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A Culinary Wish Comes True, Briefly

I've always said that I'll clean my own dirt, do my own wash, and mend my own clothes. But if I had the financial wherewithal, I'd hire a cook. Before I adopted my son three years ago, I subsisted on minimalist meals: beans and franks, macaroni and cheese, BLTs. My disdain for cooking was such that I wanted to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible, so as not to have to spend too much time doing the thing I do least well.

It's not that I can't cook; it's just that I have no instinct for it. I can't remember recipes and I have absolutely no capacity for innovation: If a recipe calls for oregano and all I have is Italian seasoning, I'll abandon the project and escape to McDonald's. This lack of "feel" for the cooking art has always made it a joyless act for me.

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But when my son arrived I knew, of course, that I would have to mend my ways. I needed to start thinking in terms of balanced meals, of fruit versus cake for dessert, and of enough variety to entice him to sit down at the table with something resembling anticipation.

I think I've failed at this, too. When I bring a meal to the table, it's like approaching a prince with an exotic dish from a newly discovered land. My son sits, staring straight ahead, while I hover over him with cautious abandon, bearing a covered casserole. I set it down in front of him, carefully, remove the lid, and watch for his reaction. On rare occasions he firms his lip, nods his head, and quietly accepts the repast as I sigh with relief. Normally, though, he hangs his head and massages his 10-year-old temples. "How sad," he seems to be saying. "How sad."

I recently shared this woe of mine with a friend who has a knack for coming up with tasty, satisfying, healthy meals in an almost incidental manner, while carrying on a phone conversation and holding a two-year-old in her arms. She plainly has a culinary gift. As I sat at her table, watching her cook, complaining bitterly about my morass, she asked, "What would you do if you had one wish?"

My eyes glazed over as I stared into the distance. I described the ideal situation. "If I had the money," I told her, "I'd hire a woman from Bolivia. She'd be grandmotherly, round, and wearing a serape of many colors. Her name would be Pascuala. While I was at work and my son in school, she'd be at my house cooking. And when we returned home at the end of the day there'd be a hot South American meal steaming on the table. We'd sit and eat, with Pascuala standing over us, wringing her hands and crying tears of joy. At the end of the meal my son would leap into her arms, cover her with kisses, and say 'Thank you' a thousand times."

My friend shook her head and firmed her lip, as if to say, "How sad."

A propitious moment came when my son returned home from school one day and told me his class was studying the rain forest.

Inspiration struck. Why not, I proposed, go to visit a rain forest? I checked with the travel agent and found that tickets were more than reasonable. As a final touch, I used my computer to hunt up a Costa Rican family willing to house us.

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We were off. Not only did a promising trip lie ahead, but I wouldn't have to cook for 10 days.

COSTA RICA was as breathless as I had heard. It has two beautiful coasts, a lot of intact rain forest, and a generous, open people. The family we stayed with had 40 members - though not under one roof. My son, Alyosha, and I lived with the matriarch. She and her sons and daughters and grandchildren treated us like family, and we grew close and confiding in very quick time.

I took my son into the rain forest. We saw the requisite monkeys, parrots, and magnificent insects. It was clear that this is what my son would remember most about the trip. But what gratified me most was a daily event that was, indeed, a dream come true.

It was like this. While Alyosha and I were out seeing the country, our hostess, who always rose at 4 a.m., was home cooking. When we returned in early evening, there it was, sitting on the table: plates and bowls of beans, meats, fruits, bread, and seasoned tomatoes, aromatic to the point of making my cheeks ache. The steam seemed to rise up and twist itself into finger-like wisps, beckoning us to sit and enjoy. We did sit, and we did enjoy, Alyosha no less than I. And the grandmother? She sat at the end of the table, her hands clasped, nodding with pleasure that we took such satisfaction in her cooking. The only thing lacking were her tears, but one can't have everything, especially in a strange country.

When we left this dear family, my son was saddened at parting from his newfound friends. As for me, I couldn't take my mind off the cooking. Our hostess wrote down some of her recipes for me, but, like cut flowers, they wilted in my hands and tasted no better than day-old hash once I got them back to Maine.

I think I'm a little better for the experience, though. At least I know what good food is supposed to taste like, and this inspires me to keep on trying. As for my son, he seems to have become more forgiving toward my efforts in the kitchen, realizing perhaps that although I will never have my Pascuala, I really am doing my best. But for 10 days I had a taste of my dream and, as with any ideal, even a taste is a gift that must be accepted with humility and gratitude.

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