She'd make all the ingredients individually for her kimchi-jjigae," he went on. "Anchovy stock. Her own kimchi, which made the cellar smell like garlic and red pepper all the time. The pork shoulder simmering away. And when she'd mix it all together..." He trailed off, tipping his head back against the seat. It was the first movement he'd made over the course of his speaking; his hands rested still by his sides. "It was everything. Salty, sour, briny, rich, and just a tiny bit sweet from the sesame oil. I've been trying to make it for years, and mine has never turned out like hers."
My anxiety manifestation popped up out of nowhere, hovering invisibly over one off Luke's shoulders. The boy doesn't know that the secret ingredient in every grandma's dish is love. He needs some more love in his life, said Grandma Ruth, eyeing me beadily. Maybe yours. Is he Jewish?
I shook my head, banishing her back to the ether. "I get the feeling," I said. "I can make a mean matzah ball soup, with truffles and homemade broth boiled for hours from the most expensive free-range chickens, and somehow it never tastes as good as the soup my grandma would whip up out of canned broth and frozen vegetables."
Damn straight, Grandma Ruth said smugly.
Didn't I just banish you? I thought, but it was no use.
"So is that the best thing you've ever eaten?" Luke asked. "Your grandma's matzah ball soup?"
I shook my head. I opened my mouth, about to tell him about Julie Chee's grilled cheese with kimchi and bacon and how it hadn't just tasted of tart, sour kimchi and crunchy, smoky bacon and rich, melted cheese but also belonging and bedazzlement and all these feelings that didn't have names, like the dizzy, accomplished feeling you'd get after a Saturday night dinner rush when you were a little drunk but not a lot drunk because you had to wake up in time for Sunday brunch service, but then everything that happened with Derek and the Green Onion kind of changed how I felt about it. Painted over it with colors just a tiny bit off.
So instead I told him about a meal I'd had in Lima, Peru, after backpacking up and down Machu Picchu. "Olive tofu with octopus, which you wouldn't think to put together, or at least I wouldn't have," I said. The olive tofu had been soft and almost impossibly creamy, tasting cleanly of olives, and the octopus had been meaty and crispy charred on the outside, soft on the inside.