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At the moment, I am not cooking anything so if our kitchen smells of anything, it is of the pot of orange-flavored tea that I just brewed. But when I am cooking something I hate to turn the fan on; I want the cooking smells throughout the house. It means that life is being lived in here. People are moving in and out and wanting their dinners.

The house that I grew up in was as sterile as any layout you see in Architectural Digest. The furniture in the living room was just so with all of the silk embroidery pointing in the same direction. The knicknacks were dusted and shiny and nobody went into that room even during a party. It was a way to get to another room, rather like a hallway that took up a quarter of the ground floor. A smaller percentage of the ground floor was taken up by the formal dining room, which was even more infrequently used, there being quicker paths to the kitchen. The rooms that we used were grouped around these empty spaces, like satellites.

All doors to the kitchen were kept firmly shut when cooking was happening. Can’t be messing up the beauty of the house by the scent of cooking and the traces that there might be of people who lived there. Nope, just can’t have it.

Ethiopian berbere. Photo taken in Kent, Ohio w...

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Because I read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese last summer, and loved it so much that I insist on dragging it across country with me, just to have it close by, it has had at least one unexpected effect on me: namely, my cooking.

The book is not about cooking; food is mentioned in the due course of things, but no more than you might expect. One thing mentioned many times: berbere. Berbere is not a spice, but a mix of spices. It is heavily used in Ethiopian cooking, especially in a common chicken stew called doro wat.

And so, I wanted some. I looked in the ethnic cooking sections of grocery stores both regular and organic. I looked online and in spice and cookware stores: no berbere. Nobody even to tell me how to pronounce the word, since I know no Amharic. But lo and behold, Epicurious has a recipe, a small and little-noticed and unreviewed one but enough.

The directions are simple:

  • get thus-and-such bunch of spices
  • pour in bowl and mix

With directions that easy, I am not even sure that it qualifies as a recipe, but there it is. One thing it is not: ecologically friendly, at least in the ingredients I chose. The pepper came from Turkey and the cinnamon from Vietnam. That has got to be a huge carbon footprint, getting those things into my humble (?) American neighborhood.

However, the berbere is wonderful, and I used some immediately. I put almost a teaspoon into a jar of spaghetti sauce I was heating up on the stove, and it was the best spaghetti sauce I ever ate. So there: Ethiopian pasta. Can’t get better than that. I plan to figure out a vegetarian version of doro wat, if that is possible. And I promise to learn how to pronounce the word.

Yup, literature broadens my horizons.

The firewood was always freshly stacked in its brass bin by the fireplace in the den each winter afternoon. When I was little, I would try to carve this wood with the blade of the letter opener that sat with its matching pair of scissors and note pad by the telephone in the bar. This was the only blade that I could get my hands on. The logs were soft and prone to splintering and fraying. I succeeded only in making a small pile of splinters at best.

The fireplace stayed cold and dark all day no matter how cold it was. The reason for the fire’s existence was Dad. During the day, Mom stayed upstairs where the heat rose. I had my nice warm classroom.

Mom never mentioned the cold of the four decades of winters she spent in that house, but after I married and moved out, she unfailingly invited us to go to her condo downtown whenever we wanted so that we could warm up. I was always confused by her invitations which continued to be issued even though our furnace worked perfectly, until my husband remarked about how cold it had always been at my parents’ house.

My father’s job was to build a fire in the fireplace when he got home, after he mixed himself a fresh bourbon and water with a twist of lemon peel from a lemon whose rind had been slowly peeled away just like that over the past couple of days. He would fix a drink for himself:

  • first is the ice in the glass: one handful
  • one, or one and a half or two jiggers of bourbon which got delivered directly into the garage by people I never saw, on some sort of understanding and without the Ohio state tax stamps
  • water
  • a spoon of sugar
  • the twist of lemon peel sliced from lemons whose fruit was never used for anything else

He made a drink for Mom, as well, fresh from her afternoon’s bath. (“Always be fresh and ready when your husband comes home from work.”) Then, time for the news and homework.

… of where my childhood home used to be.

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The air is lighter and cleaner here. I feel healthy just walking down to my favorite coffee house.

Actually, my favorite coffee house here is one of about four different ones around here. Five, maybe. Everyone has a favorite.

The plains intersect with the mountains right here. I can drive for ten minutes into the Front Range and be a thousand feet higher than I am sitting here in our home.

Two environments — plains and mountains — and several different coffee houses.

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