First you saute an onion

Throughout the 70’s I longed for the sweet chemical goodness of Twinkies and Pop Tarts and Cool-Aid and Lucky Charms but, except when a friend could be persuaded to part with a coveted Ho-Ho at lunch, I had to get by on a lot of wholesome food cooked from scratch–whole wheat bread made from flour my mother ground herself, big pots of beans with cornbread, turkey and dumplings made from the carcass after Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

My parents believed in “developing the palate” and introduced us to a wide variety of foods that children don’t traditionally eat: spinach, avocados, smoked oysters, sushi.  And nothing was too green, spicy, or slippery for me.  When we kids were taken out to dinner, we ordered off the adult side of the menu as a matter of course.  It never occurred to us to ask for grilled cheese or plain spaghetti.

Growing up, our kitchen was not always the scene of idyllic family togetherness.  We had our thrown dishes, screaming matches, and icy silences broken only by the scrape of cutlery.  And I spent my share of evenings alone at the table after everyone else had finished, still poking sulkily at a piece of liver that stood between me and freedom. 

And yet, and yet…

I learned to cook by watching, and that meant cooking by taste and fearless instinct rather than following recipes to the letter.  When my father cooked, it was a grand production that generally started with sautéing an onion and some garlic, then liberal applications of cooking wine. He would  use every pot, pan, and spoon we owned.  Piled in a towering, crusty heap in the sink, the dirty dishes were a monument to his reckless enthusiasm as he unveiled his masterpieces to general applause. 

My mother often started with her trusty Betty Crocker Cookbook, but then she followed her own gentle whimsy.  She wasn’t always an adventurous cook—she had dinner to get on the table night in and night out, with limited time and money.  But she was a connoisseur of small pleasures.  The best part of helping with dinner was the next to last step in the process, when she spooned a little bit of the spaghetti sauce or beef stroganoff into a bowl, handed it to me and asked, “Now how does that taste?  Does it need anything else?”  As I spooned up my sample, I carefully considered the flavors passing over my tongue.  “More oregano, do you think?” she would prompt.  “Hmm…no….I think it needs more pepper, though.”  And she would smile approvingly, dutifully pepper, and we would taste again until it was just right. 

Often, I curled up in the corner of the couch for a peaceful hour with that Betty Crocker Cookbook, flipping through the color photos of canapés and cakes, absorbing the “meal planning and table service” tips, and studying the line drawings of a happy 1950’s housewife with high heels and swirling skirts. 

I had plenty of quiet winter afternoons to pull out the mixer and, humming happily to myself, produce lumpy muffins or a cake that looked stepped on, with frosting concocted according to no known recipe, which I served with a flourish and my family stoically ate, and even more heroically, complimented.

And I had those sweet, stolen moments with my mother, in the quiet, pre-dinner warmth of our harvest gold kitchen, when she smiled down on me as I blew on a spoonful of spaghetti sauce she held out for my sober judgment.

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One thought on “First you saute an onion

  1. Charles

    Your earlier days seem quite similar to mine. While my Dad was in the Canadian Active Army, Mom, Sis and I stayed with Grandparents, using the 2nd floor of their big house for our living quarters. Many hours were spent in the kitchen downstairs, however. Being the youngest of the clan, I always was under-foot at the stove watching closely as both Mum & Gramma worked their miracles with wood heat, cast iron utensils, and a pinch of this with a dash of that… I learned early to be content to read a cookbook, and developed a taste for baking while watching my Grand-Dad make his famous Scottish Shortbread, mile high cakes, and assorted muffins. Today, my wife and I own a plethora of cookbooks that deal with one topic, or an encyclopedic array of meal planning, recipes, and etiquette. We have two 6 foot bookcases crammed with cookbooks, several boxes we have yet to unpack, and yet we still clip and save some good sounding recipes from weekly newspapers or magazines. I totally enjoy baking and when not baking, I almost enjoy just sitting reading through a cookbook as much. I have thought from time to time that I would like to decorate my ..oops excuse me…OUR…kitchen with some of the pictures of the cakes, pies, cookies, breads, or muffins that are included with recipes I have used and labeled as “Favorite”. My paternal Grandfather owned and operated his own Bake Shop, so I imagine a lot of the desires I have are in my DNA, as well as my taste buds…..


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