Wednesday, July 9, 2008

If You Can Read You Can Cook

Written in 2005, long but happy and not at all related to scleroderma

If food is love then my four brothers and I hit the motherlode when Claire Mayer birthed us into her life, home, and, most importantly, kitchen. My most enduring image of my mother is standing in front of the stove, all four burners on active duty. With age, she has gained a few pounds and now resembles the stereotypical Italian grandmother with the devotion, attitude and guilt minus the accent.

I grew up in a small Philadelphia rowhouse with an impossibly small kitchen. While standing in the cooking section of the kitchen, you could touch the refrigerator with your nose while touching the oven and sink with your left and right hands, respectively. Like a puppy being crate trained, the only thing you could do in our kitchen was stand and pivot. Out of that small kitchen, my mother has fed the multitudes. In fact, I am confident that, in her lifetime, she has fed more people than Christ did after the Sermon on the Mount. Granted, she had a lot more than 5 loaves and 2 fishes to work with, but I think she merits a biblical footnote at this point.

In our household, the pecking order was based largely on the quantity of my mother’s food that one could consume. With four brothers, I was licked before I ever entered the race. My brother Mark, all 150 pounds of him, once ate 32 ravioli in one sitting, a family record that still stands. My claim to fame in the family was being the “picky eater” but being the only girl, I had an alternate route to my mother’s heart.

My immediate family filled 7 of the 8 places at our kitchen table. When we were very young, my unmarried Uncle Snowy usually filled the remaining seat. After my Uncle Snowy died, random neighborhood kids then vied for the coveted space at our table. When I entered high school, my new best friend, Marie, became a permanent fixture at our supper table. My mother all but began formal adoption procedures once she saw Marie put food away. Marie not only consumed vast quantities, she waxed on poetically about the meal in between mouthfuls. My friend Kathy was Marie’s runner-up and expected to fulfill Marie’s duties should she be unable to complete her reign as the queen at my mother’s dinner table. With the face of an angel and a body like Olive Oil, no one would suspect Kathy to be a glutton, but Kathy could out-chow my brothers. After dinner she would unabashedly loosen her belt and lie on the dining room floor and moan while my mother swooned. After my friends and I left for college, my brother Keith’s high school friends took over.

But the free meal ticket was not limited to the occupants of the eighth seat. Every Christmas my mother made approximately a gross of each of 14-15 different kinds of cookies, which were then artistically arranged into foot-high piles and distributed to family members and friends. I never heard the world “potluck” until I went to graduate school, but I had long watched my mother enter parties with more desserts than had been supplied by the host. And she is a relentless perfectionist in the kitchen. She had her heart set on making small cheese tarts for my cousin Debbie’s bridal shower. The recipe called for a vanilla wafer to serve as the crust. Much to my mother’s chagrin, the wafers were too big for the mini tart pans.

We arrived at the party with the trays of literally hundreds of cheese tarts. My crazy Aunt Annette eyed the tarts and asked my mother where she found such small vanilla wafers. My mother then revealed her technique. My Aunt ‘Net, as we call her, has a gift for telling a story in such a way that she leaves you crying or running for the bathroom before you pee your pants. ‘Net climbed on top of her chair and asked for everyone’s attention. When the room quieted she launched into her tale of how my deranged mother shaved each vanilla wafer down to size using an emery board, concluding with an observation that my mother was in need of immediate institutionalization.

Throughout my childhood my mother ruled over her kitchen alone. After school my siblings and I sat at the table to do our homework while mom prepared dinner. We were never allowed to cross over into the work area of the kitchen for two reasons: first, there simply wasn’t enough room to accommodate anyone else and second, my mom was a sentry barring our access to the one room in the house with a television. For my mother, cooking was a solitary activity, her one escape from the deafening sounds and relentless activity of raising five children in a very small house. Cooking was her meditation long before meditation was hip. So despite being surrounded by food for my entire childhood I never learned to cook.

My mother believes you are either born with the ability to cook or you are not. It’s easy for her to espouse this belief as she was born with culinary talent. Perhaps it was nursing at her mother’s breast while she made the pizzas that my grandfather sold door-to-door in Tacony, Philadelphia’s less famous little Italy. My grandfather was a pizzaiole, the precursor to today’s Domino’s delivery. She must have learned a lot in those early months because she managed to whip up someone’s wedding cake without an electric mixer when she was only 10. My eldest brother inherited my mother’s gift, having successfully made a peach cobbler as a 12-year old boy scout sans recipe over an open campfire. I’m confident that the taste of the cobbler kept his fellow scouts from calling his masculinity into question. He still amazes me with his ability to whip up delicious meals without ever consulting a cookbook. Of course, he shuns baking because it stifles his improvisational culinary style. If he had been born with a sweet tooth, however, I’m sure he would have conquered that kitchen arena as well.

I was not born with this gift. My first epicurean effort was a birthday cake for my mother. My best friend Marie and I decided to tackle the project on the afternoon of my mother’s 47th birthday. Marie and I were then 15. We choose the “Silver White Cake” recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook because all you had to do was throw all the ingredients into a bowl, mix it up, and pour it into a pan. Even two neophytes could handle that. We mixed the ingredients and poured the batter into the greased and floured bundt pan as instructed and placed it into the oven. I was awed when I removed the cake from the oven: it had risen beautifully and cooked to a light brown color. After waiting the recommended time for cooling, I removed the cake from the pan and frosted it with canned frosting (even my mother cheated sometimes). I was so proud.

Later that evening, my family sang “Happy Birthday” to my mother and she let me serve the cake. After serving everyone, I put a bite into mouth and surveyed the expressions of my victims. Everyone was eating quietly. In an unprecedented (and as of yet unrepeated) act of kindness, my brothers chose not to seize this opportunity to tease me mercilessly. In a reciprocal act of kindness, I delivered them from their misery, “If no one else is going to say it, I will. This cake tastes like pancakes.” My brother Mark was the first to break the silence, “Pancakes are good,” he responded still shoveling it in. “Not for birthday cake,” I thought. To this day, I have never made that recipe again. That way, I can blame it one the recipe. Nonetheless, the experience was enough to dampen my fledging interest in kitchen arts.

I fell in love my second year of college with a man who already knew how to cook. Well, to be more precise, Pat knew how to grill. In the words of Rita Rudner, “Men will cook if danger is involved.” While the women’s liberation movement has brought us very far, I must confess that I felt inadequate being involved with a man whose kitchen expertise far exceeded my own. We lived in a dorm with no weekend dining service and limited kitchen facilities. The nearest grocery store was nearly 10 city blocks away, making us fairly reliant on macaroni and cheese and hotdogs from the dorm commissary. On one Saturday night, we opted for hot dogs. We pulled out a pot to boil the dogs and my boyfriend asked me how we knew when they were done. “If it blows up you cooked it too long,” I replied. Laughing out loud he asked, “So I put in a test one beforehand and when it explodes I assume the rest are finished?” I had to admit it seemed ludicrous when he put it like that. Maybe it was all my female hormones surging, but suddenly I felt a profound need to learn how to cook.

For the first couple years, the results of my culinary preparations were mixed. I bought two cookbooks: the basic red and white Betty Crocker and the American Heart Association Cookbook (I was very into nutrition thanks to a sophomore Nutrition class). By junior year, my roommate and I moved into an apartment with small kitchen facilities and my boyfriend had a car on campus, making grocery store trips a possibility. The three of us patiently endured my various concoctions, each created by carefully following printed instructions. “Why do you keep poaching the meat,” Pat asked one night lifting up the lid on the pot. I had no idea what poaching meant outside of conversation about hunting, “I don’t know. That’s what the recipe said to do,” I responded. Poached or not: it tasted fine to me.

One night my roommate Tina and I decided to try a recipe for Butterscotch Brownies. Baking cookies was tricky in our mini oven that seemed to lack a functioning thermostat -- usually, the first tray was undercooked, the second tray was perfect, and the third tray was burnt beyond recognition after about three minutes in the oven – one tray of brownies seemed like a viable option. We whipped together the ingredients and set the pan in the oven. When we removed them from the oven, they looked perfect and we beamed with pride in our ability to rise above the limitations of our kitchen equipment. We then eagerly sampled our brownies. “Tastes like chicken,” I muttered disappointed. While this is perhaps the most overused phrase in culinary history, I am confident that it has never been directed at a batch of brownies.

Fully aware that my boyfriend was due at any moment for a study break and wishing to avoid any harassment about the failed baking experiment, we tossed the batch, removed evidence of any cooking activity, and settled back to our books. When Pat entered our apartment moments later, the first words out of his mouth were, “What are you cooking?” “Nothing,” Tina and I replied innocently. Apparently it never occurred to us that the smell had lingered on. Pat moseyed over to the trash can and lifted the lid, “Nothing, huh?” I warned him of the poultry-like nature of the brownies, but he insisted on trying them himself. He grimaced with his first taste and closed the lid of the trashcan. I felt certain that I had destroyed any prospect of being wifely material.

I did improve, however. By senior year I had mastered numerous pies and cookies and managed to cook a downsized Thanksgiving feast for my beau and me. We had actually stayed together long enough for me to graduate from completely unable to cook a hot dog to capable of making a full course meal. Ironically, the wifely aspirations that motivated my desire to master the culinary arts faded and the relationship eventually faltered during the inevitable post-graduation adjustment period. But my love of kitchen arts survived. My two cookbooks have been joined by several dozen additions as well as 7 years worth of Bon Appetit magazine (I finally cancelled the subscription when I realized I could never cook every recipe I already had even if I attempted some effort to break the world record for non-stop cooking). I even own several books on food chemistry that assist me in culinary emergencies such as how to rescue seizing chocolate. And I now know what poaching means in the culinary sense. Indeed, I am living proof that even genetically challenged individuals can learn how to cook …

The bottom line is this: if you can read, you can cook. Actually, if you can read, you can learn to do almost anything. In fact I think I should adopt this as my life’s philosophy; I’m a little late in claiming it, but perhaps in time to have it engraved on my tombstone.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Yes, I too prefer cook books to enjoy the latest recipes. It's having lot of fun.