By Lisa Black
This month’s theme is about food–the problem is, I’m a terrible cook. I’m not just being modest. My mother taught my sister and I how to clean house like a demon, do laundry, shop, weed the garden and all other household skills but somehow neglected to teach us how to cook. My sister once baked a steak. I tried to substitute an egg with a tablespoon of vegetable oil and milk. It sort of looked like an egg.
When I first married I made a real effort–I wrote out a weekly menu and went to the store with a corresponding list, a crutch that got me through the first couple of years. But I had married a man who, if it didn’t come from either a restaurant or his sainted grandmother, tended to wrinkle his nose. Said grandmother indulged his every epicurean whim so he considered the kitchen as a place where one should be able to walk in and order whatever happened to be on one’s mind (he stillhas not grasped the complications presented by thawing). New dishes were neither encouraged nor appreciated, and anything categorized as a ‘casserole’, banned without recourse.
I hadn’t been exactly captivated by the idea of cooking to begin with and this attitude did not help. There are a few things I can make to my husband’s satisfaction…like chicken and dumplings even though my dumplings come out something like soft concrete blocks, but, remarkably, he likes them that way.
I should add that there are few things I can make to my own satisfaction either…perhaps because I tend to mix together everything I’m supposed to eat, things like lean protein with kale and other leafy greens, as a sort of one-dish diet plan. It may not taste great but at least it isn’t fattening.
Yes, my palate is not sophisticated, but to be fair it never had much of a chance to be. I inherited these uninspired tastebuds from my father; he liked meat and potatoes with perhaps a little salt, and that was it.
I did once pull off a whole beef loin in a salt crust after seeing Alton Brown demonstrate it at a food show in Cleveland. Yes, I was at a food show, because my mother, perhaps stifled by the lack of range required by my father, discovered the Food Network in her later years and became a devoted fan. So when I visited her or vice versa, I would get caught up on Brown, Duff Goldman, Giada De Laurentiis, and Michael Symon. [I didn’t mind–I would rather watch three hours of cooking shows than a single sitcom, which to me may as well be nails on a chalkboard. Every sitcom is, at heart, a half hour of people yelling at each other over something monumentally insignificant. There have only been three I can tolerate: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Seinfeld, and The Big Bang Theory. But I digress.] I particularly liked Chopped (mostly just to see Ted Allen). On Chopped, contestants are given a basket of random ingredients–say, eel, lotus root, and marshmallows, and the challenge is to construct a dish out of that.
This show made me think that what must make a good cook is being able to imagine how these ingredients will taste when combined, how they can be put together in an entrée that will be pleasing to both eye and palate.
Yeah. I can’t do that.
Home décor, yes. I can look at a house, no matter what a wreck it may be, and imagine what the space might look like once cleared out with new flooring and fresh paint, whether the structure can work for me or not. I imagine a painter can look at a canvas and visualize the art he’s going to create. Writers can think of a plot or a character or a place and feel how that story is going to proceed, what the landscape looks like, what the mood of that world will be, how the characters will react to each other, speak to each other, look at each other, how the tone of one’s voice changes when another walks into the room. Writers can do that. I can do that.
With a book.
I can’t do it with an entrée.
What about you? When you look at the ingredients in your refrigerator or the paints in your palette or the blank screen on your word processing program, can you taste what the future holds?
Reading your post, Lisa, reminds me of the old phrase, "We're all good at different things." A good accountant may not be a great salesman, a great writer (like you!) may not be a good cook. But – help is everywhere. Now when I hit the grocery store, I see all sorts of "almost prepared" entrees such as parmesan chicken you simply brown or bake and serve with pasta (and a good jar of pasta sauce). Or simply broil a steak or lamb chop and serve with a rice pilaf mix….thus pleasing the husband and giving yourself more time to write – which is what you are truly "good at." Good luck, my friend – and thanks for this thought-provoking post.
I had to laugh at much of this, as it reminded me of when Gary and I were first married (back when the earth was cooling, according to my grown kids). His cooking skills were perfected in college: pot pies, casserole consisting of something and a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, and fast food. I did the majority of cooking and was quite decent at the basics–until the twins came. He walked into the room while I was nursing them, said he was hungry– and I said he could feed the babies or himself, choice was his. Thank goodness for Food TV Network. Now he does all the cooking (he was not an overnight success, but you'd never guess these days that he is self-taught. He's very good!) But the flip-side is that my cooking skills have diminished. I can still do it, but trying to balance all the makings of a big dinner? There's an art to the whole thing, and I've relinquished dinner to him. (Instead, I do the cleaning of the kitchen.) It's a nice compromise, since I can write right up until dinnertime.
Oh, the life of the writer with a family grown accustomed to eating! My lowest cooking point was when I was on multiple deadlines, had two teenagers at home (one a vegetarian, and the other a mostly meat & beat soup type), and no time. Since I worked constantly, I also didn't exercise. Ergo: Lean Cuisine. Horrors! Fast frozen food! The kids still speak of it with shock, explaining I fed the cat better than I fed them, but all of us survived, and both of them turned out to be excellent cooks. Out of Lean Cuisine necessity!
This had me laughing out loud. My dad was a "gourmet" cook, though he was also an experimenter. I tried some really odd things as a kid. I was one of the only six year-olds I know who liked oysters on the half shell. The only think I didn't like was squash. My dad told me I never had to eat it (and he knew how to make about 25 different recipes), but that all changed when he wouldn't let me eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. I did learn to cook. However, that didn't save me when I got married. My husband also knew how to cook, and he knew how to cook the way his mother cooked–and he liked food made that way. We compromised, and I thought we had it licked. Then our oldest daughter came home from college and announced she was a vegetarian. It was like starting all over.
Okay, I read this post this morning and just howled. I loved every second of it. Here's the thing: I'm a great cook, love to cook, love to cook for a lots of people. I can do "battle frig" with the best of them, taking all kinds of odds and ends out of the frig and making something good. I think it's just the luck of the draw if you can or can't do that. But here's what had me laughing this afternoon. I found myself thinking, "Huh, what could you do with eel, lotus root, and marshmallows?" I mean I really was mulling it over, and actually came up with ideas! it's a sickness.