Friday, August 26, 2005

Why I Don't Cook Part 1: My Heritage

I come from a long line of cooks. When I was little, my grandmother made these wonderful breakfasts while we were visiting. One of my favorites was the beef hash and biscuits. We would have had a beef roast with potatoes and carrots the night before. Then she would cut up the left over beef and potatoes and add onions and make a thin almost clear beef gravy to go with them. She would bake up biscuits and we smothered them in the hash. Soooo good.

Grandpa always took at least one biscuit and broke it open slowly. Grandpa never hurried at anything, everything he did was slow and deliberate. He would take a little saucer and put a big pat of butter in it, then open the jar of sorghum molasses and they would slowly drizzle out over that butter. Then he would take a fork and mash and mix the molasses and butter together and pile it on his biscuit. He loved it; I didn't so I stuck with the hash. The other thing she fixed was fried Cole fish. I don't know what kind of fish they were, but Grandpa and I would go downtown in Roanoke to the farmer's market and he would buy a mess. They were just the tails of a larger fish and had a back bone running down the middle. That was all, no other bones in the small amount of attached fish so you didn't have to hunt and peck for them, just eat the fish off the tail bone.

Once in a while Grandma would pull one that just didn't work. Usually she was trying to fake my brother out. He didn't like cauliflower and he loved potatoes, mashed. Do you see where we are heading here? She decided that she could make him think he was eating mashed potatoes when in reality it was cauliflower. She cooked it to death, mashed it to mush, put in a little milk, maybe a bit of flour and beat them up with a beater. Stephen took one bite and said, "What did you do to the cauliflower, it's awful." She tried and tried to tell him they were mashed potatoes but he knew better. Finally, Grandpa just said, "Zula, it didn’t work, let the boy be."

Now Mom learned to cook from Grandma. For a long time (according to the food critic Stephen) our parents "boiled all vegetables until they looked like a uniform grey color and had the consistency of soft mush, no matter what they were". As a preacher's wife she had to cook for many a dinner, pot-luck type stuff and had to learn a lot of food styles from different parts of the country. In each church the ladies would put together a Mother's Day Cookbook with favorite recipes from all the women in the church. These were compiled and given as gifts to all the mothers that day. I think this was the start of her fetish for cookbooks.

You will note I used the word 'fetish'. I looked it up and one of the meanings is "an abnormally obsessive preoccupation or attachment; a fixation". This fits. She absolutely, completely loves cookbooks. She kept collecting them so Dad built her a big bookshelf for them, then another, and a third and still they are overflowing. Unlike me, she actually reads them. My mother reads cookbooks like novels. She is always reading a recipe in a book or seeing one on Paula Deen's cooking show on HGTV and then she tries it out. Because she is diabetic, many of these are things she cannot eat herself. So who are the ones who have to try it and eat it so it doesn't go to waste? Yes, my dad, Nyssa (when she is at home) and me. None of us need this. Most of her recipes turn out wonderfully. She has a blueberry pie recipe to die for and the best lasagna in the world; sand tarts and fudge for Christmas and she has even made the buttercream mints that you cook and pour on a cold slab of marble to cool then pull and pull before cutting into little mints that melt in your mouth. Hungry yet? Yes, my mom is a good cook.

My dad has become a pretty good cook. He has the male problem of cleaning up while cooking (he can't do it) and it is hard for him to multi-task right now. He has to cook one thing at a time to keep on top of things. However, he is the absolute supreme gravy maker in the world. He can take the drippings or juice from any type of fried or roasted meat and make gravy that is just the right thickness, just the right consistency, chunky or smooth whatever is called for. He is also pretty sharp with the homemade soups and stews.

Even my brother is a good cook. Actually he is a gourmet cook, very fussy with food. I assume he gets this from traveling all over the world and eating at wonderful restaurants. Stephen had to have back surgery while traveling with Phantom of the Opera (he ruptured a disc while pulling the monkey heads out of the trunk in the auction scene). He came to Columbus and had it there where he could stay with me and do his post-op water therapy. He was with us for eight weeks. After he felt better, I would come home from work at five and supper would be on the table. This was incredible. He would hold out a plate of sliced fresh mozzarella cheese and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and some kind of herb and say "appetizer". I just looked at him with a dazed 'dear in the headlights' look and asked, "What's an appetizer?" We didn't do those. When Nyssa and I hit the house at 5:30 pm and she was ready to eat 'RIGHT NOW', one did not do appetizers. One does what one can microwave in one minute and thirty seconds.

Stephen tends to do complex dishes requiring every pot and pan in the kitchen. He does roast duckling with orange sauce, souffle, a meatloaf with some kind of hard to find Chinese sauce in it, and Martha Stewart mashed potatoes. Living in Europe, he has started doing local delicacies as well like boiled tongue. His one main failing is that it takes a small army to clean up after him. Yes, it must be a man thing.

All those years of cooking just for myself and a small growing child helped me develop a strategy. I can cook a full meal with meat, two vegetables, salad, and drink and by the time I call Nyssa for supper (which will still be hot I might add) said supper will be portioned on the plates, the leftovers will be in sealed containers already in the refrigerator and all cooking pots and utensils will have been washed or rinsed and put in the dish washer before she gets there. After supper the only things to put away are condiments and the only dishes to rinse are the plates, salad saucers, glasses and flatware. In organization of a meal I excel.

In the cooking department, however, I pretty much stink. (To be continued in Part II)

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