Cooking Is Everything

My mom tells me that I’ve been cooking since I was four.  I don’t really remember when I first started cooking, but there are pictures that serve as memories. Kodacolor prints of a pig-tailed me, standing on a chair pushed against the kitchen counter with one of my mom’s aprons folded and wrapped around my waist; a wooden spoon in hand, stirring batter in an avocado green bowl—it was the 70’s after all.

My mom is a wonderful cook and her mother was, too.  If you ask my mom about memories of her childhood she will answer with stories about food—homemade birthday cakes piled high with seven minute frosting, an elegant turkey tetrazzini made the day after Thanksgiving, my grandma’s enchiladas made on warm summer days, some sort of cheesy pinwheel that grandma only made when they were having dinner parties, and ambrosia chocked full of canned fruit and shredded coconut, topped with Maraschino cherries.

I also have memories of my grandma’s cooking.  There were homemade biscuits and cream gravy, fried chicken that never made it to the dinner table—we’d stand around the stove burning our fingers, eating the crispy, golden pieces still glistening with oil as they came out of the pan, Christmases with a half dozen varieties of festive cookies; my favorite were wreaths made from corn flakes tossed into green food coloring tinged melted marshmallows and dotted with Red Hots.

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As a teenager about to turn 16, while my friends were fantasizing about getting Mustangs and Trans-Ams to cruise around town, I was hoping for a different kind of American metal—was a Viking range to much to ask for? I got a Chevy Camaro.  My favorite catalogue was Williams-Sonoma.

Back when I was a kid (am I really old enough to say that?) Home Economics was a class you could take in school. It was a mix of cooking, home budgeting, and sewing. I’m lost on why this isn’t a thing anymore.  My 16 year-old son just took a class in computer technology.  Really?  Isn’t this the last generation that needs a class on computers?  I’m pretty sure he’s well versed in all of today’s tech, but has no idea which side of a needle to thread.

Anyway, home economics was a place to practice cooking and hone my skills (I also made a dozen stuffed animals and learned how to sew on a button). At home, I relieved my mother of dinner making responsibilities a few times a week; at the holidays I became her sous chef.

1782d100d34cb608b443790203a2f8ccOn a shelf in my mom’s kitchen was a set of Time/Life cookbooks titled Foods of the World.  Each hardbound book was filled with photographs and recipes of exotic places and luscious meals.  I loved thumbing through the volumes—Classic French Cooking, Southeast Asian Cuisine, Latin American, Russian, the Caribbean—24 books in total, seven volumes dedicated to different regions of the United States.  Stir-fries and tagines, Scandinavian veal patties and coq au vin; cooking was a way to travel the world without leaving the kitchen of my suburban Detroit home.

After graduating high school I wanted to go to cooking school, but my father was insistent that I go “to a real university and get a real degree.”  So, in the fall of 1989 I packed up my stuff and moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan where I got a degree in—wait for it—Art History and Foreign Languages (French, Italian, Japanese and Arabic).  I showed him!  How’s that for a real degree?

Shockingly, my degree never got me any jobs in my field of “expertise”.  I spent nearly 20 years in commercial real estate development and five years working for a tech start-up focused on energy distribution.

I didn’t give up on cooking though.  I spent years working nights and weekends in restaurant kitchens, catering private events, taking technique classes at local cooking schools—on top of careers, marriages and having kids.

I absolutely love food; I love to cook.  My kitchen is my sanctuary; it is where I find peace from the day’s chaos.  Cooking is how I show my love for family and friends. The rhythm of meal preparation is my dance; it is hypnotic and soothing.  The hum of the stand mixer, the sizzle of hot grease in a cast iron skillet, the crack of an egg broken on the edge of a bowl—music to my ears.

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Cooking is an education in everything.  It is is chemistry and math.  It is history and culture; it is religion and faith.  It is art and fashion; it is politics and economics. It is agriculture and logistics; it is nutrition and medicine.  It can transport you across the globe or bring you closer to your past.

For those of you who say, “I hate cooking.” I argue that you just haven’t looked at it through the proper lens.  It is not a chore, but an opportunity.

It is an opportunity to explore geography and culture without leaving your home.

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It is an opportunity to truly nourish yourself, your family, and your friends with healthy, homemade food; a chance to feed your soul, not just your stomach.

It is an opportunity to save money, the most humble ingredients becoming the most sublime dishes—don’t believe me? Try a soufflé. The humble egg is delicious and cheap!

It is an opportunity to explore your creative side; cake decorating is next-level (edible) artistry.

It is an opportunity to teach a child a lesson in science—from agriculture to chemistry. Try this…Pour a pint of heavy whipping cream in a mason jar with a lid, shake until it becomes thick; add a few tablespoons of powdered sugar, shake to distribute the sugar.  Ta da, whipped cream!  Or, skip the sugar and add a teaspoon of salt and keep shaking until it becomes solid, pour out the remaining liquid, grab a baguette—you just made butter.  Science!

30 years and many home kitchens later, the massive, heavy-duty professional style range of my teenage dreams continued to allude me, until two years ago.

IMG_0304My husband and I were looking to move and we toured a home that was so close (too close) to our uppermost spending limit.  It was a lovely home.  However, we had looked at a number of beautiful houses in the area that didn’t have a price tag that made my husband nauseous.  But, when we strolled into the kitchen of this home he knew he was dead.  He was going to be stuck making an offer on this house or he’d have to drag me out kicking and screaming as I clutched the oven handle of the heavy steel range. Needless to say, we got the house (happy wife, happy life).

Couldn’t we have bought any house and added the range?  Sure. But, it was more than just the massive steel box capable of creating fire, it was the 11-foot long marble topped island that opened up into living room and dining room so I could cook and not miss out on entertaining guests (it is also the perfect spot for rolling out dough, serving up a massive buffet or spreading out school projects). It was the hand-scrapped wood floors and the wall of glass just beyond the living room that looked out onto my back yard and filled the rooms with light.  It was the clean, white cabinets with room enough for all of my kitchen supplies and the perfect spot for all of my cookbooks.  It was the 12-inch deep sink that made cleaning massive roasting pans a breeze and the roomy refrigerator with French doors and a pull out freezer drawer.  It was everything I could want in a kitchen; it felt just right–like it was made for me.

The kitchen is both literally and figuratively the center of our home. It is the place we all gather daily for dinner, sometimes the only time we see each other all day.  It is the spot everyone gravitates to, despite the comfy sofas just a few feet away.  We bought the house for lots of reasons, but if we had bought it just for the kitchen it still would have been a sound investment.

Today, when my husband is offered a plate of warm, crisp, chocolate chip studded cookies or when he walks into the house after a long day at work and the air is heavy with the scent of a roasted chicken or bolognese that has been bubbling on the stove all day he is reminded why it mattered to me, because cooking is everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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