Monday, October 27, 2008

Learning to cook by the book


I was raised in small town America. Alan Jackson’s country hit Where I Come From It’s Cornbread and Chicken is an accurate description of the cuisine of southern Arkansas. My mother was a good cook and made her own bread, thick blackberry jelly and rich homemade mayonnaise. She rolled handmade pastry dough and filled it with fresh apples for pie and made bran rolls or cornbread everyday. Our cuisine was based on the seasons, just as the fancy restaurants practice today. We had home grown tomatoes, corn right out of the fields, freshly picked strawberries and beans by the bushel bought direct from the farmer. I shelled enough purple hulled peas in my day that I had purple thumbs for a week. It felt like I spent my entire summer vacation with a newspaper on my lap shelling beans until the bushel baskets were empty. The only problem was my mother never let me to do a thing in the kitchen except watch so I never learned to cook.

After I graduated from college I moved to a large city and was on my own. As a departing gift, my mother gave me a large red version of her bread bowl so I could make her homemade bread, which she never taught me how to make. When I met my husband Meakin in Houston I could prepare college kid food such as cheese toast, pimento cheese sandwiches and tuna noodle casseroles, but that was about the extent of my cooking skills. Meakin grew up in a gourmet family. His father was an executive in New York City with a three martini lunch kind of expense account and ate in all of the top restaurants in the city. It was a far cry from my cornbread and chicken, and I couldn’t even cook that.

Meakin told me if you can read you can cook. "Give cooking a try," he said, "and if you make something we can’t eat, I’ll take you out." It sounded like a good deal to me.

My first cookbook was With a Jug of Wine by Morrison Wood. It was one of his dad’s favorites. I flipped through the book and chose Chicken Rosemary as my first dish to prepare for my new gourmet boyfriend. It had seven ingredients and I recognized all of them, so it sounded doable to me. Meakin was very pleased with the results. I had prepared my very first successful meal.

Meakin and his Dad had a tremendous influence over my taste in food. I had an adventuresome palate and was willing to give anything a try. As a couple we cooked together. In addition to Meakin, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey were my teachers. You might say I cut my teeth on such classics as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook and The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet. I learned knife skills from black and white drawings in Julia’s cookbooks. The Hoffers ate well. Food and cooking became our combined hobby and our passion. I’ve progressed to winning cooking contests and writing food columns.

How people learned to cook is fascinating to me. I hope you will share your story. I look forward to your comments. Bon appetit.

5 comments:

  1. Sam, I love this blog. I learned to cook after I married. My poor husband ate the worst meals for over a year while I called my mother almost every day to ask, "Mother how do you cook a pot roast, or how do I fry oysters, or how do I make good cornbread."

    Today Barry says I'm the best cook living. His Mother is gone now and so is mine, so he can say that and get away with it.

    Glenda

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  2. Glenda, I love your story about calling your Mother. I did the exact same thing. My Mother died many years ago and I miss being able to call, although we call Meakin’s Dad, who will be 96 next month, for advice. He makes the best Potato Leek Soup. How fortunate we were to be able to call home. Barry and my husband Meakin eat better for sure.

    I just read a wonderful story written by Victor Hazan about his wife Marcella, one of the most famous Italian cookbook authors ever, in the Nov/Dec AARP magazine. He tells about what life was like for her in 1955 when they moved to New York City from Italy. Marcella spoke no English and had never done any cooking. It was before e-mail and inexpensive overseas telephone service. The only purpose of Marcella’s rare calls to Italy was to hear the reassuring sound of a beloved voice. It would have been unthinkable to call her Mother to discuss the makings of meat sauce. Also, there were no Italian foods in the grocery stores in the Queens neighborhood where they first lived. I consider us lucky to have been able to pick up the phone and call our Mothers.

    His story is fascinating and I plan on reading Marcella’s new autobiography, Amarcord, Marcella Remembers.

    Sam

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  3. Sam, I came from a long line of accomplished southern cooks, Atlanta, Georgia ladies who "put on the dog" and put only the best food on the table for company. The family got cake or pie every day, even when there was only cornbread and beans for supper. I loved to eat at my grandmother's table and at the tables of my aunts.

    My Mom was not a practicing cook, in the sense that I am a practicing poet. She did not pass on How To Cook. She did not own a cook book .

    I learned how to cook in high school Home Ec. Class and qualified for Senior Cooking with the football players. They had no requirements, but the girls had to finish three Home Ec. classe to get in. It worked well. The guys had discipline and the young women had to demonstrate a level of professionalism.

    My test came when I was eighteen and newly married, helping in the home of my mother-in-law who was recovering from cancer surgery. For six weeks I had to put three meals a day on the table
    with meat and vegetables from her freezer and canned goods from her pantry. I had never baked a biscuit. Tell that to the men. They expected hot biscuits three times a day. I watched them roll their eyes, but they did not say one word until they
    could say, "Mum. That's good."

    Nancy Simpson

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  4. Nancy, thanks for sharing your story of how you learned to cook. Your biscuits three times a day for hungry men sounded like a trial by fire. Glad you passed with flying colors. I too took Home Ec and learned the seven good qualities of a roll, but I don’t remember how to prepare them. However, in my defense, I did get an A.

    I can relate to your Atlanta family “putting on the dog.” My mother did not like to entertain, although she had the necessary ingredients including a fancy silver service on the sideboard in the dining room and bone china, silver and crystal in the cupboard. Happily one of her best friends had great ladies luncheons and brunches. I was a friend of her daughter so I was invited. I learned to make bite size tea finger sandwiches with different color breads. It was very early Martha Stewart training.

    My father taught my sister Nancy and myself how to properly set a table. When we were serving a make believe luncheon to our dolls one day, he passed by and quietly leaned over and turned the knife blade inward. To this day, I know where each piece of a proper place setting goes, including stemware, thanks to him.

    Thanks for sharing your how I learned to cook story.

    Sam

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  5. Sam -- love your writing. You're living the dream for many of us. Keep it up. I'm in Monroe, Louisiana -- apparently not far from where you grew up. I'm a retired broadcaster and my wife Debbie and I have one self-published cookbook under our belt; "Flavors of the Ark-La-Miss". It did well locally. Hope to visit Abaco, too. Take care and thanks for the joy. Randy Prewitt

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I enjoy reading each and every comment. I appreciate your taking the time to visit my blog and I hope you'll return again soon.
Sam