For a chef, kitchen disasters are simply par for the course.
You have a 600-person catering job for an important function? “Ha, ha, ha,” says the universe. You can be pretty darn sure your suppliers won’t show up on time, your sous chef, prep chefs or waiters won’t be in a cooperative frame of mind, and anything that goes right falls under the category of suspect.
Recently, after one of these particularly brutal weeks, I found myself irritable, hungry and tired. I felt uncharacteristically troubled, and all I wanted to do was go home and take a nap. Instead, though, I decided to have a little cooking session, because, in my experience, there is no problem so great that an afternoon of puttering around the kitchen at home can’t cure it.
My first step was to go shopping because I’m a chef who inevitably has an empty fridge by the weekend. The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing, and by the time I got to my local “Italian grocer” — even though it’s not Italian, and in fact, would barely be considered a grocery store in the more developed world — I was beside myself.
The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing.
As always, I found the parking lot full of small children. I call them the banana kids because they perpetually surround my car trying to sell the same product — bananas. Not nice bananas, mind you, but overripe, ugly, fruit fly-infested, past-their-prime bananas that even a banana bread factory would shun. We always perform the same dance, these kids and I: I joke around with them a bit, they try to sell me their fruit, their little carvings, their bracelets. They range in age from around 7 and 14, and they are beyond cute — just sweet, innocent little souls who need to earn money for school fees. Watching them from inside my car in all their glorious, unaffected, youthful disarray let’s me forget my troubles for a moment.
On this occasion, I realized that I was in a huge 4X4 with enough money in my wallet to buy more food than these kids probably have ever seen at one time. Usually, rather than buying their rotten bananas, I like to buy them treats. I figure these kids rarely have sweetness in their lives or parents who can provide them anything more than the tattered clothes and shoes that have been handed down from older siblings. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t have parents to look after them at all. Perspective.
I’d recently been away, so they questioned me in typical Ugandan fashion: “Why are you lost, Auntie Yam?” a phrase reserved for people you haven’t seen in a while. I told them I was busy with work and with life. What I didn’t tell them was that I’ve just gotten done traveling, for the second time this month. It would be inconceivable to them that one could travel, or ever afford a plane ticket. I struggled to smile, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I broke the circle surrounding me and saw in their faces that they were disappointed I wasn’t spending much time with them. The sea of children parted, and I left them already anticipating my return. Perspective.
In the store, my usual fruit and vegetable vendors greeted me with hugs and kisses, shrieking with excitement. “Where have you been Yam? You are lost,” they said. I sank into the hugs and started to tell my favorite salesgirl that I was in a bad mood. “You’ll be all right. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” this wizened 20-year-old said, hugging me tighter and tighter with the confidence of the young mother of three that she is. Perspective.
I bought the kids some lollipops, the kind that come in a “fancy” wrapper with gum you can enjoy in the middle when you are done with the candy. I was thinking about how their eyes would light up at these sweets, a mere 600 Ugandan shillings apiece (about 15 cents) — but completely out of reach to these poverty-stricken kids. Perspective.
I went outside, already feeling better from the hugs and the thought of giving out the candy and was surrounded once again by the circle of too-ripe bananas and toothy smiles. I handed out all the lollies and watched as, one by one, a mixture of wonder and joy crossed the brow of each and every one of them.
Suddenly, the smallest of the bunch, a quiet, shy 7-year-old stepped forward and said, “Here, Auntie, we made this for you.” In his tiny hand was a small carving in the shape of a heart with my name inscribed on it.
“How did you know my full name, kids?” I asked in amazement. “What is this material you used and how did you carve it so fast?”
“It’s soft wood, Auntie, and your name is here,” another boy said, pointing at the insurance sticker on my car window. “You look sad, Auntie, and we appreciate the sweets you always give us.” I stared at the little carving in disbelief and gratitude, trying hard to swallow down tears. Perspective.
“It’s an avocado seed,” explained the oldest, “It is wet now, but it will dry and become like wood.” Sure enough, I inspected the moist little chunk and recognized that it was indeed a small part of an avocado seed roughly carved with a rusty razor blade clutched in the hand of the boy.
“Wait, Auntie, let me carve a hole in it so you can wear it near your heart.”
He removed the lollipop that I had just given him from his mouth and easily punched a hole with the stick through the soft seed, presenting me with a little pendant, now sticky from the heat and the already melting candy. Perspective.
Driving home, I felt awash in shame and guilt over how little these children have and the sweet gift they gave me. How could I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy? And then it hit me. Jewish scholars answered the question, “Who is the happy person?” long ago in the Talmud. The answer: The person who is grateful for their lot.
How can I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy?
I realized these kids aren’t unhappy. They are young and free and have their friends and siblings to play with, even though it’s in the parking lot of a ramshackle strip mall. And now they were happier still because they got an unexpected treat from the nice lady in the big green car. They’ve seen how bad things can get, how one day you have parents and the next day, they fall ill and die. They have been hungry, sick and cold, yet they are happy for what they have now. They have perspective.
But the other thing they have in abundance is gratitude. Their delight in receiving a bit of attention is greater than the joy some far more privileged people might feel. They don’t feel entitled to anything, nor do they take anything for granted.
Gratitude and perspective — that’s all anyone really needs to feel better, even after a terrible week at work. And you might even get a pendant with your name on it out of the deal, which, quite frankly, is worth more than all the diamonds and gold in the whole world.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.