As June comes to an end, I think a lot about the nature of rituals in our lives.
Every morning on these summer days, I make my coffee and go visit my garden, sometimes to water, sometimes to smash cabbage worms or pick a few strawberries, usually I do the heavy garden work later, saving my morning visit just for that, to visit, while I sip my rich coffee out of my favorite mug and breathe in the scents of roses and lavender drifting to me. I rub my basil leaves, take a photo in my mind of each new tomato blossom, admire the inches the sunflowers have stretched overnight, watch the morning sunlight flicker off the newly made spider webs stretching from plant to plant.
Just a few minutes is all I need by myself with my coffee in my garden and I feel more centered for the day; this ritual soothes a place inside of me. I think that is why I have always loved swimming, another type of ritual in itself, my quiet underwater space, the rhythm of swimming laps, one arm over the other, pull after pull, a sort of meditation to bring peace to my mind. Yoga, writing in a journal, cooking, all these rituals I seek out to bring meaning to my world, to calm and comfort me, to make me think, a deliberate act of being alive.
This will be the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death, and I know I talk about her a lot, but my food memories are so entwined with my memories of her that I can never separate the two. I have no desire to. Every year on this evening, since her death, I celebrate her life, not her leaving, with a delicious meal, my own intentional way to feel her presence.
This year I dug out my mom’s recipe for Quick Béarnaise to make one of my absolute favorite dishes, steak with Béarnaise. I’d eaten steak with Béarnaise a few months back at a restaurant in Seattle, and my cousin, Caitlin, had recently asked for my mom’s recipe. It was calling to me; I could almost taste it in my mind.
I suppose you could make steak with Béarnaise any time of year, but for me it’s best served on a perfect summer evening. And I’m convinced that has to do with my palate of memories connected to it rather than it really being a seasonal thing, like the need for a cold gazpacho on a sweltering hot day or the way beef bourguignon warms you all the way to your toes after a frosty day spent on the ski slopes.
Growing up in Colorado, summers always seemed magical to me, living two blocks away from our swimming pool, Skyline Acres, in Southeast Denver. The dry heat and blue skies, the attic fan lulling us to sleep at night with the windows open. Dinner on the back porch of our house on Leyden Street.
So much of the time during those summers growing up, I spent daydreaming, my thoughts traveling light like the barely there breeze, before adolescence, when life seemed as easy and magical as the harvest moon. As if afternoons were just made for napping after spending all one’s energy at the pool soaking up the sunshine and chlorine. The scent of sunscreen trailed us everywhere. I daydreamed while walking to and from the pool, I daydreamed underwater, I daydreamed while reading book after book after book, even just resting in the cool grass under the trees in our front yard, my mind travelled to so many different places. Perhaps daydreaming was my childhood way of sinking into ritual, the peace of the familiar quiet place.
Dinner always lured me back to reality, the aromas too dazzling to ignore for the silly imaginary world in my head. My dad’s barbecue chicken and ribs, fruit salad with fresh strawberries, bananas and grapes, grilled salmon steaks, and my absolute favorite, steak with Béarnaise, one of the best things my mom ever made, and she made a lot of fabulous meals.
As I have grown into my own in the kitchen, all the aspects of creating a meal add to the ritual for me, not just the eating. Even now, shopping for the ingredients for this special recipe for Béarnaise seems a sort of reverence or homage to a long lost recipe I once loved, but haven’t made in a long time. Too long. White wine, tarragon vinegar, fresh tarragon, shallot, butter, eggs, cayenne, lemon juice, black pepper. All pieces to a delicious puzzle, and as I place each one in my grocery cart, they stir thoughts of my mom, of delicious meals eaten together.
Once I begin to chop I’m startled at how perfectly the fresh tarragon and shallots go together.
Even before I have cooked them down, the scents of the lemony licorice tarragon chopped next to the slightly sweet shallots sneak into some tucked away memory and send me back in a heartbeat to our Denver patio, the juice from that perfectly cooked steak dripping down my fork as I close my eyes and deliver that bite of meat covered in Béarnaise to my mouth.
I can still taste that meal from childhood, the way the classic butter, egg, tarragon sauce, goes with the char of a perfectly cooked medium rare fillet or rib eye. I can still smell the mint from our hugely overgrown mint bush in the backyard, the dry grassy air, my mom’s wine spritzer and my dad’s yeasty beer. If I listen closely I can almost hear our conversation about swim team practice, the tornado sirens, my mom’s Bridge group. I see our covered back patio with our black outdoor furniture. Even the can of Raid my dad kept handy to zap any intrusive bees during dinner is clear in my memory. And my mom sitting at our round, wrought-iron patio table dressed in an easy summer sundress, always looking classy. All of us drooling over our food.
Steak with Béarnaise was a special meal for us, a birthday dinner for my mom or my sister, my two June Geminis, a celebration, definitely a memory woven into my head of happy, delicious times.
I’m so grateful to my parents, both of them, for surrounding us with such amazing food and food traditions while we were growing up. We had special hors d’oeuvres for our Christmas Eve parties, particular cakes for birthdays, leg of lamb for Easter in Denver, even the simplest eye of the round sliced thin and served on little buns with sour cream horseradish sauce was served up with love and care at parties. And it wasn’t just the eating, but the ritual of cooking too, and how those acts of chopping, mixing and sautéing, seep into your skin, how scents – like garlic hitting a pan of hot oil, the lime squeezed into a white wine spritzer – create a memory. A taste test here and there to see if the pizza sauce has enough oregano, or if the guacamole needs any more lemon. The tasks, the conversation, the wine and laughter all mixing together for the perfect recipe.
Some people go visit a grave in remembrance, I cook. I gather my sacred ingredients, organize my necessary utensils and pans, pour a glass of wine, turn on some music and I imagine my mom next to me in the kitchen. I talk to my siblings and my dad, I look at pictures of my mom, I remember holding her hand and telling her it was okay to go when she couldn’t take one more breath. And I eat a delicious meal with my own family and celebrate her, hoping that through ritual, I can connect to those close to me and create the same heartwarming food memories that my mom gave to me.
Even though this recipe is an easy version of a classic French sauce, it’s not so easy you can do it with your eyes closed, unthinking, while a laundry list of other things to do plays through your mind. Like all ritual, it takes attention and being present. That’s also part of what makes it special. And I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Make it for yourself and relish every bite, or make it for someone you love for that perfect occasion to celebrate, even if all you are celebrating is that warm and perfect summer evening.
- 2 tablespoons white wine
- 1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
- 2 teaspoons chopped tarragon
- 2 teaspoons chopped shallots
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup butter
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- Combine the wine, vinegar, tarragon, shallots, and pepper in a skillet. Bring to a boil and cook rapidly until almost all the liquid disappears.
- In a small saucepan melt the butter, but do not brown.
- Place the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and cayenne in a blender. Cover the container and flick the motor on and off at high speed. Remove the cover, turn the blender on high and gradually add the hot butter. I like to hold a towel around the top of the blender when I do this to catch the splatter.
- Add the herb mixture, cover and blend on high speed for a few seconds.
- This sauce is best served warm and it's hard to re-heat as it can start to separate. So make it right before you plan to serve it. It's also delicious on grilled salmon, potatoes and asparagus.