I spent the summer of my sixteenth year with my maternal grandmother in a big stone house on the Penobscot Bay in Maine.  That summer house was a mansion, really, owned by an elderly super-rich couple from Philadelphia.  My grandmother, getting on in years and nearing retirement, was one of their household help, and I was there that summer to give Grandma a hand with her work.

My memories of those ten weeks in Maine fifty years ago are more vivid to me now than my memories of what I did yesterday here in Taos.  I can still hear my grandmother’s instructions, like a song I learned to sing to myself:  …dry the sink…close the drain…don’t let water marks remain; dust each rung along the stairs…lift each plant…move each chair…

I remember the long, lone walks I took into town, through pine-scented woods and open pastures, after I’d completed the  morning’s chores and while all the old people of the house (which is to say, all of the people in that house) took their afternoon naps.  My daily destination was the dock, where I would sit and watch the fishermen repairing their lobster pots and the old men whittling sea gulls out of driftwood and the vacationers returning from a week’s windjammer cruise and the others waiting to board.

But most of all I remember the time I spent with the stern, German cook, Emmy, in the mansion’s cavernous basement kitchen and the lasting effect those hours with her had on me.  When I go back to that kitchen in my memory, I see Emmy, big-boned, henna-haired, and toweringly tall, performing miracles with her large, strong hands.  I can almost taste the salmon she prepared for a special Sunday buffet — a whole, cold poached salmon, iced like a cake with thick homemade mayonnaise, with olive rings for eyes and pimento strips for fins.  To me, this was art, framed by a sterling silver tray.  I had never seen food presented quite this way, not even in a magazine.

Here was a woman who got paid to cook, I marveled at the time.  She was a professional — and proud of it.  The spacious, well-equipped kitchen of this Maine house was her territory (as well as her sanctuary), and not even the madam of the house dared enter it.  So I felt privileged to be sitting on a stool at the kitchen’s center work table, watching Emmy in action.  Secretly, too, I felt sorry for the madam:  Even with all her money she wasn’t free to stroll in here and make herself a sandwich.

Mostly, I watched Emmy silently, taking it all in — the soothing perfume of the pastries baking, the bright colors of the fresh vegetables picked that morning by the gardener, the sizzle in the heavy saute pan as she seared the meats.  Though she was a large woman, her movements were balletic, her timing impeccable, her quiet confidence in her own ability soaring.  I was in awe.

“Here, liebshein,” she said in her thick German accent, offering me a morsel of the dish she’d been working on, destined for the madam’s dinner.  “Taste this!”

She taught me, without meaning to, that cooking is neither mindless nor menial; rather, it is supremely meaningful.  She taught me the pleasures of new flavors, the joy of savoring and appreciating food.

Ah, food.  Like too many teenage girls — and others, then and now — I had turned food into an enemy and the kitchen into a battlefield.  In the year prior to that summer in Maine, I had lost thirty-five pounds, in a crazy scheme to exact some control over my life.  World War III was raging at my home in suburban New Jersey in the run-up to my parents’ long overdue divorce, and my personal response to all the warfare was to disappear by dieting.  Looking back now, I can see that Emmy and her kitchen saved me.

I especially remember one day, as she was sewing a boned, stuffed, veal roast with a long, steel needle and kitchen twine, I asked Emmy what it was like being a teenage girl in Germany during World War II.  Focusing on the meat, painstakingly stitching it together like a surgeon after a long, successful operation, she told me about the bombings, the terror, the death and deprivation.  Her stomach, she said, was always knotted in fear and near-starvation.  “We had no real food,” she said, knotting the twine and tenderly patting the veal roast as if it were a baby on a changing table, “only bad bread.”

Grandma had told me — hush-hush — that one of Emmy’s sisters had killed herself, hung herself, in the hall closet of their home during the war.  “But don’t let on I told you,” Grandma said.

“How did you survive?” I asked Emmy, as she lifted the roast carefully, about to place it in a roasting pan.

She looked at me and smiled conspiratorially, revealing a gap in her front teeth I hadn’t noticed before.  “We either break or bounce,” she said, allowing the meat to fall with a little bounce into the pan.  “Now, liebshein, let’s bake some nice blueberry muffins and eat them warm from the oven — with butter!”