Blend a bit of sugar and salt, with a toss of red wine and balsamic vinegar, then reduce on high for fifteen minutes or so to create a thick, ebony syrup that is intensely sweet with balsamic flavor—fig, honey, wood, and caramel. After the dilutions steam away, the essence of balsamic remains and the reduction enunciates the subtleties of fruit, strawberries in particular.
The summarizing idiom “boil down to” originates from the common cooking technique called reduction. The phrase’s genealogy boils down to the allusion’s first use as a metaphor sometime in the late 1800s. I can only guess at the lineage of actual reduction in my own gastronomical ancestry, which reaches at least as far as my grandmother, who I remember simmering jam on the stove to get to the essence of the fruit juices. It’s a technique that she no doubt learned from her own mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, back and back all the way to a mother simmering meat juices in a pot over a fire, concentrating flavors into a gravy. It’s like my memories of my father’s mother, my paternal grandma, which over time have reduced to one vivid memory of the two of us taking a walk when I was probably four years old.
She sang to me while I peeked in and out of a tree with weeping branches. I hid near the center, by the trunk, secluded by the thousands of hanging fronds that draped from the top like streams of water from a fountain. While she sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray,” I twirled through the tree’s arms that curved and drooped to the earth—the ends of each dainty branch dusting the dirt, making tiny, circular etchings in the sand as I swished through the curtain of leaves. When I came out, I dared her to follow me into the middle, which she finally did. We laughed, full of giddy joy, and with clasped hands we spun around the trunk of the tree.
At times, it seems as if all my memories of my grandma are reduced to this—the two of us dancing around a tree. And while I remember other things about her, memories that are less beautiful in my mind (strict rules that we could not touch her doll collection without her standing nearby or sit in certain living room chairs without Sunday clothes), these have mostly evaporated since her death. My experiences with my grandma are condensed to this—the tree, “You Are My Sunshine,” and our twirling.
Different elements jump from liquid to gas at a range of varied temperatures. Of all common food components, water has one of the lowest boiling points. As a mixture is heated, the evaporation of water occurs first; the rest of the more heat-resilient ingredients continue to mingle at high heat. In high enough heat, amino acids from the proteins and sugars synthesize in a chemical reaction—the double-bonded carbon and oxygen of the sugar stealing extra electrons from the amino group—creating an unusually complex flavor. This reaction at high heat between the protein and the sugar is called the Maillard reaction and is evident in bread crust, roasted meat, and milk-based caramel.
Marrying has pared my life down to sweet essentials. I have less money than when I was single because we share the bank account, shortened time because hours are ours, not mine, fewer friends because I’d rather be with him. My life has experienced a reduction that has nonetheless heightened the flavor of my days: mornings under the sheets together; late nights, collapsed with my head on his chest; birthdays with one just-what-I-wanted present from someone who knows me so deeply and so completely that I am left wondering how in this whole wide universe did he know that’s what I wanted; hours in the scorching sun, tending the yard and sharing a glass of icy water; and a moment of union so sacred and holy in which we decided that we want to make a baby, ours to keep. I sit here and puzzle at how our lives can be so reduced to treasures and so chemically intertwined—like sugar and protein—that we enjoy a complex joy not felt before.
I can’t help but note that even as I describe the concentrated goodness that my life has become since marrying the man asleep next to me now, I am reducing. Each moment of our brief two years together potentially constitutes pages upon pages of exploration, extrapolation, and explanation, much of it dull, mundane, and watered-down. So by necessity, I reduce in order to write potently, selecting only the most flavorful details to show you our life. In this way, I believe in reduction—for its impact on flavor, as well as for its inevitability. I believe in how reduction turns a grandma into a goddess and a normal marriage into a romance.
For pasta sauce, avoid the canned stuff of grocery shelves. The alternative, homemade, is a simple reduction that is worth every moment of ahead-of-time thinking in its flavor—a fruitiness that is so unlike the stale, metallic flavor of canned sauces that have sat on a shelf for too long. Ideally, use fresh tomatoes. Roast them in the oven for just less than an hour, peel gently, puree until smooth, sieve the seeds, and pour the remaining juice into a wide skillet of heat-jumping garlic and olive oil. Reduce for fifteen to thirty minutes until your sauce has reached the desired consistency. The natural sugars and proteins will, thanks to the Maillard reaction, interact as you simmer, lending a nutty undertone. Toss the sauce with a chiffonade of fresh basil just before serving.
For years before she passed away, my mom bottled peaches, pears, pickles, cherries, applesauce, tomato sauce, and everything in between. Though she didn’t make a fresh tomato sauce quite the same way I do now, she reduced garden tomatoes with seasonings for sauce, preserving all of it in quart-sized Kerr bottles. Nearly five years since her last bout of canning, a few bottles still sit on my dad’s pantry shelf.
Nothing recalls home with my mom more than smells: tomatoes reducing on the stove, permeating the air with a sweet acidity, cleansing noses, dancing on lips. And yet, more than the nostalgia for home, for the smells, for the complete tomato sauce, I yearn for the fresh tomatoes grown by my mom, uncooked and unreduced. A tomato sauce retains the essence of tomato at the cost of the wholeness of an individual tomato. Sometimes, I just want the tomato. And I want to eat it silently with my mom in the kitchen. She would top tomato slices with salt and place a spoonful of cottage cheese on the side. I want the fresh tomato, in all its watery, juicy drippiness, and a dull afternoon, complete in its totality. I want the afternoon that is not worth writing about for its simplicity.
Yet, it’s for simplicity’s sake that we are forced to reduce. A year and a half after her death, we put the entirety of my mom’s life into boxes. We emptied her closet, taking baskets of clothes to charity shops, feeling the agony of sorting through shoes that have held our mother, preserving only a select few items to scatter into our own closets, remnants of her essence for us to hold onto. We grasp at bottles of tomato sauce and other things that we cannot watch evaporate, letting the rest go the way of her soul.
A couple months ago at a family dinner, my dad spontaneously told, once again, of how he fell in love with my mom: my uncle Scott wanted my dad to meet his sister, my mom, age twenty. My dad, busy with law school and other dates, requested a picture of my mom before calling her (to make sure she didn’t look like her brother). My mom hesitated to give Scott a picture, making him promise that though he could show the picture to his law school classmate—my dad—he couldn’t let his friend keep the picture. The picture of my mom in a red coat, leaning against a tree, glancing nonchalantly over her shoulder, was still in my father’s wallet on the day I was born, about ten years later.
As my dad told the story, I called out to my sister from the kitchen, “Grab the picture of Mom from the fireplace.” My sister took the framed, blown-up copy of the picture, Mom in a red coat, from our mantel, where we’ve displayed the picture since she died. My parents’ courtship, full of memorable details from a period of twelve months, 525,948 minutes, 31 million seconds, can never be documented in its entirety; it is minimized to this: a shared story at dinner and a picture of my mom in a red coat.
The reality of their dating as it was lived—with moments that were possibly dull and probably forgotten—of necessity became vapor. Even my dad has probably forgotten nights my parents spent playing Rook at my grandparents’ kitchen table, nights sidled next to each other on the couch in the living room with her shoulder tucked under his arm, and Sunday walks around Rose Park. I ache for what is lost. How can it be that the ins and outs of existence are diminished to curated pieces on the mantel? And what of the life elements that evaporate?
Take five overripened and frozen bananas out of the freezer. Unpeel and let them thaw in a mesh strainer set atop a bowl. Collect the liquid that drips from the melting bananas and pour it into a small saucepan—you should have three quarters of a cup or so of banana drippings. Place the pan with the leaked banana juice on to a burner set to medium-high. Heat the pan until the liquid boils rapidly; the steam will gather and escape. The disappearing vapors force the juice to become more concentrated. During a fifteen-minute reduction, what was once three quarters of a cup will reduce to half a cup of syrup-like banana liquid, pared down and made potent by the evaporation of the water. This is good stuff to use when making banana bread. Reducing the juice lends the deeper banana flavor of a lot of bananas without the mushiness of too much banana water.
As with my grandma after her death, my mom was naturally reduced to a few memories that play on repeat in my head: a photograph of her in a red coat, jars of tomato sauce on a pantry shelf. I, too, am destined for reduction, a concentration of my flavors into what, I’m not sure. Perhaps a child of my own—a piece of me that I hope to leave behind someday?
How I wish there were some way to capture the steam, the pure water of life, the unnecessary, mundane moments that compose a mother’s life—her reality! Life lived is full of watery moments—paying bills, mowing lawns, calculating homework and procrastinating housework, staring blankly at a ceiling while yearning to fall asleep, practicing piano, walking to school, preparing taxes, sitting silently across from a daughter eating unadulterated tomatoes. How can we capture those elements of life when by our attempt to record, transcribe, remember, and preserve the flavor of them, we reduce them to one memory, one photograph, a recipe, and one delicious morning beneath the sheets?
Small moments disappear in the heat of time. They lift into the air, widening from their beginnings into our breathings, tingeing our existence with the scent of life just as the evaporation of banana waters lingers in the air as I bake bread. These vapors permeate my kitchen and home as small molecules of water rise from the reduction of banana on the stove, as steam lifts out of the loaves in the oven. The evaporated vapors that don’t seem to matter in banana bread, the simple diluted moments of a woman’s life, the steam that we boil away, these droplets of water that rise and disperse are what give the air we breathe its savor.