It has been difficult, all these years, for me to say, “My teacher,” to accept with gratitude and a degree of humility that I have more to learn, and that when I’m ready to learn, the teacher will appear.
Now it has happened.
My teacher appeared a month ago, sitting at the head of a table at SOMOS, the office of the Society of the Muse of the Southwest in Taos.
The five women and one man who gather, once a week, around that table are as different as we could possibly be: a doctor of alternative medicine, a woman suffering from a terminal illness who writes about trekking in the Himalayas, a courageous soul who gave up her baby for adoption years ago because she couldn’t love him, a quiet and composed holder of faith in family, and a man who writes in exquisite, painful detail about what it’s like to have Parkinson’s.
Bonnie Lee Black, our teacher, guides us through reading our excerpts and discussing them like an inspired mother—the mother we all think we wanted—firm, clear, decisive, showering us with the attention and respect we all try, and often fail, to give to those we love.
At a recent class, Bonnie handed each of us a surprise: her sweet tart cookbook, compiled from recipes she perfected over time, beginning during her ten years of running a catering business in New York City, a job, she said, that tired her more than two long stays in Africa.
I’ve never been a dab hand at tarts or any other sweet desert, having learned as a child to avoid sugar as the root of all evils, not because of health consequences but because of the old-time obsession with weight. Sugar was believed to add pounds overnight—perhaps adding not only size but self-assurance. It’s hard to have much self-assurance when one is a sugar-deprived twig.
Now I am going to have to try at least some of Bonnie’s recipes.
First comes “Mom’s apple pie tart,” enshrining a memory of her mother: “You must work fast, she told me softly as her cool, slender, manicured hands worked quickly and deftly. She knew what she was doing.”—and she used Crisco for the crust.
Bonnie also remembers a girlhood summer in Maine when she worked with her grandmother, part of a staff of elderly, devoted people who took care of a wealthy Philadelphia family.
Bonnie learned her grandmother’s rules for house cleaning: “Close the drain—dry the sink—don’t let water marks remain; dust each rung along the stairs—lift each plant—move each chair. Grandmother’s instructions became a litany I sang to myself that summer.” And she learned to make a blueberry tart with berries she picked in the surrounding hills.
Then came Paris and Tarte Tatin—one of my favorites, although I never knew before that it was the result of a tart flopping upside down on the floor.
When she ran her catering business in New York, Bonnie specialized in heart-shaped deserts, “like a devout missionary spreading the gospel of love.”
That’s what she spreads over her students. My inborn, ingrained skepticism made me wonder at first if this method would work for me—but Bonnie doesn’t lack for rigor.
After all, good cooks must work with unfailing vigilance and discipline.
Like good writers.