I think I’ve already mentioned a line I once read in a book which really stood out to me, but it’s worth repeating here. It went something like: “I love to cook, I love to eat, and I’ve won awards for both.” I haven’t won any awards for eating yet mainly because I haven’t entered any eating contests. Not that I ever will, mind you. I find the concept of trying to eat mountains of any particular food faster than the next guy to be utterly repulsive. In a projectile vomiting kind of way. I did, however, win third place in a cake baking contest once for my Black Forest Kirchen Torte.
The fact I learned not only to cook well but also learned to enjoy the process of cooking is nothing short of a miracle. I learned to cook when I was rather young. I wasn’t forced to learn how to cook, per se, like some kids were; however, it wasn’t exactly an optional experience either. Learning to cook became more or less a necessity for survival in a single parent household in which the parent, mom, was busy earning a living and going back to school to finish her degrees.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first learned to cook, but I know I learned to make a fairly basic spaghetti sauce sometime before I was eight years old. By the time my parents separated when I was eight, I was fully capable of managing most basic meals.
This early introduction to the culinary arts came with some interesting side effects. Most notable was the occasional odd menu choice. Leaving a pre-teen with a sweet tooth in charge of meal planning and cooking is not always wise. Fortunately for me, my mother had the prerequisite combination of desperation/insanity/lack of choices which allowed me to make what others might consider to be, shall we say, unwise dinner selections. I remember one dinner in particular which consisted solely of uncooked chocolate chip cookie dough. In my defense, I did ask her what she wanted me to fix for dinner to which she infamously replied, “I don’t care.” I don’t recall her protesting very strongly when she was presented with her bowl of dough either.
While my mother gave me a good grounding in the basics of cooking, she never really had the time or inclination to teach me about cooking for the shear joy of it. I was to learn the finer points and the love of cooking for the sake of cooking from others. From my grandmothers, I learned the fine art of baking. Mother’s mom had a way of making biscuits that was just divine. There was no better breakfast that her biscuits with cream gravy and a little (read a lot) of butter. To this day, I can’t match her biscuits which she managed to get done with a high degree of consistency sans recipe or measuring cups/spoons. I also got my cinnamon cookie recipe from her Liberty Cookbook of which my sister currently has custody. T., if you are reading this which you admitted you do, that cookbook is long overdue for a stay in my kitchen. Hint, hint. Then there was great grandmother’s carrot cake recipe. Mmmmmm…..(slobber, drool, smack). It’s no wonder I can’t pass up a bakery without whimpering and drooling like Pavlov’s dog.
However, it was really my uncle Don (mom’s brother) who taught me the finer points of cooking from a truly Epicurean point of view. To him, food was not merely a means of sustenance. Food was an experience. He was of the opinion one should only consume food and beverage of quality and skillful preparation. To his way of thinking, the ingredients of a sauce which had cooked for less than an hour hadn’t really gotten a chance to get to know each other yet.
It was also because of him I never had to worry about other people drinking my beer at college parties. While most college kids are more interested in a cheap drunk using Milwaukee’s Best or Keystone Light or whatever else was on sale for under $10 a case, Don taught me to enjoy beer that actually tastes like beer was meant to taste instead of the watered down, purified rat urine most college kids swill. As a result, I usually went home more or less sober with enough beer left over for the next party.
That’s not to say, however, my cooking skills are without their limitations. For instance, while I am fairly successful at cooking well timed meals for a small group of people (no more than six people), I find myself intimidated by pulling off meals for larger groups. I think this comes from an experience I had in high school. I was dating a girl who wanted to introduce me to her parents. She suggested I make a batch of my now famous spaghetti for her parents and sister. She asked me what would be required, and I gave her a shopping list based on an expected audience of five diners. I arrived at her house to find out I was cooking for ten. There’s nothing quite like being surprised and put on the spot to go with the nervousness of being a tall, uncoordinated 17 year old meeting a girl’s parents for the first time to throw you off your game and put a damper on your joy of cooking. I suppose I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. This was the same girl who introduced herself to mom as a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. At the ripe old age of 17 no less.
So, when the Queen informed me we were hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, it gave me a moment of pause. The kind of moment where one of your eyes twitches uncontrollably and coherent speech is temporarily impossible. After all, I was at a business meeting in mid October when I received a phone call from the Queen advising me of her royal decree. No discussion. Just (Surprise!) “We’re hosting Thanksgiving this year.” That would be the Royal “We” apparently. What else is there for a good slave to do but hear and obey?
To quote the famous infomercial announcer guy, “But wait, there’s more.” As loyal readers are already aware, the Queen’s health issues result in her not having the energy to really assist in the meal preparation. Add to that my mother in law’s complete lack of interest in cooking. She claims to be allergic to the kitchen, and her idea of cooking is to put a pot of beans on the stove to be served as bean and mayo burritos. There are times when I really do feel sorry for my father in law.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression that my family is without its culinary ineptness. There is one story involving a certain family member’s first attempt at roasting a Thanksgiving turkey which bears relating here. I am withholding the identity of the guilty party by request in good faith. I didn’t even solicit a bribe for this one.
As the story goes, our intrepid Turkey Toaster was fairly young, newly married and clueless as to the secret arts of the kitchen. Not one to be shy about asking for guidance, our would be chef put in a call to an older and wiser family member who instructed said neophyte to begin by “bathing” the bird and to call back when done. Having no other experience in the matter with which to compare and taking the words of wisdom somewhat literally, picture a young person merrily drowning and scrubbing a turkey in a sea of warm water and Ivory liquid soap suds.
It’s my understanding that the subsequent phone calls to the older and wiser family member involved much more explicit instructions after the initial shock and laughter wore off. I don’t know how well that particular turkey tasted as it was before my time; however, the story does not involve any trips to the hospital for food poisoning. So, I assume everything turned out well.
So, you see where this is going right? Me, who is not real comfortable with the whole cooking for a large group idea, cooking for no less than twelve people. We actually wound up seating 14 for dinner. It was almost 22 at one point. Fortunately for my sweaty palms and nervous ticks, the friends with a family of seven politely declined.
All in all, despite my aversion to cooking for large groups, we had a good Thanksgiving dinner. No one went home hungry, and leftovers were kept to a minimum. My brother in law and his family brought several side items, wine, chocolate chip cookies and a chocolate cheesecake for dessert. I managed to bake a batch of cinnamon cookies, roast a turkey, cook a brisket, make homemade cranberry sauce, make fresh hot sauce, make cream cheese Rotel dip, cook a pot of mashed sweet potatoes and whip up some cream gravy more or less on time.
The only thing that didn’t turn out right was the attempt at homemade barbeque sauce. It was one of Grandma Erickson’s recipes I had never tried before. It was bad. I mean gag a maggot bad. It went down the drain before anyone had a chance to realize how bad it was.
I’ll have to try that recipe again. Maybe with a little Ivory soap next time.