I grew up in a kitchen watching my mother cook. Everything from chicken to steak to fish to shrimp, if it fit in a pot or pan, she knew exactly what to do with it. I watched as she transformed lifeless hunks of flesh into lively works of art; her meals were as pleasing to the eye as they were to the taste buds. Perhaps more amazing than her ability to make nine-course meals from scratch, though, was her ability to control a three year old in a kitchen without any major incident. Sure, there were minor burns and the occasionally singed T-shirt, but I managed to walk away with all of my limbs intact.
By the age of three I secured an entry-level position in my mother’s kitchen; I started by peeling the skin off of green tomatoes. This was an ideal job for a toddler. Given the size of a green tomato—a bit larger than a golf ball—each one fit perfectly in my hands. I know, it was a tough job, but the order of the kitchen depended on my ability to properly peel those tomatoes; one false move and someone could end up with a tomato husk in their enchilada and my mother’s culinary reputation would be jeopardized, or at least I thought so. She had a way of making me feel as if I provided an indispensable service to her and the family through my work in the kitchen.
I counted out tomatoes for her—“uno, dos, tres”—into one pile, and—“one, two, three”—into another. After making several of these piles, she would ask me to add the piles together and then split them apart. “Tres más tres es seis” into one pile, “three plus three makes six” into another pile. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a deeper meaning to what she was teaching me; the meaning became clearer as I got older.
As I got older, my duties around the kitchen grew more complex. Having established my proficiency in the delicate field of tomato peeling and counting, I was promoted to pepper counter and eventually all the way up to assistant stoichiometrist. I never did make it to head stoichiometrist—chalk it up to age discrimination—but I didn’t mind. As assistant stoichiometrist my duties included counting out tomato to pepper to lemon ratios and ensuring the proper balance of each. Eight to one to two was the ideal ratio for a mild salsa, six to one to two for a medium blend and four to one to one for the truly adventurous palate. I was always partial to the mild salsa; my parents took more to the hot stuff. I took my duties around the kitchen very seriously because I understood the implications of an ill-concocted recipe; the slightest mix up and someone could end up in the hospital, or at least with severe heart-burn.
I loved learning from my mom because no small gain of knowledge went unnoticed. Every time I added two numbers or spelled a new word, it was as if I had taken my first steps all over again; her eyes would light up with joy and she would smother me with affection. “You have to hunch over more and more every time I give you a hug,” she would whisper in Spanish as she reached her arms around my neck.
Even as I grew older, I never minded helping my mom out around the kitchen, partly because she always kept things entertaining for me. Once she sensed that I had a grasp on adding and subtracting tomatoes and peppers, she added yet another dimension to my kitchen education: she began having me spell out the name of fruits, vegetables, and a number of kitchen utensils. Vegetables and utensils were no longer just tangible objects; they became abstract symbols, easily translated into written language. “Very good,” she would say, with a smile on her face; she seemed to take endless delight in my ability to spell vegetable, potato, tomato and chile.
Words eventually led to sentences, and I soon became my mother’s own personal scribe and translator. I wrote down and translated everything from ingredients to cooking directions. It wasn’t long before my services transcended the kitchen. On weekends, my mom paid me to translate assorted documents, mostly mail and messages from her work. We would spend all morning going through papers, dictionary in hand, clarifying obscure words and making sure that we both understood what each one meant. At the end of each of our sessions, my mother was always incredibly grateful. She never tried to hide her appreciation.
My mother paid me for the help, a dollar here and there, but I did the work for the smiles; I’m not sure she understood that. After a while I started to feel guilty taking her money, even though I knew she was more than happy to give it to me. Refusing the money would have been futile, like swimming against a riptide or trying to lick your elbow, so I spent the money on her instead. I used the money to buy her flowers or stuffed animals because it just seemed like the right thing to do. Sometimes, when I was feeling adventurous, I would wait until she wasn’t looking and sneak the dollar back into her purse. I once marked a dollar that she gave me with an “X” to see how many times I could receive the same bill. She must have given me the same dollar for at least a week straight before it was lost, probably traded in for enough quarters to keep my brothers and me busy playing video games while she searched the grocery store for the week’s supplies.
I really did enjoy myself when helping my mom around the house, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much I had actually learned from her. One day as we reviewed fractions and ratios in my algebra class, it occurred to me that I had been solving similar problems since the age of five. Having solved the ratios and fractions in the hustle and bustle world of my mother’s kitchen, I felt more than ready to do the same in my comatose algebra class. I had similar experiences during spelling tests and while helping students in Spanish class. Moments like those put everything my mother had done for me into perspective; as much as I thought I was helping her out as a child, peeling tomatoes and counting out peppers, or later, by translating the mail, she was really the one doing me a favor. Instead of sitting me in front of a television, which she very well could have done, she took it upon herself to teach me the fundamentals of counting, mathematics, English and Spanish in the most modest and loving way she knew how: by welcoming me into her kitchen.