“Doris, I Need You!”

Doris“Doris, I need you!” I call these words and, always, my husband comes to help.

No, my husband is not named Doris. But his mother was and, though she died years ago, I invoke her name regularly, and he answers.

Beyond her sunny personality and her goofy sense of humor, Doris had a special skill that my husband inherited and that I am, sadly, lacking.

Doris could glance at leftovers—the tomato sauce, the cauliflower, the salsa—and gauge volume so perfectly she could always choose exactly the right container to store the food in.

This sounds like a little thing. But, to me, this little skill spoke of a stunning store of knowledge that confounded and amazed me, and has taught me a little something about craftsmanship—you can’t have a beautiful, impressive finished product without being fully in charge of the most mundane and seemingly inconsequential details of your craft.

I learned of her skill the first time I met Doris. My husband-to-be and I traveled across the US to visit his parents. His mother welcomed me in her sweet way and cooked a huge, fabulous dinner. I was mightily impressed with the meal—can we talk about her tamales? Her blackberry cobbler? I was thinking I should ask for her recipes.

But, first, wanting to impress my future mother-in-law, I tried to help clean up the kitchen. I who was, and still am, pretty much without skill or clue in the kitchen.

Doris asked me to find a plastic refrigerator container to store the leftover rice and beans. She directed me to a cupboard with plastic containers and lids of every size, perfectly organized.

I picked one that seemed right and handed it to Doris.

Long pause. A look from the container to me, to assess whether I was kidding. The realization that, no, I was serious.

And then Doris, the sweetest woman ever, laughed at me! She laughed at me in that way that says, “You poor pitiful child. Don’t you know anything?”

And she explained how the container I had chosen was way too big and she pointed out the one she wanted. And I KNEW she was wrong, that the designated container would be too small. I would be vindicated.

You can see where this is going. Doris spooned the leftovers into that container. She scraped every last bean and grain of rice right in there and it was perfect. Just right. Spot on.

I think I realized, right then, that Doris’s recipes, alone, wouldn’t do me any good.

She could make the food she made because she knew her kitchen, and its pots and pans and Tupperware, the way all experienced craftsmen know their tools.

It was this complete body of knowledge that underpinned the exquisite final products, the food that came from her kitchen.

Instead of asking for Doris’s recipes, I should’ve asked to be her apprentice!

Luckily for me, my husband inherited Doris’s love of all things kitchen. He is at home there and regularly concocts wonderful meals. He, too, depends on his knowledge of the tools of the trade and his long experience wielding those tools.

In all of this, my role is to clean the kitchen. So, here I am, 25 years later, still struggling with an unfamiliar art form. A medium not my own.

I call out, “Doris, is this the right container?” and Doris, in her son’s voice, answers.