Nothing brings back the memories of a home-cooked meal quicker than the distinctive sound of a dull butter knife scraping across the face of blackened toast over the kitchen sink.
My mother, God rest her soul, was not a natural-born chef in the kitchen. She possessed, as they say, other important qualities. As a child, you tend to expect the outside world to be similar to the one you grow up with at home. The sights, the sounds, and for me the more-often-than-not morning toast blackened with love.
American food was genuinely foreign to her. Emigrating from Scotland as a 21-year-old adult, she left behind a menu of curious dishes so exotic and unusual the rest of the civilized world decided never to adopt. Food served in a sheep’s stomach, steak and kidney pie and heavily salted and dried fish.
Unfortunately, my mom would occasionally get a bit emotionally weepy for her homeland and put some Old World dishes on the kitchen table. And to our American taste buds, the ones already inducted into the world of salty fast food, her dishes tasted as bland as chewing notebook paper from a three-ring binder.
Toast, however, was a regular staple in our home — breakfast, lunch, dinner. Only as an adult did I recognize my mother employed a loaf of bread and stainless steel toaster like her own personal Swiss Army knife.
Toast and oatmeal for breakfast, a piece of toast with a slice of American cheese layered on top of a spread of butter for lunch, and a curious imported dish consisting of a boiling pot of grated cheddar cheese, odd spices and half a can of beer mixed in while cooking.
Don’t get me wrong; my mother could work her way around the kitchen. We never starved as a family. But we did, at times, tilt our heads a bit sideways like a dog picking up a far away whistle. And we would then dive in.
But the truth is, my mother’s best servings at the kitchen tables came in the form of long one-on-one conversations. Across the circular wooden table, she drew us into her first-person stories of her waking up in the morning and seeing a nearby house — the one her friend lived in — flattened from an overnight German bombing raid. Or she might help us put together a jigsaw puzzle, one with the United States on one side, the countries of the world on the other.
From there she would hold a piece and transport us with tales of other different worlds and enchanting ways of life. And then there was the morning she announced The Beatles were breaking up.
This week, I heard the sound of burnt toast being gently scraped by a butter knife above our kitchen sink at home. My wife rarely burns toast and feels embarrassed each time. What I don’t think she realizes, though, is how the staccato sound of a butter knife scraping across a piece of blackened bread is music to my ears.