punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Punkie's Cooking History, Part 1: The Larch

A long time ago, I was part of a thread that spoke about "essentials for the kitchen." I didn't agree with all of the choices, but it's probably because, as a cook, I am very basic. I don't cook with garlic much, so a "garlic press" seems like a drawer filler more than something I'd need. I have had several major influences in my life when it comes to cooking, one of which I was reminded this past weekend.

My mother was a gourmet chef, and when I say that, she never really cooked for anyone but family and friends, but she took a lot of cooking courses in college (she went to college late in life, in her late 30s, when I was very young), and kept up on all the latest trends in modern cooking via magazines and cooking shows. Her cookbook library was easily over 200 volumes that filled a whole 6' bookshelf, all the kitchen shelving, and several boxes. Some were sets, but others were cookbooks she collected from all over in her travels. She had cookbooks in several languages from places she visited all over Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as some from local neighborhood clubs. She never had a recipe box, she just stuffed any recipes she found in magazines and such in a book that would have something similar or matching. Like if she found a good recipe for orange sauce, it would be stored in a book about sauces, or perhaps a book where she thought orange sauce would complement another dish (like, say, a duck recipe). Occasionally, if it really matched two items, she'd write the recipe in pen in the margins of one of them. Did she really cook all these things? No. She seemed perpetually frustrated by the picky eating habits of my father and I, although to my father's credit, he did appreciate her cooking far more than I did. At one point, when I had an argument about taking home economics instead of shop, my mother said she could teach me all the home ec I needed. Some of it I knew already, like cleaning and washing, but she took some time (when she was sober) to teach me basic sewing, ironing, finances, and cooking. I love my late mother, I really do. But sadly, a lot of the "cooking" was lost to me because it was far to complicated and none of the foods appealed to me. At the time, she was rediscovering French cooking (as were a lot of housewives in the early 1980s), and I thought all French cooking was nasty and purulent. I... pretty much still feel that way. Any cooking which requires vinegar is usually out of my acceptable taste range. So while she taught me the fine art of blanching veggies or sauteing goose liver, it never really got used after the lessons were over. I stuck to my usual fare which was pretty banal, if not outright bold in its perfunctoriness, like spaghetti with no sauce, hot dogs with no ketchup, and popcorn with no salt or butter (I hated salt, too). My steak was always well done, my fish was always breaded and fried, and I pretty much would eat most frozen dinners ... sans the vegetables. If I think about it, as a kid, I pretty much ate less than a dozen different things.

That changed when I became a teenager. I don't know what happened, but suddenly, that anal control of pickiness relaxed heavily, and now I'll try almost anything once. Like for instance, I never ate pizza as a kid because it looked like an infected sore, and I used to retch at the thought of tomatoes on anything. And the spices? I'd throw up. No, really, pepper and oregano, for instance, did literally make me nauseous. I only ate fried rice at Chinese restaurants, and Mexican places I old ate plain, corn tortillas (until they found out my corn allergy). But when I became a teen, not only did I start eating pizza, I stared eating "weird stuff," like sushi, which in the 1980s, in McLean, was still pretty far out. I credit my best buddy Kate to opening the world of Asian cuisine in my life back then, because she had lived in Thailand and Japan for half her life. My parents tried to get me to use chopsticks, even got angry at me that I "didn't try hard enough," until they gave up in disgust. When I was 15, Kate showed me how to use them in 15 seconds, and in 30 minutes, I could pick up a grain of rice with them.

If anyone tells you using chopsticks is like "two very long fingers," put them down, and walk away, because that advice is useless. My parents did this. Kate just said, "No, no. It's like salad tongs, but you hold one stick still, and the other clamps up and down." This may not help anyone else, but it sure helped me. Thank you, Kate...

By age 18, I was on my own, and living with Bruce and Cheryl. Bruce was my second teacher, and he taught me how to cook "normally" by feel, experiment, and using basic cheap ingredients. Some recipes he taught me have always eluded me (like his fried bread), but he taught me how to make spaghetti sauce, for instance. Why adding oil or salt helped the food from boiling over. I also learned from other roommates (Cheryl and Liska) how to cook other basic things. My problem was that when I tried to apply gourmet with basic, it never really worked, and they quickly hated my food. It was like I had learned how to assemble an engine, but never actually driven a car. Sadly, after a few bad meals (and make no mistake, they were bad), they just had me doing dishes, which I was good at, and no one else liked to do, anyway. But those lessons just sat like seeds in the back of my head, slowly growing.

When I lived with Tim and Anita the next year, they were weird in ways I won't go into, but they had these "uber-gourmet" pots and pans that required more care than antique furniture, and after a year, they had pretty much forbid me from cooking of having food in the house (long story, but I hid food in my room anyways). I was poor, and trying to save up for my wedding, so I literally ate the same thing, almost every day, for a year: baloney and cheese on white bread, milk, and Ritz crackers. I mean, not for every meal, but I'd say about 90% of my meals were those same things. I had a sort of ... quest, to see how cheaply I could eat. I got down to $20/week in 1989, which was pretty good then. On days I couldn't take it anymore, I ate a steak and cheese sub at Subways. Cooking? Forget about it.

Then I got married. Christine comes from a non-nonsense, diner-running family. Her mom and grandmother owned several diners off an on in their lives. So she knew comfort food better than anyone I have ever known. She can cook, and she became my next teacher. What I respect about her is similar to what I respected in Bruce: none of that foo-foo cooking with 50 ingredients measured by the gram, no. Only a few ingredients usually measured by the container they came in, or an even portion thereof.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000344.html
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