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The Comfort of Carrots

(by Brigit Binns)



Once, I was saved by the sight of some diced carrots.


The phone rang on a Tuesday after a three-day weekend: “Your mother is in the hospital on a morphine drip.” Where I come from, morphine means the beginning of the end. I got on a plane and flew to the other coast. I had no idea when to schedule the return, and arbitrarily chose one week hence.


There was never any love lost between my mother and myself. We had barely held on to a sort of mutual dislike for 47 years. There was therapy, but she didn’t like the therapist after she (the therapist) offered, “Growing up, your daughter felt like an employee who could be fired at any time.” We stopped going.


Long ago, I had come to terms with the fact that nothing I could possibly do would ever change my mother’s opinion of me. It was a wonderful liberation.


She lived alone in Los Angeles, in a large house with two 90-pound Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Some years ago, after she’d fractured several vertebrae, I’d reorganized the house to avoid stairs, investigated various home-care services, and commenced a rigorous project of cooking for her freezer. Then I moved to the opposite coast. She still insisted on driving, even though by then she could barely see over the steering wheel. She bashed up her—and several other peoples’—car(s) after mistakenly hitting the accelerator when aiming for the brake. I cited the man in the Santa Monica farmers market who had done the same thing and killed 11 people.


“I think I’m smart enough to know when I should stop driving,” she said.


My mother was infuriating for any number of reasons. This was a person who had actively hidden her Jewish heritage—I found out about it at age 35. While still married to my father, and with his knowledge, she had been the long-time mistress of a prominent politician, citing my father’s impotence—to me at age 11, and to others—as an excuse.


And yet I was an only child, and all her friends had either died, or tired of her constant, sapping disdain. This was a sad and lonely woman who had hurt so many people that she was facing old age and declining health with support only from her various employees (household help, lawyer, accountant) and me. I had to feel sorry for her, and I did.


When I got the call on that Tuesday night, I went into a sort of trance, packed a bag, and got to L.A., then the hospital. She’d had non-invasive surgery to glue together three newly-fractured vertebrae. Her bones, said her doctors, were “like glass.” She had brow-beaten her G.P. into signing her release form. But first there was some drama about the silver ship’s whistle that my mother always wore on a chain around her neck. It had been a gift from Henry Fonda to my dad, the actor Edward Binns, when Fonda directed him in The Caine Mutiny—the whistle was an important plot point, incessantly used by the paranoid “Commander Queeg,” and Fonda gave one to all the top-line actors in the play. My mother insisted it had disappeared. Various nurses and attendants were accused. Security arrived. It turned up in her envelope.


With my mother’s declaration that “Brigit can do everything,” a private duty nurse was sent packing. I’d left that house 31 years before, swearing never to sleep in it again, but now I found myself caring for an almost-immobile invalid that I did not like, with needs and demands that were beyond obsessive. (When I was cooking in her kitchen, she hobbled around right behind me, bent over like a wire hanger, a sponge in hand, and every time I touched the counter, she wiped the spot I’d just touched.)


On the first day, I worked for 15 hours with a 40-minute break. I was ten minutes late

serving the lunch tray. (“There’s an awful lot of turkey on this sandwich. You still eat very rich foods, don’t you?”) I didn’t know how I could handle six more days of the same, but there was some child in me that could not ask for help, could not call the nursing agency or say to my mother, “I need someone to spell me for a shift.” It wasn’t a matter of money—the long-term care insurance would cover everything. But I fetched and cleaned and listened and did bathroom duty and cared for the dog population. And cooked.


“Wouldn’t it be fun if we made some lentils? Coquilles St Jacques?” she said.


We? Fun?


But cooking is one thing that I do well.


Her (in a whiny tone): “What am I having for dinner tonight?”


Me: “A little cured pork chop, a baked yam, blanched sugar snap peas, and sautéed summer squash.”


Her (with a look of horror): “Sautéed?”


Yet in that kitchen I took strength from my beautifully diced carrots, tumbling into the hot oil.

There is something so simple, so clear, so elemental, about the process of preparing food from good raw materials. If I could not bring myself to love this woman, at least I could leave a freezer full of food. As I cooked, I began to hatch a survival plan. It was simple, really: I would lie.


My departure date had never been mentioned. It was as though she thought—or hoped—

I would stay forever. I explained that I had to return to my own work and family; she complained but not vociferously. I left “for the airport” but actually drove to a girlfriend’s house. We had dinner and talked—good, girlfriend talk. I caught up with her children. The following night I dined with many of the fabulous, loving friends I’d missed so much in my time on the east coast. The next morning, I flew home. I harbored some guilt, but was secure in the knowledge that I’d done just what my mother would have expected of me.


I’d behaved like a 13-year-old.

---

Brigit Binns is the author or co-author of 30 cookbooks, many of them for Williams-Sonoma. After quite a few misguided attempts to live elsewhere, she now lives and cooks on the Central Coast of California. Her memoir, Rottenkid: A Succulent Story of Survival, was published by Sibylline Press.

Comforting Carrots


1 1/2 c. chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade

3/4 c. full-bodied white wine or vermouth

2 t. raw or turbinado sugar

1 sprig fresh tarragon or 1 piece peeled fresh ginger, about the size of a walnut

1/4 t. fine sea salt

several turns of freshly ground white or black pepper

2 lb. young (not “baby”) carrots, scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into 1/2-in. wedges on the

diagonal

20 cloves garlic, peeled and halved lengthwise

2 T. good olive oil

1 T. salted or unsalted butter (optional)

1 T. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley


In a large heavy sauté pan or skillet, combine stock, wine, sugar, tarragon or ginger, salt, and pepper.

Over low heat, stir gently until sugar has dissolved, about 1 minute.

Add carrots and garlic and increase heat so the liquid comes to a boil.

Cover pan and regulate heat to maintain a medium-low simmer.

Cook for 10 minutes, then uncover and continue cooking until virtually all the liquid has evaporated.

Maintain an active simmer and shake the pan occasionally. This should take about 20 minutes, but watch the pan carefully, especially toward the end, to prevent scorching.

As soon as all the liquid has evaporated, add olive oil and butter (if using), and brown the carrots and garlic, turning them occasionally with a metal spatula, until crusty and golden on the outside, about 7 minutes.

The carrots and garlic will be very tender; be careful not to crush them while turning, and do not allow them to scorch.

Remove the sprig of tarragon or chunk of ginger, sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately.

Serves 6.

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