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Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A Failure to Cook

By Mage Bailey of Day Tripper

The women in my family didn’t cook. My mother, the architectural engineer, did a better job with architecture than cooking, especially doorways. My grandmother, the university president's wife, had already cooked for thousands by the time I was born. She taught better drawing than cooking.

I married, and these two dear ladies collaborated to write out all the family recipes for me. Mother also gave me the high fat, high sugar, high cholesterol Milwaukee Settlement House Cookbook. I understood that. In counterpoint, grandma thoughtfully gave me an early cookbook for two, 1001 Ways to Please a Husband, by Myra Waldo. I promptly got pregnant and within moments, it seemed we were four. At least I could double everything.

By the sixties, I was an earth mother to the great crowds that came to dinner every night. Thanks to publications like McCall’sand Ladies Home Journal, I was able to whip together foods unknown in my childhood. Chicken paprika and beef burgundy were far better than endless mutton. On days we were broke, there was always the common standby of hamburger casserole; our version was called Bob’s Dinner.

In 1963, Julia Child hit the kitchens of America with a bang. Joining the impassioned throngs who glued themselves to the French Chef show, I began to learn a whole new philosophy of food. I thought I had been a good cook before, but now I was on hand to learn what good cooking really was.

Over the next few years, I protested and marched, went to college, raised two kids, kept cooking for the masses and worked as a chef for a private household. All the time I was doing this, I was writing and illustrating a cookbook for the beginner.

The crowds at home grew thicker. Pots of things always simmered on the back of my stove. Fresh baking bread smells filled the house as politicians and ecologists mixed with painters, sculptors and wonderful friends. It couldn’t last.

A divorce began the downfall and only after years of darkness did I begin to cook again. Simply this time. There was store-bought yogurt and buttered toast. There were TV dinners that let me inch my way back into the small dishes. Not everything I made was a success. I cremated bacon. Biscuits never rose. Puddings turned liquid. Breads were too tough to eat. Food rotted in the refrigerator. I kept trying with the old-fashioned basics and the foods slowly grew toward edibility.

Over this comfort food, my body grew wider and broader. Finally, I gave in and attempted to alter my style of cooking. I began collecting cookbooks as if one of them would unlock the nirvana of food that I knew was in my brain. I read Bon Appetite and Gourmet. I bought every Weight Watcher’s cookbook on the market. Cooking Light became my guidepost. I often watched favorites on the Food Channel.

And still the biscuits were flat and the casseroles barely tolerable. Two weeks ago, I threw away a rice pudding. The oven died. It was cheaper to buy a new one. Even with the new stove, I couldn’t cook.

Finally, in self-defense, last week I dragged out my old gramma-made cookbooks. Macaroni and cheese didn’t have to be created with high fat cheese. Or as much cheese. Portions didn’t have to be gigantic. That seventies California Rice could use low fat cottage cheese and no fat sour cream. I didn’t have to cook with salt.

I spent one whole afternoon this week slicing, dicing, stirring, and baking. I, who have too many dishes, found myself washing bowls several times over. I, who used to cook five lunches and five dinners at a time, now struggled with two casseroles. As the house filled with good smells, I began to relax. By the time my dear husband came home from work, I was able to offer him a choice of two dinners plus salads.

He pronounced them delicious. It was a long journey to reach this success. We laughed together. Then again, last night’s dinner turned out to be mush.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Now it's your turn to encourage me. An out-of-state guest just left and after two weeks and I am sure she was disappointed by my dinners. Pasta and chicken dishes were my mainstay. I didn't even prepare them; I just opened a package of already made frozen dinners. What culinary skills I finally achieved are now gone.

Ah, Darlene, sounds good to me. Add a tossed green salad, and I can still tear up lettuce, and you have a great meal. You can always have them cook. :)

Mage, great story. It strikes me when I visit my family back home in Canada that cooking basic, delicious, nutritional meals is almost a lost art. I don't know if this is the case in the States.

I swear that each evening, when I start to sautée the onions or dice up a selection of vegetables, is the moment my family members populating the other rooms of the household truly "come home". There is so much beauty to discover in a simple meal prepared with love and attention.

Thanks for sharing your story.

I had no interest in cooking as a girl; what little I learned from my mom was by osmosis. When I got married, my formerly well-fed husband began to wish his mama lived with us. It took years, but I am now a fairly good, if simple cook, but I still don't like doing it.


Hi Mage,

I was never a great cook;just a meat and potatoes type.But I had a friend who loved to cook and I'd like to tell you what she did.

I had told this before at Traveling Oma but it's funny and maybe those who read it before will smile again.

My friend's husband was up for a big promotion and he asked his wife Debbie, to invite the boss and his wife to dinner to impress them. She was delighted to have a reason to come up with some wonderful original dish. Here's what she cooked.

Two days before, she bought a large Ham and baked it. The next day she cut the ham all up and put the pieces through the hand held manual meat grinder. Then she mixed up all sorts of herbs and spices and blended them into the ground up ham.

The day of the dinner she formed the meat into a loaf and baked it for several hours.It smelled delicious and she was very proud of herself.

The boss and his wife arrived and Debbie took her wonderful concoction from the oven and transferred it onto a lovely platter.

As she was carrying it in to put on the table she looked at what she had made and almost cried.

She had made SPAM.........

Enjoyed this very much! I've been going through all this in my own cooking; I also remember my mother reaching a point where she just cooked the same old stuff over and over and I looked for excuses to eat someplace else--even the 15 cent hamburgers that had just been introduced in Florida at a new joint called MacDonald's! I'm glad you found your way back to simple things though. Like you say, the old stuff can be cooked without so much of the bad fats and things we were (at least I was) ignorant about back then.

My mother is a meat and potatoes cook. My father is the exotic cook. They love to tell about one of their first joint experiences in cooking. A duck. The result of that experiment was so tough not even the dog would eat it.

Loved reading this story.

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