by Amy Cotler
Three satisfies, inviting us to plunge in, while kindly reminding us of life’s impermanence, because soon there’ll be two, then one.
One summer afternoon in New England I ran out to our garden, arriving back with a scant handful of the first cherry tomatoes. Soon, three lazy, but colorful halves topped salads for my husband, daughter and me. Our eyes bounced from red to red orb before we pounced. Why is the odd number three our culinary queen? Two on a plate sit symmetrically sad while only one looks like a cherry on top.
We’re three too — my daughter Emma, husband Tommy and I. I’ve been lured in by that number again and again in life and in food. My sisters Joanna, Ellie and I. My Dad’s writing, Mom’s cooking and me at the point of the triangle, borrowing from both. Young Emma’s PBJ sandwich cut point to point into triangle halves, so pleasing on the plate. Or in my catering days, a cluster of canapés waiting patiently on my cater-waiter’s tray, ready to be served. Those three points of bread work in tandem with three primary ingredients. Like bread and flinty ham topped with mustard sprouts, the bread showing at the edges to express itself just a bit. Or a swirl of gravlax with crème fraîche, a dill sprig propped on top.
But life isn’t simple. Sometimes those open-faced sandwiches go awry or even arty, losing their three points, but maintaining their three primary ingredients. A giant oblong of sourdough bread lay on my plate at a museum cafe. It was topped with olive tapenade, melted mozzarella, and an abstract composition of tiny tomato cubes, a dancing brunoise.
At home, Emma used to set the table for three each night with soft, no-need-to-iron, white and blue napkins. Dinner was often one dish with three ingredients — penne, broccoli rabe with garlic-oil. Or three on a plate — rosemary chicken, garden string beans, lemon couscous. But on weekends we shared jollier stuff: grilled eggplant sandwiches with sesame mayonnaise and watercress from the stream out back, or corn from Taft Farms lathered with miso butter. Still three.
Tommy, Emma and I never sat in three designated spots. Rather, every evening we informally switched seats. No hierarchy, I insisted — Dad at the head, chilled beer in hand, Mom and kid in tow. Still Emma never said much, even in the daddy seat. And sometimes dinner felt like two against one. So, at her request, we often sat in the living room on the couch and big leather chair, our plates balanced on our laps or atop our odd coffee table with its chiseled leather top.
In the winter, snow quieted the world outside our ancient clapboard house. The three of us settled in briefly after dinner, each with a book (or computer), each with a drink. Each before our own plates, now empty. Three.
Emma will go off to her own life soon, like that first cherry tomato off our salad — gone. And dinners will come and go, our food peering up at us, three.