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Immeasurable

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07/21/2010

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Clarity. It all started out with a cooking class. Well, me and our Ethiopian nanny cooking together. So, it was more of a lesson than a class, which I think ends up making more sense.

We hired an Ethiopian nanny because I strongly believe that when you adopt internationally, you bear a responsibility to keep the birth culture alive in the heart of your child. Prior to our daughter's arrival last October, I picked up a small, unintimidating book entitled something to the effect of, "Amharic made easy." First of all, I would like to say there is no such thing. The alphabet is different and the sounds are completely unfamiliar, which makes them extremely difficult to pronounce without guidance. I was deflated. I had imagined meeting my daughter, scooping her up in my arms and exclaiming in a paragraph (at least) of fluent Amharic about our love for her, her beautiful eyes, the weather, etc. This was clearly not going to happen. Not even close.

Once I realized, despite my great intentions, that I was not going to be able to teach my Ethiopian daughter Amharic, I knew I needed help. I reached out to a woman I had met through the Ethiopian Cultural Society. I told her I was looking for someone to teach my daughter Amharic and someone to teach me how to cook traditional Ethiopian food. She recommended someone. That someone, Mendena, came over to meet us and she, along with her sister, Sinta, have become an extended part of our family.

So, now back to the cooking lesson. Here I stood, pen and paper in hand, ready to take copious notes. All the requested ingredients sat sprawled on the kitchen counter. There were empty pots sitting wide open on the stove, awaiting Ethiopian deliciousness to be cooked inside them. "So...," I began as I observed potatoes being hand peeled. "How many potatoes do you cut?" I asked. Sinta replied with a shrug, "Oh, maybe three, four or five." My eye twitched a little. My writing hand stood still. "So, four?" I asked again. (Four was in the middle of those two numbers, so that made sense to me.)

"OK," Sinta replied. OK? Hmmmm. Sinta turned the fire on under the pot. Thirty or so seconds went by. Me: "Um, there's nothing in there." Sinta: "We warm the pot before we add the oil." I smiled. I wrote down, Warm pot for 30 or so seconds prior to oil.  Now we were getting somewhere. Sinta added oil. Me: "How much oil do you put in?" Sinta: "Some." Some? Some?! Excuse me, but what the hell? I'm taking notes! A tablespoon? Two? Some? Some does not translate in the world of cooking and recipe writing. I’m not happy.

Fast forward. There were onions, garlic, and salt. There were diced tomatoes, cabbage, lentils, green beans and carrots. There were ancient Chinese secret Ethiopian spices. In time, three pots bore amazing smelling food. I looked down at my pad of paper. No measurements. Instead I had written stuff like some, add when necessary, a little bit, or a little while.

I thought over what had happened. The whole process of cooking this meal had taken about an hour and a half. The meal could have been cooked in half that time. An American version of the same dishes would have included measurements, how thick or thin vegetables would be cut, cooking times and heating temperatures. But what I came to understand was that here in my small kitchen, I had learned a big lesson about myself and how my culture was so very different from my daughter's.

Sinta was passing on to me the experience she had in her kitchen growing up in Ethiopia. She stood watching her mom cook. Just time and repetition as her guide observing her mom cook over and over again until she got it. I asked Sinta and she said there were no written family recipes. I told her I was shocked…and delighted. This was a very new way of being in my kitchen for me. I felt like I was being given an incredible gift that I now would have the opportunity to share with my daughter.

I don't know if everyone in Ethiopia cooks this way. My sense is, that yes, it's just the way of living there. They have a consciousness geared towards family and tradition with no sense of urgency. That’s their daily life.

Now this may be a shock, but as incredible as an experience as it was, this cooking lesson did not make me Ethiopian. But it did give me an opening to start thinking about my own rushed and impatient American ways. My need for definitiveness and tangible results rarely allows me to stop and live in the moment. I am always four steps ahead. I am rushing here to get to there, and then, I'm rushing back. I have taken the time since this cooking experience to cook this food with friends. And while I am cooking, I am telling them what I learned in the process of it all. And I am present with the food and its preparation. I enjoy the experience of cooking each individual ingredient with no sense of urgency to jump to the next step.

Right now, my daughter just drags her doll around the kitchen while I cook. Sometimes she sits on my foot. I look forward to the day when she stands next to me, learning from me something she would have learned in her birth country. But for now, I savor the moment and am content with the Ethiopian spirit of simply being present. Because "present" is just another word for "gift."

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