Mary Ann with a friend of the family

I don’t have anything against anchovies. Or bait fish in general. I saw a whole tornado of them in an aquarium once, murmurating away in a tank. Or maybe those were sardines, which are just fluffier anchovies.

I don’t want them on my pizza.

But I have learned that I’m okay with stealth anchovies. Evidently I had them once in a Caesar salad and it was a terrific salad. The anchovies did add a certain je ne sais quoi to the dressing, but the je ne sais was a very important part of the quoi experience. So was the fact that it was only noon on a work day and I had a verboten glass of white wine and a little crush on my lunch partner and half my mail route still to deliver. Basically, it was a stellar day.

Anyway. When I eat an animal, I don’t want it to look anything like the animal. I don’t want to see any eyeballs. By the time the anchovy is in the dressing, it should be vapor.

So I bought a tin of anchovies for a new recipe I was trying. Why not? I thought, adultly. I liked it that one time. I can be a grownup about this. It called for only three anchovies and I knew I could count on Dave to eat the rest of them on a bagel, because he ain’t right. I got my ingredients in a row and had a look at the instructions.

Oh, I don’t think so. I’m supposed to sauté a bunch of orzo and lay three fish on top of it? And then top it with my lemon-dill turkey meatballs? Nope.

“I bought a bunch of anchovies for you,” I told Dave. “We’ll get bagels.”

But it bugged me. I mean, there weren’t many ingredients in this and they all seemed important. Lemon. Dill, enough to start a compost pile. Yogurt. Fennel. Mustard greens. It was going to be a flavor onslaught. If I left something out, I could be abetting an insurgency.

I called Mary Ann.

Mind you, everyone I know knows more about cooking than I do. But somehow I thought Mary Ann would be the one to either reassure me or know what to substitute to make the recipe work.

I was right. I presented the conundrum right away. “I was ready to sneak in the anchovies,” I whined. “But I do not want to have my meatballs sitting on top of three stinky fish on a bed of orzo. I’d rather leave them out.” I explained about cooking the orzo and fishies in butter.

“You won’t even see the anchovies,” she said. “They’ll disintegrate. What else is going in this?”

Not much. Turkey, lemon, dill, Greek yogurt, and a blanket of kale. But I don’t have any yogurt, so I’ll have to substitute something.

“If you leave out the yogurt, you’re probably going to want something to balance the acidity. A little vinegar, maybe extra lemon. And in the future, you could buy some anchovy paste and use just a bit and put the rest in the fridge.”

No eyeballs, I thought, warmly. The thing about Mary Ann is she knows how to facilitate a meeting of ingredients so that everything feels included and valued. The merest fennel seed will feel empowered to collaborate. Mary Ann can cook what’s still in your refrigerator after you’ve been gone for three weeks and concoct its antidote from the bread drawer. She knows what tree trunks to drill for umami and which entirely unauthorized weeds to pluck for greens. She can balance your own ancestors’ personal humors with one meal, centuries after anyone paid attention. For Mary Ann, with a soup spoon, Nature is her bitch.

The anchovies disintegrated, just like she said they would. They were but a memory of the ghost of anchovy. No eyeballs. No problem. I’m not going to look at Dave’s bagel.

Happy birthday, M.A.!

Also, happy 115th birthday, Daddy!