Yesterday, when they announced that our flight to Boston was delayed, Brendan and I headed straight for the tequila and taco place across from our gate. We ordered “skinny” margaritas – tequila and lime juice and simple syrup, but with no Triple Sec or salt, a drink I’ve always called “a margarita without the bullshit” and which has long been one of my all-time favorite cocktails. This one was made with “organic” silver tequila, which made me wonder what pesticides they’re putting on regular agave plants these days.
Outside the huge plate-glass window, guys in vests drove luggage around in little trucks, moving it in and out of planes’ bellies. It looked very, very hot out there. I guessed that our waitress, whose badge identified her as Shelley, was about my age. She had that desert skin – healthy-looking, but tanned and weathered; she might have been half Mexican, but then again, maybe not. I knew she was a native of Arizona because she had that very specific accent, the accent I used to have and almost never hear anymore — when she talked to me and I answered, I suddenly had it again, too. We could have been in the same 6th grade class together, all those years ago. We flirted the way women do when one is drinking tequila with her boyfriend and the other hopes for a good tip.
Whenever I’m back in Arizona, I usually feel a subtle but definite disconnect, an echo of my ancient repudiation of the place, that flat, hot, bright, wide-open desert I never felt at home in as a kid. This time, though, I loved being there. My mother’s big, breezy, bright house on a plateau in the mountain town of Oracle has a smooth herringbone-brick floor and a covered flagstone veranda that runs the length of the triple glass sliding doors. Her front and back gardens are green and full of rosemary shrubs and thriving flowers. Hummingbirds come to rest in the little tree by the feeder and sit absolutely still there. All around are mountains.
During the 6 days I was there, it seems in retrospect, I did nothing but sleep, cook, talk, drink, and eat. Conversations were free-ranging, from serious to silly, always opinionated. I conked out every night well before midnight and slept deeply until 8, then took naps in the afternoons, long, comalike. My sleep was profound, unbroken, the knocked-out, dream-electrified, all-below slumber of an animal in a burrow where no predator can reach it. My mother’s house and presence are safe and restorative; being there this time, I felt myself give in to the torpor, sloth, and heedless sprawl of the summer vacations of my childhood. I felt as if I were a guest at a sort of return-to-the-womb spa.
As always, cooking and eating were the primary shapers of our days and focus of our energies, or rather, mine, since my mother was busy planning and packing for a solo camping trip in Colorado and Brendan had a nasty stomach bug of some kind and didn’t want anything too rich or spicy. I took on the challenge of cooking for all our dietary needs, temporary and otherwise; my mother became a vegan a number of months ago for health reasons. Her shelves and fridge are, luckily, stocked with enough staples for months of animal-free eating, neat rows of corked glass jars, bags, and cans of grains, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, spices, dried fruit, and herbs. However, in honor of our visit, and in frank hopes of cadging some contraband, she’d laid in cod filets, salmon, organic chicken thighs, and New Zealand ground beef, in addition to all the kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, potatoes, onions, fennel, cucumbers, etc. bursting from the fridge drawers.
The first night, I made two mild curries, one of vegetables in coconut milk, and one of cod chunks poached in a curried bath of garlic, orange juice, cilantro and ginger, with red quinoa and a peach chutney made with apple cider vinegar. The next night, I baked the chicken thighs in peanut oil and salt and served them with Brussels sprouts in a glossy mustard-olive oil-honey sauce with toasted nuts, and sweet potato wedges roasted in a balsamic glaze.
On our last night, Brendan (fully recovered) and I made an Irish shepherd’s pie with the ground beef that had been flown around the world, which technically made it a cottage pie. The Worcestershire sauce-red wine-tomato paste gravy was gluten-free, and the mashed potatoes were dairy-free, but it might have been served, credibly, in a pub in County Kerry.
One evening, we went over to my mother’s friend Michael’s house for a glass of wine and to watch the moon rise over the wild desert. He’s wiry, blue-eyed, and white-haired and lives in the middle of nowhere. He built his own house over a decade or so and is currently hard at work on the stonemasonry of the outer walls. He lives with four parrots, the largest of whom is a lush who dips his beak into the nearest wine glass.
Michael has a clawfoot bathtub out in the desert beyond the patio where he takes hot baths in the snow at night in winter. His walls are hung with his large charcoal drawings of Montana rivers. Before he retired, he told us, he used to do graphics and advertising for liposuction-machine companies and is planning to write a book about it based on Waugh’s “The Loved One.” On the mantelpiece of the big stone fireplace he built is a squishy breast implant that looks like an objet d’art until you know its real identity.
Later that night, back at my mother’s, after a simple dinner of hot boiled red potatoes with olive oil, salt, and parsley, plus baked salmon and a mango-avocado-black bean salsa, plus more red wine, we saw a black-and-white banded kingsnake slithering along the flagstones of the patio. We went out to look at it, barefoot.
“Always wear shoes outside,” my mother said. “Everything out there’s out to get you.”
Then we prowled around my mother’s acre of hilly desert land with a special flashlight, hunting scorpions, which leapt into weird, neon-white relief in the purple light, curling tails and claws flagellating gently until my mother smashed them with a flat rock.
In a blender, put 2 T each olive oil and frozen orange juice concentrate, the juice from 2-3 limes, 1 teaspoon of sweet paprika, 1/2 bunch of chopped cilantro, 3 cloves garlic, and 1/2 roasted red pepper. Blend into a creamy sauce. Pour over a 1 – 1½ pound piece of salmon in a baking dish and bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees.