16: Everything But Cooking
16: Everything But Cooking
Everything But Cooking
I was thirty-two when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.
“Mom, I can’t believe you submitted this,” exclaimed my twenty-four-year-old daughter, laughing, as we looked at her nursery school recipe book, which sported her smiling three-year-old face on the cover. I thought back to that day, long ago, when she came home from nursery school with a note saying that each mother had to provide two recipes for a cookbook the school was making. I had reluctantly submitted two: one was for chocolate chip cookies and was copied right off the back of a Crisco can. The other was for an hors d’oeuvre I called “salmon roll-ups,” said recipe consisting of the following instructions: 1) sprinkle smoked salmon with lemon juice, cracked pepper, and dill weed; 2) cut into long strips; 3) roll up strips and insert toothpick.
I spent the first four decades of my life completely unable to cook anything. My first cooking disaster occurred when I was twelve and I obtained my grandmother’s coveted fudge recipe. I carefully followed the instructions, right down to including her secret ingredient — one tablespoon of coffee. The fudge came out black, shiny, and hard. It looked and felt like a polished piece of lava. Even our Golden Retriever, who would eat anything, refused to go near it. It was only two decades later, when I became a coffee drinker, that I realized my grandmother meant that I should include a tablespoon of actual brewed coffee, not the instant coffee flakes that I had carefully stirred into the mixture.
The next cooking disaster that stands out occurred years later, when I attempted to make pancakes for my young children. The pancakes came out so hard that the kids used them as Frisbees. They were inedible, but perfectly round and aerodynamic. After playing with them all day, the kids left them in our back yard, which was fully populated with deer, coyote, raccoons, rabbits, birds, and other hungry creatures, but the pancake Frisbees were still there the next morning. It was only after another night outside — and the sprinklers running for six hours — that the pancakes apparently softened up enough to be eaten by the animals, since they had finally disappeared by the third morning. The kids still talk about my baked Frisbees. So I guess children can have favorite family recipes even if they are not for something edible!
Another time, I decided to make iced tea for my book group. It may be hard to believe, but I actually had to look up the recipe for iced tea. I diligently placed the tea bags in a saucepan full of water, with the paper tags hanging over the edge as instructed, and turned on the gas. It was good I had the water, since every one of those paper tags immediately burst into flames.
I was married to the second son of four sons, and his mother had decided that he would be the son who learned to cook. He was great at it, so I did not know how to cook anything. He even made our coffee every morning.
It wasn’t an issue in our marriage. I was a Wall Street analyst and ran a hedge fund, and I was contributing to the family in many other ways. I worked full-time from home, handled all our investments, took care of our tax returns, and even managed to be class mother every year for one or the other child. I drove on field trips, read stories out loud every night, bought all the gifts. I was also responsible for all the kitchen cleanup after every meal. I just couldn’t cook the meal.
My aversion to cooking was only a problem when it came to dealing with the other mothers — I had to discretely avoid baking or cooking assignments for school functions. I was the mother who always volunteered to bring the paper goods, spending umpteen dollars on paper plates, cups, napkins, etc. just to avoid bringing in a theoretically edible item. My downfall came with birthday cupcakes — moms really do have to make those for their kids’ birthdays. One time, I tried to make cupcakes, from a mix no less, and instead of rising in the oven, they came out shaped like cups. My kids thought it was great — I had to fill in the craters with lots of extra frosting before I could even add the frosting domes on top. The poor teacher must have wondered why her students were bouncing off the ceiling that day.
A couple of years after the cookbook crisis, my daughter came home from school, excited about something new that she had learned in kindergarten. “Did you know that in some families the mommy cooks?” she asked, as surprised as if she had just discovered that women could be NFL linebackers or Catholic priests.
She was even more surprised a few years later, after a divorce, when I did indeed learn to cook. It turns out my problem all along had been a dislike of recipes. Once I realized I could “cook by feel” and just throw whatever made sense into a pot, I began cooking up a storm. And now my new husband helps with the dishes, because he can’t even boil water!
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