1: Becoming a Cook

1: Becoming a Cook

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Becoming a Cook

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

~Harriet van Horne

“Do you like Hamburger Helper?” my soon-to-be-husband’s twelve-year-old son, Austin, asked me the first time I met him. “I hope so because it’s the only thing my dad knows how to cook.”

“It’s okay, honey, I can cook,” I assured him without even thinking.

He eyed me suspiciously. “What do you know how to make?”

I shrugged and then plunged into the abyss of deception. “I know how to cook lots of things. What do you like to eat?”

He shrugged back. “I like pretty much everything. Well, except Hamburger Helper.” He wrinkled his nose. “I’m kind of tired of that.”

I laughed. “If you like pretty much everything, we should be just fine in the food department.”

He grinned and looked at his dad. “Marry her tomorrow, Dad. Seriously.”

Eric and I followed Austin’s suggestion and got married just five months after we met. I quit my job and moved the two hundred miles from my apartment in the Chicago suburbs to Eric’s farmhouse in southern Indiana. His kids and my kids got along the way blood siblings do — loving each other one minute and fighting the next. And Eric, well, he was practically perfect in the husband department. Things were going exactly according to plan.

Except for one thing. That little white lie I’d told. I’d said I could cook. Talk about the mother of all exaggerations! Yeah, I can cook — if calling the pizza delivery boy qualifies as cooking! Saying I could cook was like saying I could fly. It hadn’t happened yet, but who knew? But maybe I could figure it out and then I’d never have to fess up to my little fabrication.

The pressure was on. I could practically hear Rachael Ray’s voice taunting me, “Did you tell that poor kid you know how to cook? How could you do such a thing?”

But Emeril, the angel on my other shoulder, responded, “It’s all right. She’ll learn.” And then he added a “Bam!” just to encourage me.

For the first few months, I faked it with easy stuff like spaghetti and tacos. We grilled hamburgers and brats on the grill at least once a week. It was summer, so nobody expected me to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. But I knew winter was coming and that meant the grill — my new best friend — would soon be going into hibernation.

I panicked, but not for long. I soon found a new favorite appliance — my crock pot. You can throw practically anything in that thing and it turns out all right. At first, I made sure I had a recipe and I followed it exactly. But after a while, I got creative and started throwing in whatever I had on hand. One day, I tossed in some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a packet of onion soup mix, and a can of cream-of-whatever soup.

When Eric got home from work, he took a bite of my creation, which I’d mixed with egg noodles. His eyebrows went up and he nodded. “This is pretty good. What’s it called?”

“Um, let me check,” I said. I reached for a cookbook, flipped through to the section of chicken recipes and read the first one I saw. “Perfect Breasts,” I said.

Eric grinned. “Excellent. Be sure to make this one again. Maybe just for me next time.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Chalk one up for me and my “cooking” skills.

After I mastered my crock pot, I discovered some really great cooking websites. One site’s specialty was recipes that required just five ingredients.

Even I couldn’t mess that up. I printed some of the more appealing ones and tried them out. They were really good. Even my oh-so-picky daughters asked for seconds.

I was getting pretty good at faking the cooking thing.

And then the real test came: my husband’s birthday. In his family, birthdays are a huge deal. The whole family comes over to celebrate, but no one serves just cake and ice cream. No, these people come hungry and ready for a good, home-cooked meal.

Did I mention my husband is one of eight children?

Yeah, so about forty people — including my new mother-in-law — came over to our house, expecting food that was not only edible, but actually tasty. I was beyond overwhelmed by it all.

I filled two crock pots with chicken, boiled some egg noodles, fixed some bread — the kind that comes in the tubes — heated about a dozen cans of green beans, and hoped for the best. If the food were terrible, there would always be cake. It was store-bought, so I couldn’t mess it up.

I watched closely as my mother-in-law took her first bite of the chicken I’d made. Her eyes lit up and she quickly took another bite.

Holy cow, she liked it. I had pulled it off after all.

When my husband’s sister asked me for the recipe, I picked up my jaw from the floor and stammered, “Oh, you don’t want this recipe. It’s so easy, it’s embarrassing.”

She smiled. “But those are the best kinds of recipes.”

I rattled off the five-ingredient recipe, ashamed that now everyone would peg me for the fake I was.

“Diane, that chicken was delicious,” another sister-in-law said. “The fact that it was easy to cook only makes me like it more.”

“But I’m really not a very good cook,” I insisted.

“Did you make the meal today?” my mother-in-law asked.

“Well, yeah,” I said.

“Then you’re a good cook.”

I looked into the smiling faces of the women in my new family. And I realized that becoming a good cook was a lot like becoming a member of their family.

It didn’t matter how I’d gotten there. But I was sure glad I finally had.

Cream Cheese Chicken

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1/2 cup butter

1 package Italian seasoning mix

1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese

1 (10 3/4 oz.) can cream of chicken soup

Cooked rice or pasta

Cube chicken into bite-sized pieces.

Combine chicken pieces, butter and Italian seasoning mix in a crock pot and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.

Then add cream cheese and soup, and cook on high until cheese is melted.

Serve over rice or pasta.

~Diane Stark

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