I’m a bit of an oddity for my generation, in that I never learned to cook at my mother’s knee. I never baked cookies with her at Christmas, nor kneaded bread, nor shelled peas, nor shucked corn. There was no shucking in the Bronx. My mother was a career woman until the fateful day I was hanging in the alley with the homeboys at age 5, and we all decided to climb atop a lion’s head that graced the entrance to a building.
I followed, of course, because that’s what I did. I may have been a natural born leader at one point, but as a bright child soon figured out that being a leader only got me in trouble. Like the time that the boys were bugging me as I was walking up the stairs to our brownstone. I decided to pull down my pants and stick out my bare butt to scare them off. In retrospect, probably not my finest moment, but at 5, it seemed like a good idea. Of course, as I grew I came to realize that showing body parts was not the smartest way to ward off the opposite sex. But that’s a whole other story.
Anyway, I climbed up the lion and, to much taunting, jumped like everyone else. But everyone else was a boy. Wearing dungarees. I was a girl. And my Momma raised me to wear little plaid short skirts with anklets and patent leather shoes. I hit a rock, my leg split open and the next day my mother put in her notice. I was obviously no longer to be trusted in the alleys of New York.
Ok, so it wasn’t actually this same lion, but damn near close.
For some reason, I was not embraced to join my mother’s mysterious world in the kitchen. Probably because knives were involved and I was an unknown. I was categorized as “unpredictable.” In a scary, horror movie kind of way. My mother saw the movie “Bad Seed” and never looked at me the same way. So I was never around matches, nor anything sharp. I don’t think I was allowed to cut my own food until I was 16.
At 15 I was finally invited to help Mom. She had 3 kids under the age 5, so it was with resignation that she said I should make dinner once a month. I did learn to make two dishes so I would rotate between tuna noodle casserole with potato chips on top, and hamburger casserole with Fritos on top. My one and only seasoning, for years, would be Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.
When I moved out of my parents home, I learned how to warm up refried beans and put them into prefab corn taco shells. I learned to treat myself to premade shrimp cocktail followed by a filet mignon. I had a roommate who was a cocktail waitress, and she taught me the ins and outs of eating during happy hour – buy a drink, then load up on the free food.
My first husband and I lived on Taco Bell, which was right next to our apartment. I did branch out and channeled my inner Nona – and finally created 2 signature dishes – my killer lasagna and meatballs to die for. So – Taco Bell – Lasagna – Meatballs.
My mother, most likely out of guilt, gave me her prized copy of the “I Hate to Cook Book.” I still have it, with her quirky handwritten comments next to each recipe. It was there that I learned I could put a piece of meat in aluminum foil, add Lipton onion soup mix on top, wrap it up, baked it in the oven, throw in a cut potato an hour before it was done, and I had dinner.
I learned how to put chicken on top of raw rice, with some mushrooms and a can of soup, bake it and add a salad. Dinner. I could do stew (throw it all together with canned tomatoes and bake) and chili (5 ingredients – 1 of each – throw it together and bake). Yeah, there’s a theme going – canned shit, baked, done. But they had one recipe each day for 30 days, and I was a master of all of them. The marriage lasted 5 years. I guess he got tired of once a month meatloaf.
It was when I met my husband Brad that I realized I had to up my game. One day he came over to my apartment for a date, and instead announced that it would be “fun” to bake bread.
“Bake bread? Like really bake bread? Or get the frozen loaf from Pillsbury and thaw it out and bake it?”
No, he meant he wanted to bake bread. With yeast and stuff. One thing I’m leery of is yeast. I mean, it’s alive, right? I don’t trust it. It’s way too touchy. Too hot, it dies. Too cold, it never lives. Who wants that kind of pressure? I also don’t do anything with thermometers or cook to a hard ball or soft ball stage. I don’t get it, and probably never will.
So – he baked bread. I watched. We each ate a slice. He left, and I ate the rest.
Brad had some mad skills. I know we each have our wheelhouse, and there are things he knows, and can do, that I can’t. And vice versa. There are areas in which I excel, where he doesn’t. And maybe by the end of this blog I’ll think of one. But for now you’ll just have to trust me.
So for the first years he would barbecue, I would sit inside and drink red wine, and when he was almost done I’d quickly open a bagged salad and mix up some Seven Seas zesty Italian dressing. It seemed to work. My greatest skill was knowing how to order. It really is a skill you know. You can take me to any restaurant, anywhere on the globe and I can find something good to eat. Actually, it’s a gift. Nay, it’s an art.
It’s been a process, but now I can say I’m an accomplished cook. I’m not ready for the “Chopped” kitchen just yet, but maybe soon. It took a while, but since I was never really fond of barbecue, I thought I better pull up my pants and tackle this task.
That day happened years ago when I was ready to leave for a week on travel. My daughter Melanie came to me and begged “Please Mom don’t leave us alone with Dad. All we will eat is grilled sausages and rice.” So I knew that my days with a glass of wine in the living room were coming to an end. Now I can actually make shit without a recipe. And most of the time, it’s terrific. And most of the time, I don’t remember what I did, so I can never replicate it. But I learned that if anyone is smart and knows how to read, they can essentially cook.
I still can’t bake worth shit. Yesterday I tried to bake a pie shell. Ok, it was a Pillsbury pie shell, but nonetheless, I made the filling – a quiche with chard from our garden. I had to “blind bake” the pie shell. It said something about putting beans in the shell so that it wouldn’t puff up. So I put beans in the shell, and put it in the oven to bake. NOWHERE did it say I had to put waxed paper or foil on the shell before I put the beans in. So the pie crust had dried pinto beans baked in. And picking those bastards out was not my favorite way to spend my afternoon.
So – my baking isn’t legendary, but I can make you a risotto that, when you take your first bite, I swear you will hear the angels sing. But, if you really want, I can also pull out a bag of Fritos and make you a nice casserole …