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.