Hana’s chubby cheeks were pink and dimpled, her freckled face framed in soft strawberry blond curls. There were times when she sat on the floor of our classroom with her three-year-old friends, giggling until she fell over backwards. Before her mom arrived to pick her up every day, Hana would turn toward the door, just before it opened, as if in addition to being storybook cute she was also clairvoyant.
“Measuring spoons,” her mom explained. “I use them as a key chain – you never know when you’ll need them. Hana hears them rattling in my pockets when I walk.”
Hana’s mom is a self-educated southern cook. She skipped college and culinary school, partnered with a friend and opened a restaurant that quickly became one of the trendiest breakfast spots in metro Atlanta. Her passion for ordinary food reminded people, for a time, how to cook and eat.
At the height of her popularity, when the morning queue of hungry city people could extend from the restaurant’s front door around the block, Hana’s mom remained neighborly. She didn’t have secret ingredients. Though she taught cooking classes and could prepare a four course meals, when she was interviewed on morning radio and television talk shows, she talked about comfort food and family. In the introduction to her cookbook, Hana’s dad said he fell in love with his future wife over a bowl of tomato soup.
The demands on her time and talent increased as her restaurant’s fame expanded, but she always had supper with her family, she said, usually at home. She was baking biscuits at the restaurant long before her daughter awoke, but she packed Hana’s lunchbox in the dark, before she left home every morning.
Hana’s lunchbox was standard issue kid stuff, purple, touched every morning by her mom’s rare gifts. Her mom packed child-size portions of leftover meatloaf and mac-n-cheese, strawberries, bananas and apples. When she packed a sandwich, it had four square corners and crusts, which Hana ate. Some days Hana’s lunchbox had yogurt and blueberry muffins.
The food in Hana’s lunchbox was, in short, ordinary. It was Hana’s approach to food that was extraordinary. She never rejected food or complained. If she had favorites or preferences, she did not talk about them. She had learned to enjoy the company of her friends and the food that was served. Her habits were as rare among children twenty years ago as they are now. While her peers picked and poked at their food, many of them half-heartedly eating the same lunch every day, Hana enjoyed a variety of foods without comment.
Shortly after Hana’s fifth birthday, her mom quit cooking for crowds. She said the demands of the for-profit kitchen had become too great. She wanted to be home for supper every day, talk to her kids when they weren’t wearing their pajamas. So Hana’s mom sold her half of the restaurant back to her friend, amicably parted company with her forlorn customers, and moved father south with her family.
Hana’s mom was an artist of the kitchen, and of the soul. Without the benefit of advanced training, she understood the relationship between food and comfort. Companionship, nourishment, and the full enjoyment of a simple meal happen at the same table. When Hana’s mom prepared a meal, she attended to the human spirit. When Hana walked into school carrying her little purple lunchbox, she knew she would be satisfied.