Wednesday, April 2, 2008

RS: A Recipe for Success

I love cookbooks. I can read the same one over and over again. My mother taught me to cook early. She didn’t force me. Limp wrist born to whisk. Mama worked. I loved Mama. Mama cooked. Heaven in a mixing bowl.

We had only one real family recipe. Mama’s fried chicken. I’ve watched her do it a million times. I still can’t recreate it. Next to my family, it is the best part of going home. She makes the best German chocolate cake icing on the planet. Beyond that it was all about the comfort. I didn’t realize macaroni and cheese could come from anywhere but a box until I was in college. Two old maid Baptists (secret lesbians I am convinced) served it up, and I looked at them with a palpable pity. How sad. How wrong. How unclassy. Years later, I went to a friend's house, lesbian as well, attempting an apple pie. I entered her house as she was elbow deep in a crust like a shingle. I sent her out to change my oil while I converted pottery into pastry in about 30 seconds. Lesbians cooking. . .how cute.

Being persnickety, I had a discerning palate at an early age. No truffle compared to No Bake Cookies. Brown beans with ham hocks served on corn bread were fine dining. Biscuits and gravy were blood and body of Christ in one serving. (And don’t waste my time with no homemade biscuits. Upscale people use wop biscuits exclusively, so named because you wop ‘em against the counter top to open them.) I ate 97 forms of beef, all well done. Three types of vegetables, all well done. Every imaginable part of the squirrel, all fried. And my Aunt Dorothy—oh she of the Welfare and trailer park, she who begat three murderers, a gay son who married a man off the internet sight unseen, and a crazed Commando named Ivanhoe who misspent his youth attempting to master the art of castrating turtles—introduced me to a four-layer dessert made with instant pistachio pudding, cream cheese, powdered sugar, Dream Whip AND Cool Whip that, for an 11 year-old, completely redefined fancy.

I left home with the most refined tongue known to man, steel belted arteries, and a colon that could pass cement. I spent my 20’s consuming a diet that consisted of beef tortellini with Ragu, chicken fried steak, and the very international French Dip au jus. Pinky raised with indignation.

Unbeknownst to me, what I really left home with was a skill. Whether she intended it or not, Mama was teaching me more than how to cook, she was teaching me how to read. Recipes are reading comprehension. You end up with something that looks completely different than the individual ingredients with which you start. Each step is fundamental to the journey. Slight changes produce a completely different result. And baking is chemistry in action. All that learnin and Mama time too. I was one lucky kid.

It was later that I discovered other tastes. They began to expand in San Francisco. I fell in love with a stunning man. He was refined, rich, twice my age, and probably the love of my life. He took me to a Vietnamese restaurant. He ordered. I put things in my mouth I would never have considered had the blood to my brain not been redirected to more demanding locations. Oh, the doors he opened.

Even later, when I discovered corporate expense accounts and restaurants with star ratings, I discovered wines where the date mattered, sauces that didn’t come from a bottle, spices other than salt, cheeses other than Velveeta, and vegetables that still had shape and texture. To be fair, I still don’t like condiments, can’t even look at runny eggs, won’t go near salad or unmelted cheese, and vehemently and near violently object to pickles. Waiters fuck up and friends duck down. I may have grown but this old dog and trickin with a pickle, I don’t care how fine the vinegar.

Beyond my personal taste, I am fascinated with the possibilities in cookbooks. I secretly compose menus, creatively construct variations, and voraciously consume techniques. Sometimes I even put pan to wax paper and make something. I love event cooking, but there is a joy so satisfying in taking that journey my Mama taught me, traveling through a recipe, that sends me on veritable vacations without leaving my couch. It has opened up my palate without detriment of a single calorie. And I have seen savory sights in component combinations as beautiful as any scene in the world.

Mama taught me many things. She didn’t just teach me how to read, she taught me how to understand. She didn’t just teach me how to take risk, she taught me how to mix it up. And she didn’t just teach me how to enjoy life, she taught me how to relish. Oh, wait, that has pickles.

Yes, Mama taught me many things. All because she taught me how to cook.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mama definately has the BEST fried chicken in the world. It's funny how when you leave Ava, the rest of the world doesn't appreciate brown beans & cornbread. :) sis