Thursday, October 21, 2010

Please Send: Paprika, Money and a Slotted Spoon

I wasn't raised among heaps of sticky dough on the counter, or pots of seasoned meat bubbling over on the stove. I wasn't raised with a stocked spice rack, or fresh produce in the crisper drawer. I was raised on simple comfort foods that could easily stretch to feed 10+ people. Things like tuna noodle casserole, mac & cheese, spaghetti, beef stroganoff, a keilbasa dish with spinach and potatoes. These foods filled us up—me and my sisters, and eventually my brother—and sent us on our way, out back to reconvene our jury trial on whether or not my younger sister deserved to be pushed off the trampoline for tattling, or another in an assorted line of games we made up to amuse ourselves.

It's obvious to most, the title of "cook" or "family cook" doesn't always belong to the woman anymore. This development is said to have sprung out of the last ten years, but for the sake of affection, let's say my mother was and always has been simply a modern woman.

It's constantly debated in our house who was the primary cook when we were children. In stories I've written, and memories my sisters have divulged, it seems we rob my mother of her title. We remember my father as the chef, not because he was there nightly, but perhaps because we looked forward to, longed for his meals—weekends when my mother was gone at trade shows, we were excited for his spaghetti with "doctored sauce." True, my mother cooked breakfasts and dinners and lunches for her small army, but while they was always plenty of food and a healthy balance, her food lacked wonder, excitement. It was clear even to our small, undeveloped palates that something was missing.

I never gave it much thought at the time. I never questioned the meals, always gobbled them down quietly and without complaint—my tall glass of milk sometimes difficult to polish off after stuffing myself with dinner.

We were happy children.

I began to notice the repetition, the sadness of it all, in high school, because by then I was making many of the meals myself. I knew the wash, rinse, repeat of a handful of salad, a cluster of popcorn chicken and potatoes or french fries. Under my mother's direction, I often made dinner for us who still lived at home. By then there was no back pasture, just the noise of cars out on the street. We were a different people then, my mother a different woman. Just a woman, no longer a saint. A single mom, not head of an army. There was almost no army left—just a broken and disbanded regime. The cooking didn't change, it just got simpler, and even still when I go home for visits, dinner is a predictable game, only switched up on occasion or in celebration.

I left home for college a woman, while slightly cynical, still able to watch out after a bunch of kids, straighten up the house before bed, get my work done on time, build my credit. I didn't know how to cook, though. Never learned, like someone missing that essential stage of life where riding a bike is taught, or swimming. College came and went and it wasn't a problem. No one cooked in college. Everyone spent their money (or their parents') crowding into cheap Mexican restaurants for all-you-can-eat tortilla chips and tacos.

And then suddenly, I arrived here. Present day. Twenty-three years old and unable to cook my husband an interesting (yes, interesting: not bland, boring, taste-less, cheap, easy) dinner. Well, at least until about a week ago.

Kitchen confidence isn't something most women ever even think about (I don't think). Their mothers and grandmothers raise them up in the kitchen, icing cakes, roasting chickens, stuffing peppers. I've seen them, friends of mine. Watched them in the kitchen as they reach for this and "oh why not, sprinkle a little of THAT in there." I didn't think I belonged in that crowd. I belonged in my own crowd. One where my father stops in for dinner out of the blue: We're having pasta...with sauce from a bottle. "Did you doctor it at all?" he asks. "No," I reply, a failure of a daughter.

When I get into the kitchen I start to panic: I don't have the right spices, the refrigerator is always empty, no eggs, no milk, no olive oil. I get turned around, I have the wrong tools, too many of some and not enough of the most important things. But something has changed in me recently. It's my new life, maybe. My new me. I can learn, I will learn. I'm learning. I have to prop myself up on crutches with my kitchen handicap, but all it takes is effort and I've got plenty of it. I'm learning that cooking starts with TWO things. 1. A recipe. You will never ever run out of them. There are bagillions. And they breed. One or two recipes after repetitive use grow into a new recipe, which sparks an idea for..."Hm, yes, what if I DID add dijon mustard to lemon juice and..." You will never run out of them. 2. Planning: a sales paper & a shopping list. Planning meals, why didn't I think of that? I put in the hours, and it's all there. So Thursday night when the recipe calls for 2 cups of Parmesan cheese instead of 1, DON'T PANIC. Just reach in the back of the top shelf of the fridge, and there behind the salsa is another bag of Parm. Praise God.

Or maybe there's three things. 3.) Passion (for flavor). I think it comes from the shoulders, the whip of the wrist, the spinning turns from counter to stove-top. Joie de vivre in the kitchen. My first successful meal planted that warmth in my stomach, the longing for flavor, for aromas and tastes that make you scream and clap with delight. This passion, I now realize, is what was always missing for me. Passion gives even the simplest pasta salad a captivating flame. The YUM factor. The TO DIE FOR factor.

Husband is beside himself. "You can cook, baby!" he exclaimed to me one night, sinking his shoulders down in delight. You don't understand, this is AMAZING. I've made curry. I've made lasagna. I've made ADOBO, yes adobo. And they were all great! I am an international chef mastermind. I wisk with confidence, I spread splendidly.


I'm getting a big head, but that's because this is a BIG deal. Somewhere between a couple of food blogs, the encouragement of an e-friend and an everlasting desire to be more of "woman," I can cook. My days of frozen dinners, chicken tenders and scrambling once the clock gets to 6 p.m., are over. And with them, the endless openness and freedom of a hot summer day in our back field is over. Mama isn't in the kitchen anymore. Mama moved away, she's got a new house, more babies. Older sisters come home to their husbands, boyfriends, roommates, not that heavy round wooden table our family used to sit around at mealtimes. We've moved on from the past—hurt feelings, boring dinners and hidden treats from Dad in the pantry. We're grown women (and a man) now. And though we'll always been there, in person or deep within the caverns of our most cherished childhood memories, we've got to look out for own, now.

And so, amidst the steaming pot teeter tottering on my too-small burner and the sweat on my brow, amidst l'essence de onion that stings my eyes and several boxes of discounted pasta, I chant over and over to myself: I can cook, baby.