More times I’m glad you weren’t there – and you are, too!
Just after posting my “Baking 001” finger-cake adventure, I realized that my reaction to the experience was a life decision with a negative impact.
From the evidence at hand, I can’t really blame Mom – lone among my siblings, she never offered, and I never requested, her “Cooking 001” tutorial. Instead I offered, and she accepted, a pact that I would specialize in cleanup. (At one point, she complimented that I was her best dish washer. She may have said the same to siblings.)
The result of this short-sightedness was that I entered adulthood unprepared for survival.
I could dramatize the following incidents into separate blog posts, but I’m choosing to capsulize them, to get this topic out of the way and go on to other ones.
Boldly going where I had never been before! For my first oven challenge, in a one room country house in Virginia, I thought a nice steak would be great culinary kickoff. A military colleague gave me some tips: Wrap the steak in foil, punch holes, and cook for fifteen minutes. I bought a large ¾” thick beauty, cut half for the sacrifice, did as directed, and was feeling proud of myself, until I ate it. I didn’t try that approach again.
A week later, a colleague joined me in the house, as we awaited renting an apartment nearer the base. He checked the refrigerator and pulled out something greening and asked what it was. I said it was the other half of the steak, I’d get to it sometime soon. He threw it out. Joe turned out to be a gourmet cook, ran a hospital food service on Cape Cod, and later opened his own daytime restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, a sixty-dozen-eggs-a-day appetizing palace.
A new life looms… On to the apartment – I was enjoying Joe’s cooking, when Bill showed up. He was a meat and potatoes guy, and we shared food expenses, until I had to resign from that contract. As Joe was cooking to-die-for Rock Cornish Game Hen with wild rice, Bill was cooking and consuming his own appetizer, six hot dogs and potatoes, then joining in the main course. I concluded both added too much to my budget taste, one for high quality, one for high quantity, and resumed my own culinary pursuits. Bill eventually opened a diner in New Jersey.
I became engaged (followed by Joe, then Bill), and the tunnel was becoming lighter. One of Maureen’s shower gifts was a Corningware cooking set, bowl and base, ideal for frying. I hankered for good old fried chicken, and gave the gift a test. Someone told me the way to assure that the grease was hot enough was to sprinkle it with water. I did, and the explosion confirmed the grease was ready. I cleaned up all the drippings except the ones that found their way between the bowl and the base. When the chicken was cooked, I lifted the bowl to pour the grease into the waiting empty coffee can, but the base stuck to the bowl, and knocked over the coffee can, resulting in a cascade from stove top to cabinet drawers to floor. But the chicken tasted good.
Then came the sabbatical. For my first fifteen years of married life, I was again a cleanup specialist, and the meals were consistently terrific. (I admit to one relationship mistake – when Maureen asked what I would like, I would say anything she prepared is great (the truth), but that left her with the decision angst. She might have preferred thinking she was pleasing me by granting my special request once in a while.)
Mid-career and plateau’d in my technical assignment, my employer offered a ten week sabbatical program of classes in New York City, to explore other options in the company. Again, my own apartment, with stove. I frequented the local deli. Again, nostalgia – I drooled for gumbo. Mom made the best in the world. I had brought a New Orleans package mix, nowhere as good as Mom’s original, but still the best thing in my power to accomplish. One package serves six, so that would be three meals for me. All I needed was cooked turkey or chicken, or uncooked seafood. Some women in the class coached me that it takes only twenty minutes to cook the chicken, but that was above my pay grade, so I went to the market seeking shrimp. There was no shrimp at that market that day, so I came home with what seemed the best alternative, and created probably the world’s first FLOUNDER GUMBO! It was tasty indeed – and the evidence stayed in the apartment for a couple of weeks. I would slice onions before leaving for class, in hopes of absorbing the aroma, but only time worked. But I didn’t have to cook, or go back to the deli, for another couple of days.
Adjusting to the new reality. I enjoyed fifteen more years as cleanup specialist, gradually acquiring some grilling skills, as long as someone told me when to turn the victims over, and when they were done. Then, painfully, I was a bachelor again.
After a long and longing while, I lost my taste for microwave meals, but I soon stumbled upon what for me was the greatest invention of the late twentieth century – the George Foreman Grill! Thank you, George! Chicken, really crispy bacon, hamburger meat for spaghetti, ham and cheese panini, succulent scallops and haddock in three minutes, cleanup in two or three minutes – what more could anyone ask? One day I encountered a mother and adult daughter looking George over at a Sears, wondering if they should buy one; I gave the sales pitch, and they bought two.
Finally – passing “Cooking Oh-Oh-One,” partially self-taught. Twice again, nostalgia – two of my favorites from my late wife’s repertoire – flank steak and leg of lamb.
Whenever a distant relative appeared, I would grill up a flank steak, usually tasty (the part that was edible). Eventually I learned to braise with bbq sauce only on the final flip, not every five minutes during the forty-five minutes of grilling, and the crusting decreased and appreciation increased proportionately.
As host of the extended family’s Easter celebrations, the thought of leg of lamb had me drooling, but that was above my oven grade. I had told a sister-in-law that I couldn’t handle more than three driving or cooking directions, and she found me a three-ingredient cookbook. I appreciated her apparent waste of money, but then I found a recipe for leg of lamb – mix minced anchovies, garlic, and pepper; rub; and cook! It was very well received by the fifty percent who liked lamb; the other fifty didn’t know what they were missing. The only mishap occurred when the pan hit the oven door on the way out and spilled gravy in the oven and onto the door and floor, but the taste wasn’t affected, and the cleanup was a familiar routine.
Then came the turkey! Our extended family holiday routine was disrupted one year, and I took on the Thanksgiving turkey challenge. A friend told me about butter-drenched cheese cloth to cover the baking turkey, and for once the fulfillment arrived as advertised! No spills, all thrills!
Next up is attempting butt-beer chicken during grilling season.
I have to think everyone has at some times experienced some similar disaster(s), but few admit same. It would be reassuring to me to know that I’m not alone in growing from kitschy kitchen capers, and to maybe receive some companion comic relief.
A final shoutout to Mom’s culinary expertise. The dinner most often enjoyed at home was Mom’s own special French creation, “musgeaux” – an eclectic collection of whatever remained in the frig, every Saturday night! I’ll try it if I ever have any leftovers.
The end! No more cooking foibles or follies, even if re-misremembered.
Tom Comeaux said:
You’re not alone, dear brother. I once thought of myself as a culinary artist. Vincent seemed to like what I cooked. One of my specialties was baked pork chops and rice. I served that to Bridget when she and I were dating. Vincent and I enjoyed it. She pretended to enjoy it. She became violently ill on the way home. Apparently, undercooked pork is an acquired taste.
I now only cook when I plan to eat alone.