My minor obsession started in a small apartment in Paris, with a bathroom so tiny I had to leave the door open for my legs to dangle through as I peed. I liked this bathroom. It made me feel like a sensuous Amazon with long legs. Giantess. Diana.
I know, isn’t it ridiculous, said my aunt as she watched me struggling to step out of the bathroom, laughing.
Now that you’ve figured that out, I’m going to show you some of the secrets I learned from the chef at Le Cordon Bleu.
Slowly, I stood over her tiny stove. I stirred and simmered my way through the famous secret recipe for three-mustards sauce. Enjoying the sensuality of watching the spoon cut through the thickening sauce.
And then we moved on to what would become my obsession.
Lisa, look at all these gorgeous tagines, said my aunt as she flipped through the sumptuous, colorful photos of a recipe book dedicated solely to this dish. We were collectively enraptured.
My fingers ran over the pages with awe. Chicken tagine with apricots. Lamb and figs. Spring vegetables and potatoes. The rich stewed sauces. The clay dish that’s been seasoned for years with all of the spices of those mouth-watering gravies.
I’ve loved to cook since I was 7 years old, when I successfully stumbled my way through a yellow Duncan Hines cake mix in my mother’s kitchen and managed to produce a lopsided, yet decent, cake.
I’ve cooked elaborate dishes for loved ones and lovers over the years. Nurturing with luscious meals is one of my love languages.
Handmade gnocchi, from scratch. The grainy semolina sticking to my palms as I stamped every doughy ball with my thumb as an act of love.
Molten lava cakes that burst open with a dark, sensual goodness, exploding on your tongue with just the right hint of raspberry.
Let’s make a tagine, she says to me. Oh yes, let’s, please.
So we pull out her cast iron Le Creuset and we stir in the fresh butter we just bought at the butcher’s next door.
Then large whole cloves of garlic go in, fried to aromatic perfection. And on top of that we layer the chicken breast. And the spices that you can only buy at this one market in Paris that only the true chefs know about. Then a dash of coconut milk. Vegetables.
We sit and we eat our tagine dish while sipping on our aperol spritzes in wine glasses. I tell the story of how my father broke down crying in the middle of the night a month after my cousin was killed. It took a month for it to settle in. No tears. And then out of nowhere, 3am hits you. That’s the way of grief.
I can tell I’ve gone too deep, too intimate, with this conversation as my aunt and uncle slurp uncomfortably over their bowls.
My entire life, I’ve done this. Make people slightly uncomfortable by talking about what’s real and true. Create intimacy in a space and then people want to run away, because they’re afraid they might finally unravel the feelings they’ve kept tucked tightly inside.
Especially in my family. I always know because the subject switches quickly to something light-hearted and inconsequential, while their eyes dart from side to side not knowing what to make of this strange, depth-focused weirdo in their family.
Intense, some who can’t handle it might call me.
But I don’t know how to look into a human face, see the flesh on their bones, the soul in their eyes and NOT want to know everything about them. What lies in their heart. What they are feeling from moment to moment.
I don’t know how not to go full on into what interests me. I don’t know how to make endless small talk. I prefer my conversations round-bodied, earthy, and multi-layered.
Like a tagine.
That evening, in my tiny French bedroom with the old, Versaille-style walls, I pour over the internet researching everything about tagine.
A North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables prepared by slow cooking in a shallow earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid.
I am obsessed. I want to cook myself a tagine. In an authentic tagine dish from Morocco (not from Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma). I want to envelop myself in stews that feel like home and connect me to something potent like Moroccan spices.
I call up my aunt who lost her son recently. She’s going to Morocco for a wedding in a week.
If you go to the market, will you please buy me an authentic tagine? I don’t want anything fancy. Just the traditional tagine everyone uses to cook in at home.
She doesn’t know if that will be possible. They are kind of heavy. She doesn’t exactly feel like bringing one all the way from Morocco to Spain, where I’ll be meeting her in just a few weeks.
Try if you can, I gently insist.
Four weeks later I’m in Sevilla walking towards her in the town square. She hands me a cloth bag that smells like Fenugreek and curry.
I brought you your damn tagine! Happy? Be careful with it, or it will break, she says, laughing. I can tell the quest I sent her on for the tagine was a welcome distraction from grief.
I carry that tagine, wrapped in newspaper and extra socks from my suitcase, through the streets of Sevilla for three days as we move from apartment to apartment. I hold it in my lap as my plane flies 8 hours to New York City.
I get violently ill but I make sure to store it on pillows in my hotel room while I sleep for three days. I carry it again on a plane from New York to Florida. I store it in the closet of my room, so that my niece and nephews don’t accidentally knock it over. I unwrap it and wrap it again, so that it’s more secure.
I carry it with me again from Florida to California, balancing it ever so carefully on top of my luggage as I make the drive up the mountain to my home.
And then I unwrap it gently on my kitchen counter. Final destination. After traveling 6,000 miles.
But you can’t just open up an authentic tagine you bought in a Moroccan market and start cooking. No, there’s a whole process.
First you must season your tagine.
So I lovingly unwrap it again. I soak it in water for two hours. I set a timer. Then I coat it in olive oil and put it into an oven to bake for another 2 hours.
Now. Now I can finally use it. Now my love affair with spices and warm bowls of nourishment can begin, as I dream big while eating spoonfuls in my little house on top of the mountain.
That was my vision, my desire all along, you see.
And that’s the nature of our deepest desires isn’t it?
One day, a dream wakes up inside of you. You then turn it into a goal. And it doesn’t happen right away. There are journeys you must take to get there.
To make it happen, you must ask. You persist. You keep reminding other people about it.
You learn about it, stretch your knowledge. You get clear and you map out the journey.
You lovingly carry that dream in your lap across continents and vast oceans, risking a break. No matter how long it takes.
You check in on it constantly.
You methodically season that dream until finally, it’s sitting on your kitchen counter at your home. And you finally get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
That is the only way to make a dream a reality, you see.
And you of the big dreams… are you willing to devote yourself so completely?
Are you willing to carry a thing “too fragile” or “too impractical” until you can finally see it come to fruition?
Because the things of which you dream most deeply are always a risk. Are rarely logical.
And will always require nothing less than your profound devotion.
P.S: Did this resonate with you? If so, let me know in the comments below.