Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Missing Ingredient

I don’t cook. I’m not even a “wanna be cook” because I feel like that implies that I have some experience and have dabbled in cooking. Of course I have prepared meals, I’ve even cooked a few recipes but I wouldn’t say I’ve done enough of this to have dabbled in the vocation of cooking. I just think about it. I’m obsessed with figuring out HOW to WANT to be a “wanna be cook.” I have tons of cookbooks. I am constantly looking for new things for the kitchen to make preparation faster, stronger, better. I am always talking to friends and family about how they accomplish the task of preparing meals. And I am on a never-ending quest to find the right motivation that would encourage me to get with the program. Don’t get me wrong; my family eats dinner together every night, except Saturdays when we go out to dinner because I feel like its good “manners” practice for my kids. But during the week, our meals are thrown together, always the same and never “homemade.” I’ve never cooked a chicken. I can’t remember a recipe to save my life and there is no way I’d be able to “browse the aisles” and come up with something without a recipe.

I’m not really sure how this happened to me. I really have no excuse. I come from a family of great cooks. Both the men and women in my family worked hard in the kitchen to prepare home cooked meals for their families and guests. I mean, good old-fashioned home cooked meals from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My two great-grandmothers were incredible matriarchs that lived in their kitchens. My Mom Mom Maggie made crab cakes that can rival any fine restaurant. To this day, I will not spend money on a crab cake because it will only disappoint me compared to her recipe. My other great-grandmother, Lena, lived next door to me and was always in the kitchen, garden, or cellar working on her culinary creations to feed her family and guests. Crab and lobster feasts were a regular occurrence at her house and everything was farm/bay/ocean fresh.

In 1998, my mom gave me my second favorite Christmas gift of all time (my first favorite is a teapot painted by my daughter). It was a homemade cookbook of all of our favorite family recipes that had been passed down from all of the amazing cooks in my family. In the front of the book she writes, “I always thought that since there would be years and years where you were responsible, in part at least, for preparing meals, that I would not force you to 'have kitchen chores' at home. I wanted you to have the luxury of being waited on, having your meals prepared and, as you know, I wanted you to concentrate on your schoolwork….Anyway, since you rarely volunteered for kitchen duty, the years slipped by without you learning to make some of my favorite dishes.”

But, my mom did ask me to help in the kitchen and I never did. I don’t know why. Just like I’m not sure why I never offered to help Mom Mom Lena in the garden or Mom Mom Maggie pat out her famous crab cakes. I wish I had. With each of these recipes, my mom has added a story along with it, talking either about the person who gave it to her; like a favorite Aunt, a teacher, who wrote the recipe on the back of a school paper, or a favorite recipe that my grandfather ate when he was battling cancer. The story could have something to do with the “missing ingredient” that can no longer be read because my sister colored on it or family lore that a gingerbread recipe was made for a U.S. President. We always tried to get my mom to “organize” her recipe box but she could never part with the memories, stories and handwriting of those that had left us.

So, I know that while I go through countless cookbooks, buy gadget #213 and read one organizational blog after another, deep down what I’m trying to do is get back into Mom Mom Lena’s kitchen with her big steamer pot, black and white checkered floors and boisterous laugh. My quest to be a good cook is to reconnect with them and build memories for my own children. Needless to say, the only cookbook I ever use is the one my mom made.

So, now, here is idea #10 which involves cookbook #28 and gadget #213.


About a month ago my husband and I watched Julie & Julia. It was a good movie. I liked it, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite movie of all time but the idea for this movie has been haunting me for weeks. It seems to be what I need to get my kitchen life on track. I work well with goals, to-do lists and order. Peer pressure and accountability are huge factors in getting my butt in gear too. So, that’s what I need, work my way through a cookbook, write about it, get my friends to read it so they can cheer me on and make me finish.

But whose cookbook should I tackle? You’d think based on my need to climb back into my great-grandmother’s kitchen that I’d pick Paula Dean or the Barefoot Contessa. I thought about picking a Sneaky Chef book in hopes of killing two birds with one stone and getting the picky eaters in my house to eat. I have spent weeks thinking about this and I just keep coming back to Jamie Oliver. I’m not sure why. I’ve always been a huge Jamie Oliver fan. I love when he’s on the Today Show. What I love about him is his enthusiasm about food, his zest for fresh simple ingredients and his ability to talk to cooks or non-cooks at all levels. I only had one of his cookbooks though and I’ve never seen any of his shows so I started doing some research. I checked a couple of books out of the library and downloaded his itunes app. Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making you a Better Cook seemed like the obvious choice but the shear weight of the thing could kill a small child and I knew I’d never take the challenge. I really liked his Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life book but there just seemed to be something that was holding me back. And then, this past week, I saw the commercial for his new show, Food Revolution. Then, come to find out, there is a book by the same name! I go to the book store chasing my toddler. Snatch the book off the shelf as I jog after him to the kid section. I flip the book over to skim the back while I’m reading him Max & Ruby. And this sentence catches my eye, “This book is inspired by all the people I’ve met who thought they could never and would never learn how to cook.” Gasp. Is he talking to me? I put down Max & Ruby and read on. “I believe that good home cooking is one of the most essential, fundamental skills that every single person on this planet should have in order to look after themselves, their families, and their friends.” I catch my breath. Keep reading. “This food revolution is all about people learning how to make a recipe, then teaching that recipe to their friends and family…if enough people do this, pretty soon everyone will be cooking.” Sigh.

OK, done. Sold. Jamie Oliver, you’re on.

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