Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The journey

When I was 11, I cooked all the way through my 64-page Mary Alden's Cookbook for Children ...

… and I have the diploma, signed by my mom, to prove it!

As is true for many, learning to cook has been a lifelong journey for me. As a child, I hovered around my mom and my grandmothers as they cooked, asking questions, sampling, observing, visiting, and, well, generally standing underfoot. I had my own little Mary Alden’s Cookbook for Children that I used frequently to make after-school snacks. I can still taste those Eskimo Cookies—mostly butter, sugar, and oats—that I whipped up and ate nearly every day.

Mom and my nephew in 1977. Mom isn't really as bad
a cook as Geoff seems to indicate!
Now, my mom was (is) a good cook, but as a busy college English professor, I think cooking was mostly a chore for her.  Her goal was to prepare basic healthy and satisfying meals, yet get in and out of the kitchen and back to her grading and lesson-planning as quickly as she could. (This could explain my lifelong love affair with the Crock Pot. She used it frequently, and so do I.) When I was a teenager, she was very happy to hand the kitchen duties over to me as often as possible—and she was very patient with my messes and mistakes.

Along with my mom, my grandmothers guided and encouraged my kitchen education. My Grandma Gipson was an expert cook—and, knowing every shortcut in the book, she was very fast in the kitchen. She could flip out a fresh and delicious raspberry pie quicker than I can tie my shoes. She taught me to roll out and bake pretty darn good biscuits in no time at all. And Grandma Padgett, who lived with us during my teenage years, was overseer of my fledgling attempts to put edible meals on the table. Unable to stand for long periods of time, she taught me to make her famous apple dumplings and many other dishes while perched in a nearby easy chair.

Those collective experiences may be where, at 21 and newly married, I acquired the confidence (over-confidence, actually) to answer an ad in the Dallas Times Herald to cook for an elderly Dallas oil millionaire couple. The job was attractive because it offered Doug and me a way to experience big city life far-removed from the Missouri Ozarks, and it came with living quarters, a lovely little cottage (complete with swimming pool) on their huge estate. There I embarked on a year-long, 24/7 self-taught cooking school, before Doug and I decided to move back home to family and friends.

Eskimo Cookies was my favorite recipe.
It's a wonder I'm still alive.
Actually, I lie; my lessons weren’t self-taught. Fannie Farmer, who died in 1915, was my mentor during this period, her cookbook my bible, which I memorized, book, chapter and verse, from cover to cover. (Sadly, I finally laid the actual cookbook to rest a couple of years ago during my family’s downsizing efforts.) From Fannie I learned to whip up mayonnaise, tie up a roast, trim radishes to make them look like tulips, etc. I also received much “coaching” from the Mrs. of the house. I still have a stenographer’s notebook full of her “helpful tips” and “gentle suggestions.”

At this point in life, I would call myself a mediocre cook at best, with many lessons in the culinary arts left to learn. But I am obsessed with cooking, especially now that a living gluten-free is an absolute necessity. Now close friends who are experts in gluten-free and grain-free cooking and the Internet with its thousands of blogs and related resources are providing my guidance. Celiac disease is not the ship I expected or that I would have willingly chosen, but now that I’m on board, I’m finding this new journey pretty interesting.