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Two Ambivalent Cooks
As a child, my cooking experiences were essentially nil, as my mother preferred to cook alone. The exception? Home economics courses mandated for high school girls, where the food we created was often inedible. When the teacher wasn’t looking, we took turns stuffing our finished products into napkins and sneaking them into the nearest garbage can. These experiences couldn’t exactly be described as good culinary beginnings.
As an adult, my mother would hear me declare, “I can’t cook,” and she would quickly add, “But you make a good salad and a good baked potato.” I was clearly on my way to succeeding in culinary arts.
In the ‘60s, I baked bread and made cookies from scratch. I also embroidered ties, and beaded flowers onto blue jeans. Those days ended when I left college and began working full-time.
On rare occasions, my daughter and I prepared food together. One early memory involves a meal where her assigned task was chopping an onion. She took her job very seriously, but her eyes began to sting and tear. She announced: “I’ll be right back,” disappearing into her room.
Moments later, my sweet daughter reappeared, standing again on her green and yellow Sesame Street stool so she could reach the cutting board. Like before, she was dressed in bright pink pajamas, her bare feet peeking underneath, and her dark hair in a scraggly ponytail on top of her head, held together by a tight band. What was new? Blue swimming goggles over her eyes. Problem solved.
It’s one of my most loved images of her.
Another time, I created an Indian menu for Christmas dinner. First step? Shopping for spices in a specialty market on Berkeley’s University Avenue. Enticing smells wafted through the air as I walked down the aisles looking for ingredients. Indian food was one of our favorites, and I anticipated a very special meal.
Christmas Day arrived, and we spent hours cooking together, only to discover the exotic herbs blended in a manner that made our meal tasteless. Luckily, we’d opened a Christmas gift from a friend. Among other delicacies, she’d sent a jar of homemade chutney which we poured over every dish we had prepared. Again, problem solved.
Over the years, our cooking skills remained the same. My daughter now lives in New York, where she’s learned to use food delivery services. When I arrive at her apartment, even if it’s late at night, she presents me with a series of restaurant menus. We discuss our options, she makes recommendations, and then orders. Once I opened her refrigerator to find fingernail polish, and nothing else. Another time I found some covered dishes and remarked that she had food to devour. “No,” she replied. “I can eat what I’ve cooked, but I’d never serve it to anyone else.”
One recent Christmas morning she made us a three-layered breakfast: scrambled eggs on the bottom, an Eggo waffle next, topped with jam. Guacamole, fruit, toast and grocery store hash browns were on the side. Unique and fun, just like she is.
Married for less than a year, Alicia promises her husband she’ll learn to cook. He makes wonderful Caribbean dishes, especially fish platters. She’s bought a Caribbean cookbook. We’ll see what happens next, but maybe someday she can teach me how to cook like a Grenadian.
As for me, I’ve always claimed I’m good at opening cans, and I agree with my mother that I make good salads, my standby potluck contribution. When I first arrived in Mendocino, the land of healthy food and quality cooking, I announced to Bay Area friends that I would never let my new acquaintances look inside my cupboards or my refrigerator, for fear that my just-established connections might no longer want to be my friends.
One Mendocino neighbor only eats organic products, cooks a new pot of dried beans every day, and rejects all processed food. She and her husband asked me what I serve when my partner comes for an extended visit. “He’s easy,” I said. “He’s happy with rotating pasta sauce from a jar over spaghetti one night, and store-bought frozen veggie burgers the next night, with salad.” My response left them speechless, although they attempted to smile. What I haven’t admitted to them is that Phillip does draw the line at the meal I learned when living in London: canned beans on toast. In fact, he believes I’m kidding; I’m not.
My culinary skills are progressing. Now I, too, only buy organic produce, look for non-GMO food, and grow kale, raspberries, strawberries, herbs, and lettuces. Three years ago I attended canning and raw food classes from a nearby Grange, resulting in a kale salad with pine nuts and golden raisins that’s fit to serve guests. I’ve also completed cooking classes at a vegan resort. Recently I brought my newly learned cauliflower ceviche to a book club potluck that became the hit of the evening. I was even asked to share my recipe, a rarity for me.
Last month, however, I dropped and broke my food processor, an event that Freud could analyze. So far, I have not replaced it. Perhaps my new cooking resolve isn’t as strong as I’d like to pretend.