My curiosity about the world and all that it encompasses began to bloom when I was a toddler. Who, what, when, where and why started the majority of my sentences long before I mastered the pronunciation of the letter "W." My father nicknamed me "20 Questions" by the time I was 5 years old. Often times I would blurt out my next question as my parents were still rattling off the answer to the previous one, antsy to address the next puzzle piece in my mind.
Unlike my mother, who would exhaust me with her long-winded explanations, my father had a five-question limit. At number six, he would say my name with a sigh in his voice and give me a side look that said, "All right, that's enough, Miss 20 Questions," or, "Go ask your mother and leave me in peace." It took me most of my adolescent years to understand that my father's introspective nature meant that his actions would always trump his words, because rambling conversations left him physically exhausted. The brilliant, quiet engineer preferred to show me the answers to my questions, and many of these demonstrations took place in our at-home laboratory: the kitchen.
"Hey Wena, you want to make the salad?" my father called from his post at the steaming stovetop, the fume hood roaring just inches above his head. I looked up from my college reading homework at the adjoining breakfast bar and smiled. "Sure, Dad. Let's see what we have to work with tonight." Digging into the refrigerator's vegetable drawer, I loaded my arms with spinach, grape tomatoes, a yellow bell pepper and a cucumber, and dumped them on the kitchen counter.
Within 15 minutes, four finished salad plates posed in front of me as I evaluated my contribution to the evening's dinner menu. Each baby tomato, bell pepper strip and cucumber slice laid neatly on the beds of spinach, arranged in a geometrical pattern that resembled artwork more than food. Sprinkling fresh feta cheese atop each salad that could have served as meals in themselves, I was careful to maintain the integrity of the design; presentation is key. My father glanced over from his pan-seared salmon and roasted rosemary potatoes with approval. "Those look awesome, Wena."
The kitchen engineer gave all credit to me, but I know those salad creations would not exist without our previous kitchen lessons. My father taught me how to spot aging spinach, when the leaves begin to develop a slimy film and destroy the texture and taste of the entire bunch. He taught me how to remove the seeds from the bell pepper with one clean incision and minimal loss of the sweet, crunchy flesh. He taught me how to peel the cucumber in a way that protects its interior, maintains an interesting texture, and adds to the salad's aesthetics. He taught me all of these sous chef skills, answering my questions through his demonstrations.
My culinary prowess does not end with salad preparation. In fact, over the past five years, I have learned from observing my father how to sauté moist and tender chicken breasts, roast any vegetable that strikes my fancy when perusing the supermarket produce section, and form pastry dough from scratch with as much patience as I can muster. The simplest lessons, however, remain the most significant. Learning the little things through his presentations has brought us closer together than any other father-daughter bonding time I can recall.
My father and I are considered the fruit addicts in our immediate family. When I was a child, my mother would surprise me with a carton of fresh raspberries or a trip to the local peach stand after school, sweet treats that made me happier than any bag of potato chips ever could. The summer months were filled with homemade fruit salad; salivating with anticipation, I tossed in the strawberries, blueberries and seedless red grapes as my father prepared the watermelon and cantaloupe cubes. No fruit went to waste, even when separating its flesh from its skin required specialized skills.
Despite my obsession with fruit, I did not encounter a fresh mango until my high school years during a Caribbean family vacation. My father bought a bag at a local market and insisted on making smoothies after a day at the beach. I stared at its vibrant green and scarlet skin, unsure of what to do. Handing the mango back to my father, I admitted, "I have no idea how to cut one of these."
Within seconds he grabbed a sharp paring knife and began his demonstration. He guided the blade with his thumb and forefinger, carefully winding the peel away from the fruit in three long strands. Next, he strategically sliced a chunk of flesh from the bottom of the mango, creating a platform on which the fruit balanced as he effortlessly carved filets of mango meat away from its odd-shaped pit. Juice coated the surrounding countertop in a sticky, orange glaze. The soft fruit chunks melted on my tongue into sweetness I had never experienced before. I gnawed the remaining flesh off the pit with juice running down my arms and a smile plastered across my face as my father cleaned the counter covered with mango remnants.
My lessons in cutting troublesome fruit continued well after that tropical island vacation. My father began buying whole pineapples at home a few years later after realizing that they cost half the price of the pre-cut containers and tasted far better. Unfortunately, supermarkets stock pineapples long before they are ripe, and most patrons cut them on the day of purchase, wincing as they bite into the tough and sour pulp. But my father knew better. After several days of resting on the granite countertop, the pineapple's fragrant, sweet acidity overwhelmed the entire kitchen, and he knew it was time.
I stood close by, excited to see how he planned on removing the tender fruit from its cactus-like coat. Lifting the fruit by its spikey green ponytail, he leaned over the garbage can and twisted the hair until it fell cleanly from the fruit's head. He placed the pineapple on his cutting board, and quartered the fruit with two vertical chops of his chef's knife. Grabbing a smaller knife, he removed the inner triangular slivers of each piece, too rough and chewy to be enjoyable. Running the knife between the fruit flesh and prickly skin, he separated yellow from brown as one does when cutting a melon. Transforming the remnants of the quarters into cubed chunks, my father popped one into his mouth and said, "Now that's how you cut a pineapple."
Assisting the kitchen engineer can feel like a cumbersome task at times. Every cut is precise, every measurement is exact, and every directional step is completed with careful attention to detail. Only on a few occasions does my father let his desire overpower his measuring mind, when he knows creativity will enhance his experiment rather than destroy it. He will mix three different types of chocolate into his cream pie filling when the recipe only calls for one. He will toss as many rosemary sprigs and basil leaves into a pan as his nose suggests. And he will design impromptu concoctions of his own depending on his cravings and the available tools in the refrigerator.
Throughout our time spent in the kitchen together, I have come to learn just how much we share in common. We are impeccably organized, have a passion for creating new things, and enjoy bringing these two traits together in our culinary workshop. My father is just as curious about the world as I am, and he does enjoy answering my 20 questions. I just need to sit back quietly and let him explain in his way. I need to let him show me.