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Lisbon

A literary thank you letter to Ana, my Airbnb host during my summer in Lisbon last year, who did so much more for me than provide me with a comfortable stay just steps from Parque Eduardo VII. It turns out, I’d be one of her last guests, and I’m glad I made the cut.

I grew up in your kitchen, though we were acquaintances at best. I fumbled to light your gas stove, rummaged for the appropriate pots and pans to perform my pedestrian alchemy, burned my toast and attempted what you would characterize as a winter stew. It was the middle of summer in Lisbon, but it was one of the few things I could make by memory.

The sound of your espresso machine punctuated the a new day. Your ritual; two shakes of cinnamon and espresso downed in two gulps.

One time, you saw me reach for your favorite spoon. “You can use anything in my kitchen, just not that spoon,” you said. “Food doesn’t taste the same if I don’t use that spoon.”

You made daily trips to the supermarket and popped your head into my room (really, your room) to ask if I needed anything. These days, it was just you in the house. You talked about him sometimes, and sometimes when I’d pull out some leftover stew from your fridge, my eyes caught a glimpse of his photo prominently pinned to the right-hand side.

One sunny morning, you told me you never ate the same thing twice. I raised my eyebrows, skeptical, as you padded over to the espresso machine to show me how it works.

You kept your word. The truth was evident as I passed through the kitchen on my way out to late dinners or returned from an afternoon at the beach, It was evident in the dinner of steamed clams with vino branco and coriander I walked in on one evening; in the almond-flour breakfast cake you topped with raspberries; in the baked sweet potato layered with gooey brie you pulled out of the oven the next.

Your oven required a spatula to unhinge its door. Its many knobs and dials intimidated me. I never did use it. I learned some other tricks, though. Like how the gas stove burner closest to me is easier to light than the one further away, or how even the most benign food debris will clog your kitchen sink. In one particularly victorious moment I, learned how to manually light said gas burner.

Sometimes, when I was alone in your space, I admired the weathered handles of your knives and peeked into the clear vessels that held answers to a brighter plate; pink salt, sesame seeds, pepper corn, chili flakes. Sometimes I stood in your pantry for a few minutes, gazing at your collection of olive oils, balsamic vinegars, sugars, pastas and beans. “Will I ever have a pantry like this one day?” I wondered.

This newfound eye for variety was significant.

Before, I was too busy for culinary details. You were never too busy for these details, because you know well that nourishment is more than survival, but plays the spectrum of emotions too.

We rely on it when we’re sad, like when your close friend died unexpectedly and you didn’t feel like eating, but you made a bite anyway. Or, when you returned home at 5 a.m. because you ate and drank too much in your cousin’s garden the night before.

You were exhausted, but you pulled together a breakfast cake (using blueberries instead of raspberries this time). You felt, hungover and that you, “don’t have age for this,” but sustenance was necessary. Sustenance is necessary.

Like you, I need to trust that my own two hands can provide for me as well as I had it before.

Before, when Dad overcooked the salmon or under salted the chicken, according to Mom. Whatever the critique was, I could depend on a place setting at the dining table.

Before, when I had an other who led meal preparation duties while I tapped away at my laptop. I may have been preoccupied, but I admired the creativity in the kitchen. Mexican childhood favorites, to beautifully seasoned seafood and Thai noodle and Indian curry experiments. I may have been preoccupied, but I admired the risk he took in the kitchen. With every meal, I felt cared for. I felt like a priority. He even made winter stew.

In your kitchen, I tested the limits of my comfort zone. Cautious and hopeful, I gave my best attempt at black eyed peas with olive oil and garlic I tasted during a fado tour in Alfama. I showed it to you, and you seemed pleased. And then you reminded me I had forgotten to add the coriander.

Another week, I attempted a tomato-based mushroom and pea ravioli a friend made me once in Barcelona. Most mornings, I relied on the basics; burnt toast with Azorean butter, a few slices of presunto – which you introduced me to – and a fried egg, sprinkled with a pinch of your pink salt.

Months later, I returned home. Feeling adventurous, I reached into the shallow depths of my spice cabinet, pushed the salt and pepper aside, and wrapped it around the jar of coriander.

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