*Featured Art by Mali Fischer-Levine
My husband tells people it took a brain injury for me to learn how to cook. It’s true, but like most truths, there’s more to the story. It actually took a concussion, a TV show, and echoes from the past to get me to finally care about cooking.
I grew up the only girl of four children. The boys, all much older than I, learned to cook (and sew and type). My mother viewed these skills as essential for all adults, but when it was my turn to learn, I refused. A fledgling feminist, I declared I wasn’t going to be “just” a housewife or a secretary. I was going to be a boss, one with discretionary income, who ate out a lot. I didn’t need those skills.
The eating out habit I acquired early. The daughter of a Las Vegas gambler, I dined at fancy restaurants comped by the casinos where my father gambled. At age six, shrimp cocktails and chocolate éclairs were my idea of high living.
At home, be it Vegas or NYC, I was surrounded by great cooks, my mother and grandmother — women I loved but had no desire to emulate. My mother’s brisket, chili, and homemade donuts filled the delighted and bulging bellies of family and friends. Grandma Ida meanwhile kept us stuffed with her Hungarian gastronomical wonders, all cooked in a tiny, steamy kitchen in Jamaica, Queens.
At Grandma’s we scarfed down savory chopped liver. When eating the same dish at a fancy Sin City café, it received a très haute cuisine makeover and became high-priced pate. Her comforting potato soup likewise went upscale when served as fancy-plated vichyssoise at Caesar’s Palace. Whether at Grandma’s or Caesar’s, I ate without a thought as to how or who prepared the food.
Mom and Grandma repeatedly tried to teach me how to cook but I viewed time in the kitchen the way kids view Time Out – as a punishment. Besides, chopping onions, a requirement for most of their recipes, made me cry even before the blade touched the papery peel.
Once when I was home, alone and hungry, I did try making something involving egg whites. I called my aunt long-distance to determine which part of the egg was the white part.
“Seriously?” she asked, laughing. “Really, what’s up?”
I repeated the question.
“It’s the part that’s not yellow,” she replied, then hung up.
With that call, I cemented my reputation as the family cooking failure.
At Barnard College in 1971, when I could no longer turn in hand-written essays and had to pay classmates to type my term papers, I realized typing was not a gender-specific skill. In between Russian classes, psychology labs, and lofty meaning-of-life discussions, I squeezed in an Elementary Typing class at a nearby community center.
Cooking wasn’t a problem … yet. I had the dorm meal plan for weekdays and, thanks to a dormitory-banned toaster oven, Swanson chicken pot pies for weekends.
For sewing assistance, I turned to Grandma. Once I showed up at her apartment with an armful of blouses missing buttons and pants needing hems. My normally sweet grandmother frowned and asked, “What will you do when I die?”
“Oh, I’ll ask Mom to do it,” I answered without a moment’s hesitation.
She didn’t say a word. Just stared.
By the time I graduated from college at age 20, I had acquired one signature dish – tacos. My taco-making skills carried me through graduate school and my early dating years. I know: making tacos is easy. But at that time, living on the East Coast, homemade tacos were pretty exotic fare to my friends.
One guy I dated worried about my lack of culinary skills. He asked how we would manage once married. Busy scanning a restaurant menu, I didn’t bother answering. Throughout dinner, he was pensive. Then, just as dessert arrived, he beamed and announced he had the solution.
“One night a week your mother will have us over for dinner. The next night we’ll have leftovers. Then, on the third night, we’ll go to your grandmother’s. That’ll give us leftovers for at least two nights. One night we’d eat out. That leaves just one night for you to cook … uh, tacos, I guess.”
That night when he dropped me off at my apartment, I said, “Adios, amigo,” and meant it.
When I truly fell in love, I somehow knew I had to up my game. I mean the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and all that, right?
The first meal I cooked for my almost fiancé was my mother’s recipe for roast beef. (Not the best pick for the entrée I later learned. It turned out Jon wasn’t a big red meat fan.) For dessert, I decided to make a chocolate bundt cake. That decision required a quick trip to the store to buy a cake mix and a bundt pan.
Meal preparations went well until it came time to remove the cake from the oven. I opened the door, reached for the pan, and the sides collapsed inward from the pressure of my pot-holder-ed hands. Apparently, I had bought a plastic Jello mold, not a metal baking pan.
I quickly turned the oven off, waited for it to cool, and tried again to remove the cake. This time the tin aka Jello mold had melted onto the oven rack. So, I turned the oven back on for a few minutes and deftly extracted the cake from the oven. I never told hubby-to-be about the drama. The cake actually tasted pretty good. Perhaps the plastic toxins released in the cooking process qualified as my secret ingredient.
I wasn’t worried about cooking once Jon and I married. He had told me he loved to cook. For the first of my birthdays we celebrated together, he bought three cookbooks and romanced me with a promise to teach me how to make homemade pasta. Somehow that crazy pitch worked. Handsome Hubby and I have been together for almost 32 years.
However, our plans of cooking together never panned out. His work-a-holic tendencies got in the way. As a result, we followed that former boyfriend’s formula of relying on the kindness of family members for food and we ate out or ordered in a lot.
This arrangement suited me fine. I was too busy working, too self-important to waste my time cooking. And when it came time for potluck dinners with friends, my reputation preceded me. My assignment was always to “just bring ice.”
When our children were born, nursing covered their dietary needs for months. Then I navigated easily through the yellow phase of kinder-eating: American cheese slices by the fistful, bananas, and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
As they grew older and I became busier at the office, cooking became an exercise in speed. It was cold cereal for breakfast while smearing together PB&J sandwiches for school lunch bags, dashing out the door, rushing home from school and work, throwing some easy-to-assemble dinner on the table, collapse, repeat.
Meals weren’t fancy, but they were edible, sometimes even tasty. We managed.
Once, when my son complained that I never made homemade cookies, I devotedly went to the market and bought Pillsbury refrigerator-shelf cookie batter. I wacked the package open on the counter, cut the dough, placed the cookies on the baking sheet, baked, and served them.
“What a mom!” I shouted triumphantly as I carried the batch to the table. “Yeah, uh, thanks,” said my son, shrugging his shoulders and looking at his dad, who, in turn, shrugged his shoulders. Later my husband explained that homemade cookies meant cookies made from scratch.
On rare occasions I felt motivated, well, shamed, into trying to be a better cook.
My two-decades older brother had married a woman who couldn’t cook when they exchanged vows, but was soon preparing fancy delights like beef bourguignon and chocolate soufflé. “If you can read, you can cook,” she declared.
Well, I speak and read Russian and Spanish, but I assure you I could not master ChefSpeak. Words like “chiffonade,” “poach,” “julienne,” and “pâte brisée” made me blanch.
Anyway, the kids survived, even grew tall, strong, smart, and kind. They went off to college. We became empty nesters and, with no need to rush home for homework and early bedtimes, eating out opportunities increased.
Then I was hit by a car while crossing a pedestrian crosswalk. Knocked to the ground, I blacked out. Diagnosed with a severe concussion, I was dizzy and could not concentrate. For months, reading was next to impossible and, given there is a limit to how many hours a day a person can sleep, I watched lots of TV.
It was then I happened upon the Cooking Channel. And that’s where I discovered The Barefoot Contessa and Ina Garten.
My world was about to change.
Transfixed I watched Ina make garlic roast chicken, lentil vegetable soup, salmon with fennel, caramelized butternut squash, coconut cupcakes, and so much more.
Hour after concussed hour, slumped on the couch with the curtains drawn and the lights dimmed, I listened in awe as Ina proclaimed with each delicious dish her trademark affirmation. “How easy is that!”
Watching TheBarefoot Contessa, I didn’t just learn recipes. I learned the language of cooking, understanding at long last the meaning of “julienne” and “chiffonade.” And I acquired basic skills and techniques, the very ones my family had tried to teach me so long ago such as how to cream butter and the benefits of pre-seasoning chicken.
Somewhere along the way, maybe the 17th episode, I realized that Ina’s kindly way with her viewers was really quite grandmotherly. At some point during the marathon back-to-back segments of The Barefoot Contessa, I began calling Ina “Ida,” as in my long-gone Grandma Ida. Sitting there in the darkened room, I realized how much I missed both my mother and grandmother and the wondrous aromas of their culinary creations.
By episode 20 or 21, I started thinking of cooking in a new, sacred light. I felt a profound need to honor Mom and Grandma by finally learning to cook.
I bought a KitchenAid mixer, a new broiler tray, a Cuisinart food processor, new cooking sheets, good olive oil, a tart pan, a lemon zester, and a cast iron pan.
And sharing shelf space with those shiny new Ina-inspired purchases were older, but treasured culinary tools from my mother and grandmother’s kitchens … Mom’s non-microwave safe glass mixing bowls, her dented metal measuring spoons and chipped yellow plastic citrus juicer, and Grandma’s old-fashioned waffle maker. Rarely used before, they all suddenly found purpose in my new life as an aspiring chef.
Occupying a place of special honor on my counter are Grandma’s two wooden chopping bowls and her Mezzaluna double-bladed chopping/mincing knife. It was over those very bowls and with that very device, it’s red-painted handle faded and chipped, that I had cried and complained as a child while chopping onions for Grandma’s famous chopped liver.
Grandma didn’t use recipes, so I can only recreate pale imitations of favorite family meals. But I bought multiple Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and started making Ina entrees, appetizers, and desserts. And somewhere along the way, just as Ina promised, “It was as easy as that!”
So, now I’m a cook. I not only know how to cook but I care about cooking and find true joy in doing so. My husband raves. My children grunt their approval. Friends ask for my brisket recipe as well as the one for this fancy-looking feta torte I make in a (non-Jello mold) bundt cake pan.
And all the while I’m in the kitchen, I know Grandma is looking down from that great kitchen in the sky, gently elbowing my mother and nodding her approval.