment, I saw in their concept an idealized vision of my future self; perhaps it’s because my trash can is already overflowing and I’m too lazy to empty it.
Maybe I’m not yet ready for honey glazed carrots. That’s fine by me; I suppose you can’t rush the learning process. For now, it’s to the Pescaderia, where I’ll spend five minutes angrily insisting that I’m saying salmon, and not jamon; then it’s back through the Albaycin, where I’ll step in dog shit while admiring the first-snow atop the soft peaks of the Sierra Nevada; then it’s to the kitchen, where I’ll clean up the old dishes, put on some Govi, and set to work, imagination gone wild, determined to cut my garlic finer than ever; then it’s to the table, where I´ll take a bite, and the memories of mom’s mashed potatoes will boil up and spill over like my pasta always does, and I’ll wonder why I’d ever wanted to make anything more than a bean and cheese quesadilla, microwaved to perfection and lathered with taco sauce.