The stove was already lit. Chopped ginger and onions coated in butter and oil, sizzling and softening on the flames.
The recipe called for one teaspoon of powdered fennel. I rattled through the spice jars on the wire rack inside the pantry and slumped back when I didn’t find it. I’m a cavalier cook, unafraid to substitute and omit. But this was a 12-spice Indian curry. A cuisine beyond my comfort zone. Who was I to know whether fennel was the one bright taste that enlivened the mix?
Searching further, I discovered a pot-bellied jar I’d forgotten I had. Popping the cork from its mouth, I shook a stream of seeds to my hand. Fennel. Small, ridged ovals, curved like commas. Members of the parsley and carrot family. Aha, I thought. Then, on my hands and knees, I peered into the dark corners of the cupboard beside the kitchen sink and found what I sought. A stone mortar and pestle, bought five years ago and never once used.
I had no idea how long it would take to render green seeds to powder. They looked tough-skinned and I prepared myself for labor. Music on. Windows cracked a few inches—in the desert, I welcome rain in any season. A deep breath. But the pestle’s cool smooth heft pleased my hand. The deliberate mashing motion lulled me. Slow and luxurious. The clink of stone as I crowded scurrying seeds against the sides of the bowl. I gazed at the potted geranium, the scattered measuring spoons and spatula, the swollen purple eggplant, and slim carrots rolling from the chopping board. I imagined myself a medieval monk, grinding medicinal tinctures. And then, with the first bruising, the smell burst into my kitchen. Anise. Licorice. It soaked my red tea towels.
The separation into chaff and grain occurred quickly. A mix of khaki-colored dust and emptied husks mounded in my bowl, and I wondered if I was supposed to pick out and discard the chaff. But although I’m finnicky about severing the veins and arteries from chicken breasts, I never peel tomatoes. Because thrift and fiber are good for us, right? So I ground some more, until the shells became splinters and then grit. Then I tossed the lot into the frypan.
Over Kelly Joe Phelps singing “Roll Away the Stone,” raindrops gusted and the warm air in the kitchen shifted. The smell of curry washed through the kitchen. Panes rattled as I fastened the window. I twisted and scraped the wooden spoon, mixing turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fennel until their yellow, brown, and green turned the color of mud. The rain outside became insistent. I thought of my daughter, flying home to me after two semester’s absence in Pennsylvania. The rice pot bubbled and rising steam lifted the lid, emitting a short burst of steam.
Swirling suds over the mortar and pestle, I breathed in the slow smoke of a simmering curry. I thought that slow healing was the only kind that stuck. Slow details and slow quiet pleasures. I picked up the striped linen tea towel, a gift from a faraway friend. I ran it around the lip and the hollow of the mortar, along the pestle’s length, listening to drumming on the roof, the lap of water in the bucket at the edge of the porch. I placed the pestle inside the granite bowl and returned mortar and pestle to the cupboard. Not at the back, where they had been stored for so long. At the front. Within easy reach. I was already thinking of molcajete guacamole with ground basil leaves and parmesan. Crushed ginger chutney.
Then, I opened the door, to watch the rain becoming wild. ✜
Gillian Haines is an Australian who lives in Tucson. For the past nine years, she has volunteered with Prisoner Visitation and Support to visit four men in the high-security U.S. penitentiary southeast of Tucson.