Tarajia Morrell’s Kitchen Past

All photos: Matt Rubin (www.mattrubinphotography.com)

It’s one thing to watch people move through their own kitchens, the space an extension of themselves, an unconscious grasp of spices or tea mugs. It is entirely another to watch people move through the kitchens in which they grew up. Past spaces rekindle past habits—the way we open our parents’ fridge or sit, knees-up, on the couch—but the familiarity is also hesitant, qualified by the feeling of passed time.  

When Tarajia Morrell revisits her mother’s kitchen, the comfort is palpable but mature, her present layering on her past. The actor-turned-restaurant-publicist, freelance writer, and founder of The Lovage invites us to her childhood apartment just as she’s about to prepare lunch, a wintry take on a frisée salad using brussels sprouts as a base. The kitchen is bright and cozy despite the overcast light from a grey Manhattan morning. Edith Piaf echoes from the living room. We talk rather than interview, the stories emerging as sharp and as well-known as the smell of a simmering mirepoix

Since I was old enough to walk, or carry things without spilling them, I was expected to help out at dinner parties. My parents were always entertaining: inside the apartment in the winter months, outside on the terrace in the summer months. When we had fancy parties, my dad would let me carry a tray with champagne flutes on it and pass them around to people. Before that, I was going around the room with a plate of hors d’oeuvres, saying “would you care for one?” with a handful of napkins in my other hand. I learned how to be a cater waiter by the age of four!

My mom taught herself to cook when she met my dad. He’s in the wine business; he was pouring extraordinary wines and he expected his gorgeous young wife to make some great food to go with them, so she taught herself. Her cooking is definitely of the French ilk—you know, that formalized haute cuisine, homemade French recipes—Coq au Vin, tons of salads, roasts, really traditional French stews. Things that she could make ahead and then go to her job and be able to put dinner on the table quickly.

Photo: Matt Rubin

I am an only child, so my mom was my companion. When I was really little, I always wanted to be with her while she cooked dinner. It was a tiny kitchen, and there was nowhere for me to stand and not be in the way, so I would sit on top of the refrigerator and talk to her while she cooked. And she put me to work! But it was always super interactive and fun.

She and I cook very well together. We have a rhythm, even in this tiny kitchen. The second my father comes in, it’s ruined! We made a really nice rabbit feast upstate a few summers ago. I decided I was going to break down the rabbit myself (I learned from a YouTube video).  I think it’s important to have a sense where food is really coming from, and not that it just arrives as a perfect filet at the grocery store. It’s from an animal—that should be respected! I find it more satisfying, to eat and to cook, when I am starting as close as I can to the living thing.

The first thing I was taught to make was vinaigrette. I feel like every household that eats together has a house vinaigrette. Ours is still inedible in my memory: it was a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, fresh pepper, sea salt, mustard powder, garlic powder, and one part balsamic to four parts olive oil and four parts vegetable oil. That was the vinaigrette growing up. I would never make that in a million years today.

Photo: Matt Rubin

This restaurant silver is my childhood. I was small so I had to use the salad fork. My mother cooked for me every single night of my childhood, and we did all eat together a lot. Dinner is a pretty great thing to show up for in this household. When I left home for boarding school, she would send me these hilarious care packages, like vichyssoise and other dishes she made from scratch that she knew I could heat up in the microwave.

I am obsessed with my mom’s Dansk cookware. She has been cooking with it since 1974. I have my own set—mine are red and yellow, hers are yellow and green—and they are my favorite things in the kitchen. I find them so beautiful. I use them for everything: roasted vegetables, fish, a cassoulet. She gave me a couple to start me off, and I bought the rest on eBay.

Even though our family’s cooking involved a lot of French food, it was still super practical. My mom made delicious roast vegetables and simple dishes that don’t take much work, you just season them well. I find that that’s really a great way to eat. In the winter I’ll roast a bunch of vegetables on a Saturday, and I’ll make an aioli and bring that to work. I used to hate mayonnaise but now I absolutely love it. I got into it when I first started making it from scratch, but now I’ll even eat Hellman’s. A tomato and mayonnaise sandwich in August is my favorite thing in the world.

I started working in food when I moved back to New York from Los Angeles. I did not love it there. When I got back, something kept telling me: food, go back to food.

Photo: Matt Rubin

So I took a French culinary class. I wanted to take a serious culinary class because there was so much to learn, and I wanted to learn the right way, because my mom was self-taught and I wanted to fill in those blanks, like sauces and other things that you learn in a French serious atmosphere. I can’t imagine French food will ever die out. Of course the healthy Californian clean food is the food of the future, but I think there will always be a place for delicious winey stews. And I don’t think it has to be in every house or restaurant, but it’s too special to let it fall by the wayside.

The Lovage was born out of being inspired by that culinary experience, and wanting to put pen to page. I always had written, and I realized that I could use food and my love for cooking and eating as a lens with which I could see everything else. I could relate any kind of experience to a meal or to some aspect of a meal. My posts are infrequent because I’m so consumed by my day job, but each post is borne out of love. It’s called The Lovage, after all. It’s a place of good vibes. It is tiny and neglected and not fancy but it has brought only amazing things into my life, amazing opportunities, people, love, amazing experiences. The more I put into it, the more it gives me. The Lovage is an extension of the way I was raised—at the table and in the kitchen.

Food and Love. That is all I think about.

Photo: Matt Rubin