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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Epic Cooking Disasters

A conversation with my friend Kathleen brought memories of my worst-ever cooking accomplishments.

Since we were an "everybody works" family, I was the household cook from the time I was 11 until my mom stopped working when I was 16. Since my mom was a truly terrible cook, expectations were low when I began slinging the hash. Thankfully, the almost inedible was the usual fare and so there were few gripes or hard feelings expressed when I "discovered" how sausage was made or the icing stuck to one's teeth like Gorilla Glue.

Fanny Farmer was my first cooking instructor. Written for home cooks and very clearly explained, I somehow failed regularly to achieve anything near the illustrations or descriptions given. Much of my knowledge of how things cooked or what they looked like when served was from my mom's example and I seemed to be succeeding at making the beige, gray and army green dishes she'd put out all my life. But that's not what the cookbooks showed. There was also a huge discrepancy in cooking times. My mom put everything on the stove and in the oven at the same time and everything cooked for an hour or two- canned vegetables, potatoes and roasts all went on and all were out at once. But the cookbook said things cooked at all different times. I wrestled with this notion for several months. I'd never seen cooked meat any colors but blackish brown or gray before. Meat was a dry, leathery substance! Why do these pictures make it all look juicy and reddish pink? Hamburgers baked for an hour at 350'- what's this heresy of putting them in a pan on a burner? And gravy? You made that by scraping all the black stuff off of the bottom under the meat and adding watery cornstarch. Who puts spices and salt in it? What were spices anyway? Something foreigners used! We have salt and black pepper on the table and if that's not enough, tough shit.

Looking back, it's hard to believe we survived my cooking. The afore-mentioned sausages were hamburger patties I made with Thanksgiving stuffing mix by chance and baked til they were hockey pucks. The icing was for a 1st anniversary cake for my mom and stepdad, a boiled icing that hardened in the pot with the spoon stuck fast in it, which Mom threw out altogether with the flat single-layer salty brick of a cake I'd made from scratch (I cried over that). There was the baked cod, still in its box shape from the freezer and dehydrated to a crisp; the gluey mashed potatoes you had to scrape off the fork with your teeth; the chicken breasts that looked like those beak toning things in birdcages; egg noodles that disintegrated to paste when I stirred butter into them; the watery, mushy corn on the cob; the parchment paper-like roasted onions; the round steak that you had to chew for ten minutes; the pot roasts that fell to strings like shoelaces. And so it all went on our dining room table, the parade of Minute rice dishes being a novelty.

At some point my stepdad brought home dried herbs and spices and I got creative. Now everything was way overcooked but had flavors. Not good flavors, but flavors nonetheless. I began experimenting. Chicken with nutmeg and oregano. Meat loaf with cinnamon and mint. If my cooking couldn't match Fanny Farmer's, it would be original.

Then something happened that changed my life. I watched The Galloping Gourmet and The French Chef and became addicted. My dad bought me The French Chef Cookbook for Christmas (I still have that stained & beaten up copy). Since I'd already been cooking badly but fearlessly, it wasn't hard to pick up how to cook really well. My mom was pissy and critical at first, but nobody can bitch over good food for long. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So if cooking is not your forte, take heart. Keep doing it. Be fearless. If I did it, anyone can.

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