People ask me all the time how I learned to cook. I wish I had a fantastic story about standing at my grandmother’s counter, learning our families recipes handed down on tattered recipe cards-with the most important steps not written down but passed on only with a whisper and promise. I pause and see the Rockwell-like picture. Not like that – at all.
Okay, maybe I am at my mother’s side, learning each spoonful and step in her shadow. How to cook a chicken just right (oh seriously) or how to scramble eggs expertly by whipping in air and constantly stirring over low heat until beautiful mounded peaks form and they are juusssst this side of done. Not that either.
But I did spend many Saturdays babysitting my younger siblings while reading one of my mother’s few cookbooks, the ubiquitious Better Homes and Gardens spiral binder with the red and white gingham check binder. There was a recipe for Swedish Timbales and homemade egg nog, only two of the many things that captivated me in those pages. Many of those days I would dig the blender out and whip the egg yolks until they thickened and turned lemony yellow. Add the vanilla and sugar – we usually had those ingredients. No cream, but whole milk rounded my confection with a little shake of cinnamon from the McCormick’s can. My brother and sister still wanted soda, but I sipped my egg nog like a Boss.
Being from the South and having a relatively big family, my mother had fried potatoes every night accompanied by chicken fried steak, fried squash, fried pork chops, fried chicken and always cream gravy to douse the whole mess. I had learned from the cookbook that the frying technique depended on precise temperature control. Obviously mom never got to that part because she would slop the Crisco in the skillet and as soon as it liquified, she’d start those potatoes. Thinking about it now makes me cringe.
Conversely my dad, who I spent holidays and whole summers with, mainly took us out to eat where a filet was the preferred entree. When the waitress asked my little sister how she liked her steak cooked, every time, sometimes three nights a week, she would look at my daddy for clarification. “Medium rare,” he would say while I rolled my eyes. But I learned about good food from him.
Occasionally he would decide to make the trendy recipe of the year, like Gazpacho or Bouillabaisse. We would go to the grocery and buy 25 ingredients – peppercorns, cucumbers, road stand tomatoes, cilantro. When he was committed, you were solid. I would help prep and measure, then funnel the ingredients to him with surgical precision. I never knew what it was really supposed to taste like but I loved the dedication and all the steps that went into the production.
Fast forward 30 years and I realize I mostly taught myself to cook. I have made lots of mistakes. I still burn a lot of bread. But I love cooking for my family and friends. I love cooking for myself. I love eating out and saying, “I can make this!”