It’s quite easy to buy a cheese grater in Oaxaca, a flat made-in-China tin alloy rectangle with a handle, for no more than a couple of bucks. But I already have a cheese grater. It’s somewhere, on route form Boston-New Jersey-California-Laredo-Nogales. And it might get here soon. So why should I buy another? The modern ones aren’t that good anyway, and mine has the advantage of having diligently grated on, for at least fifty years.
It’s also possible to buy Kraft grated Parmesan cheese, in a plastic container with a green cover with punched holes to shake out the cheese. Which I have bought, for our spaghetti, over several years until this week when I had my grated cheese epiphany and decided Kraft grated cheese is not really cheese, it’s chemicals in powder form. From here on, only pure Parmesan, imported from Italy and enveloped in a fine black wax. Hence the need for a grater.
This is the night before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking about how in my family days I would grate and chop, pare and cut, roll the crusts and stuff the birds, etcetera. Not being very good at expressing my affection verbally or physically, I relied on cooking that one giant meal for the year’s worth of nurturing. It remains my most sentimental and cherished holiday: me as mother.
Here in Oaxaca many of the ex-patriots are preparing to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, including cranberry sauce flown down in the luggage of snow-birds. Not us, though. I don’t want to try to evoke that big early-winter family gathering, when here I am living with George in the warm sun. Oaxacans are succumbing to Halloween and Christmas, two absolutely poisonous commercial encroachments, but so far, no Thanksgiving. Even the American library will stay open, for those of us with no Thanksgiving spirit.
But I do have the spirit. I sallied out to our local Gigante, the to-be-avoided Oaxaca commercial supermarket, to bring home a nice piece of imported Parmesan, for tonight’s spaghetti. And I set about grating it with a serrated knife. It took me about two hours; my forearm stiffened and my hand went into a cramp. George mercifully ate the last inch. I am dusted all over the front of my embroidered Mexican blouse with a fine pollen of Parmesan. The table is sprinkled, too; I sweep up cheese and deposit it into the empty Kraft container which George so sweetly cleaned off for me in anticipation of this very event. I saved the container for three months, and finally, here it is to serve its destiny. In goes the Parmesan, like dust in the vacuum cleaner bag which I anticipate arriving soon. The spaghetti is boiling, the vegetable sauce for it is simmering with garlic and basil. George looks at me and remarks, I’ve never seen you so patiently preparing food. He didn’t know me in my Thanksgiving days, and obviously has forgotten the year I cooked at his house, which certainly I have no intention of reminding him of. Instead, I reply: I used to do it all the time, for Thanksgiving, fifteen hours of labor for thirty minutes of eating. Ah, says George, you’re missing Thanksgiving.
No, not a bit of it. What I am missing is the act of cooking as a display of nurturing. Don’t you notice, I say peevishly to George, that I chop and peel and cut and stir vegetables for you every damn night? This is more or less a lie; I do it a few nights per week, one night we eat out and on three we eat re-heated leftovers. It’s not really nurturing, it’s my half of our living agreement. I cook he washes.
Nevertheless, in reply to my surly assertion, he came around the table to kiss the back of my neck, the front being oily with cheese dust.
I don’t know if it’s better to give or to receive, when it comes to nurturing. Maybe it depends on who’s cooking, and if you like spaghetti. I loved seeing how the grated cheese melted on top of the hot sauce, unlike Kraft which sits there in a sort of perky poison for the life of the meal. But I have no intention of enduring two hand-paralyzing hours of grating again. I found my Thanksgiving moment, hecho a mano, like we say hereabouts, and now I’ll wait for my grater to arrive, or if it never comes, I’ll buy a new one, made in China.