Thursday, May 3, 2012

Who Taught Me to Cook? (Part I)

Who taught me to cook? That's kind of an odd and complicated question. I've been thinking a lot about that,. First of all, I don't come from a long line of good cooks. My paternal grandmother died long before I was born, but she was an Irish immigrant to the United States, first arriving in the early 1920s. I'm told that she used to make plum pudding for Christmas, although my aunts and father have told me about finding a coin wrapped in the pudding, rather than reminisced about how good it tasted. She may have in fact been a great cook, but the stories have never made it down to me. When my paternal grandfather (another Irish immigrant) remarried, he was probably in his 50s and married a woman from his hometown of Cork, Ireland. She had been living in New York City with relatives, and was something of a socialite. She had never had children and had never learned to cook or do any traditional "mom" things, so she was something of an awkward fit. I knew her as a small and somewhat fussy woman who had a good sense of humor and loved a good story. I also remember her offering me stale store-bought cookies. My father--who had gone a number of years without a mother in the house--had already suffered through my grandfather's meals, which I gather mainly involved boiled potatoes and tea at least twice a day. He grew up in Detroit, and says he used to go hang out by an Italian neighbor's house around dinner, hoping for an invitation to a dinner that actually tasted like something. To this day, he hates potatoes, quite the anomaly in a big Irish family. His step-mother, the woman I knew as "Grandmom" tried to cook for her new family, but not knowing how, she basically boiled everything. One time, she followed a recipe for what was probably baked ham--he watched her put on pineapple rings and cloves, maybe some brown sugar, with his mouth watering. Then he watched in horror as she slid the whole thing into boiling water to cook it. His sisters, my aunts, certainly became competent cooks, able to feel their families on a daily basis, and I did eat their food at family get-togethers--but being second generation Irish raised in the upper Midwest, their food tended to be fairly straightforward, and neither one taught me how to cook.

On my mother's side, I'm told that my great-grandmother was a good cook. She died when I was a baby. I don't think she made exotic food, but tales of her chicken and dumplings have certainly reached my ears over the years, although no one ever duplicated them for me (although I recently acquired a family recipe for dumplings, and I have spoken with my mom about trying to reproduce the dish). My grandmother, who was a rather difficult person (think battle-axe), was a good meat-and-potatoes cook who must have learned from her mother. I remember all dinners at her house featuring large fluffy mounds of mashed potatoes. I also remember said meals always containing a tug-of-war between my grandmother and my father. My father wouldn't eat potatoes, and my grandmother was used to her commands, including her command to eat the potatoes, being obeyed. It was the irresistible force meets the immovable object every time we came to dinner. Strangely, I also remember her serving my sister and I Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup for lunch, and I remember actually eating it--although I did develop a mushroom phobia later after watching an episode of Emergency! in which someone dies from eating poison mushrooms. Kids, if you don't know which show I'm referring to, Google it. I have a vague recollection of my grandmother showing me how to make mashed potatoes. I think a mixer was involved. However, mashed potatoes were of limited currency at home due to my dad's aforementioned aversion.

Then comes my mom. Many children learn to cook from their mothers. My mom was a competent cook at simple 1960s Midwestern dishes. I remember her showing my sister and I how to tear up bread then make stuffing for the turkey. I remember her making four kinds of cookies--oatmeal raisin, molasses, chocolate chip, and what I think were called sandies, although I now know them as Mexican wedding cakes. There might have been a peanut butter cookie or two as well, as I seem to recall making interlaced fork patterns on them. She made the occasional cake from a mix (as most women did in the 60s and 70s). She had a smallish repertoire of decent dishes--pork chops and egg noodles (which I still love), beef stew made with barley and tomato juice, spaghetti, pot roast with onion soup topping, all dishes which I recognize from reading about food in the 60s. When she used a recipe, she mostly used one cookbook which I believe she had received as a wedding gift-- Betty Crocker's New Picture Cookbook, published in the early 60s.

My mom taught me how to slice an onion without cutting myself, and how to read a recipe. She made some things I hated--Hamburger Helper and some tuna and pasta dishes. For lunch, my sister and I ate bologna sandwiches, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Spaghettios, and other standard kid fare. Well, my sister mostly ate Goober Grape sandwiches, but I do remember her eating the occasional bowl of Spaghettios or mac and cheese. In short, my mom used a fair number of convenience foods, but so did most of the other American moms I knew. Here's the thing though--my mom hated to cook. She cooked until my sister and I were old enough to fend for ourselves, then she kind of phased out the whole cooking thing. To this day, she still doesn't enjoy cooking and so rarely does it. Still, I probably learned my most basic cooking skills from her.

Stay tuned for Part II--moving to Ann Arbor and eating with kids from all over the world!

1 comment: