“You must know a lot about Southern cooking.”
Chef David’s voice came cracking across the miles, over the Green Mountains, through an iffy cellular connection that tied me to him, from the Upper Valley all the way down to the Southwest corner of the state. I barely knew him at the time, but we clocked long hours on the phone every night, until late. This was how we learned so much about our habits and proclivities before we were poised to date in person.
“I grew up on a diet of Tab and chewing gum,” I admitted.
I could see his crestfallen expression from the other side of the state. Better to be brutally honest now than to set him up for disappointment later, I decided. But when you grow up with a ballerina for a mom you eat weird stuff and learn to fend for yourself early.
When I was still in elementary school she made an honorable effort to prepare regular meals for us as her busy schedule allowed. It was the stuff of high school home economics classes, I imagined, standard fare: spaghetti with meat sauce, tuna casserole (with a browned potato chip crust), vegetable beef stew, occasionally beef stroganoff—which I loathed because of the slimy little canned mushrooms mom added to it—and once in a while, a decent hamburger off the grill if the weather was nice and dad was cooking. But it was not classic Southern cuisine by any stretch.
During busy performance season there were nights when TV dinners were the only choice, the kind that came in an aluminum tray with little compartments and foil you had to peel away from certain items halfway through the baking time. Maybe on the way home from the ballet school when mom and I were there together we’d stop at McDonald’s, a special treat in those days. Peanut butter and jelly on Hollywood Bread—our 1970s version of artisanal, or rustic, plus it was low-calorie—sufficed when all else failed.
But Tab was the drink of choice in our house, Coke for my brother. We had a bar window in our kitchen that opened up into the game room a couple of feet below it. When we added that room onto the house my parents intended to place bar stools on the other side, so you could sit there and stare into the kitchen, where some imagined person would bring you food and drink, I suppose.
The barstools never materialized because they were trumped by my brother’s massive Lionel train layout right where the stools should have been. True to mom’s 1970s decorating sensibilities, there were two glass apothecary-style jars with porcelain lids on the bar, one at each end. The one with the green lid held sticks of Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum, and the other, with the yellow lid, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit. Clever, huh? Mom bought the gum in big, cellophane-wrapped packages at the grocery story and when we came home it was my brother’s job and mine to unwrap all the little packages inside the big one and dump the individual sticks into the jar with the correctly colored green or yellow lid.
“Mom, I’m hungry.”
“It’s not time for dinner yet. Have some gum.”
I am not making this up. Honest-to-dog, we should have owned stock in Wrigley’s.
Yesterday morning, standing in my new-old Vermont kitchen and talking to the Chef about the bacon missing from an otherwise perfect breakfast, I told him another story about mom’s penchant for trying the bizarre ‘replacement’ foods of the late ‘70s, ostensibly to eat healthier. This habit occasionally called for a task-specific small appliance.
“We had this thing called a bacon-er,” I said. The Chef raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not kidding,” I continued. “It looked like a toaster, only it was taller and skinnier. It had two stainless steel doors, one on each side, that you opened like this.” (I pantomimed lifting and then opening the doors flat onto the kitchen counter.) “In the center was this big, monolithic rectangular cooking thingummy coated in Teflon. The idea was, you’d lay bacon strips across the thing, close the doors, and then the bacon would cook in such a way that all the grease would run off into a pan underneath it.”
My train of thought was briefly derailed as we discussed the age-old habit of collecting bacon grease, which I find generally disgusting, but which Chef David insists is excellent for certain applications. If you say so.
“Anyway,” I went on, “as soon as mom figured out there was no real health benefit to eating bacon this way, she decided to try FAKE bacon. I don’t even know what was in this stuff, but it came packaged in perfectly formed strips, in alternating stripes of red and white. It tasted….” (Searched for words here, came up empty.) “It tasted nothing like bacon.”
The Chef began to shudder as he speculated about the ingredients. Then we laughed about why, anyway, if you happened to be a vegetarian, which we were not, you’d want to eat something that pretended to be a slaughtered animal to begin with.
“The funniest thing about that dang bacon-er,” I said, “was the shape of the finished product. You’d open the door and lift off the cooked strips, which were now shaped like those big construction staples, or a horseshoe, kinda. So you’d have this fake food product on your plate, in a weird, fake configuration.”
There were other strange food experiments, like the all-yogurt and all-cheese diet when mom came across literature suggesting that some old coot in Soviet Georgia lived to be 140 because he ate only yogurt and cheese. We should have bought stock in Dannon for that particular culinary chapter.
I guess it beats chewing gum.
These memories surfaced a couple of days before we had the bacon-er conversation. I was growing weary of the dinner recipes I’ve kept in rotation over the last year or so (the Chef never uses a recipe on his nights, of course). I thumbed through my cookbooks and came across my old copy of Blue Moon Soup, filled with simple but nourishing soup recipes arranged by the seasons, with exquisite watercolor illustrations throughout. The recipes are meant for parents to prepare together with their kids, a thing I did routinely with my own little peanut as he was growing up. I thumbed through the ‘autumn’ section and chose a recipe called ‘Wild Thyme Soup,’ which the Chef ended up making because I was all tuckered out. It was wonderful, a brothy soup made with barley and celery and mushrooms and a delightful mix of herbs.
“It’s aromatic,” I announced as we hunkered down over our steaming bowls to binge watch our show.
But my mom did not possess the patience to spend much time teaching me to cook, although she did invite me and my brother to help with holiday baking on occasion. She did not like huge messes in her kitchen, and kids are indeed messy, no getting around that. But I do recall one particular cooking episode, when I was maybe seven or eight, where my mom actually encouraged me to prepare supper for our entire family. Someone had given me a copy of Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook, a spiral bound hardcover edition. On the menu that evening: polka dotted macaroni and cheese with bunny rabbit salad. It amounted to this: you prepared a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and spooned it into a baking dish. Then you sliced a couple of hot dogs and distributed them across the top and popped it into the oven. Meanwhile, you opened a can of pear halves and placed one each on four little dessert-sized plates, for your perfect little family of four. You jammed a pair of slivered almonds into the smaller end of each pear to serve as rabbit ears, and then you poked a couple of raisins into the front and one on the rump for the eyes and tail. Come to think of it, I believe there was a leaf of iceberg lettuce under the bunny.
I’m sure details are missing, but that was the gist of it. I remember thinking it was difficult and time consuming, and that my family did not crow enough after I had clearly slaved over their supper. I don’t think mom and I ever touched that cookbook again. But you can still find copies floating around on the ‘net. On the cover is a boy, of all things, proudly holding up a beautiful chocolate cake with a single burning candle poked into it, while a girl looks on. I remember that cover and recall thinking to my seven-year-old self, showoff. No self-respecting boy I knew in elementary school would be caught dead wrapped in a white apron with a spatula in one hand and a cake in the other. It was an early attempt to redefine gender-specific roles, perhaps: Look! Boys can cook, too!
After that inauspicious culinary start, I’m not sure how I came to really appreciate cooking and preparing cuisine in a way my own family did not. But I think it probably began when I found work at a professional gourmet cookware store in the early 1980s when I was living in Denver—it was a pricey store in an upscale shopping district, where the staff were expected to know and explain the inventory to customers who didn’t balk at dropping a couple hundred bucks on a good chef’s knife or a couple hundred more on a cast iron or stainless steel saucepan. Before I started work there I was given a massive tome to take home and read to familiarize myself with all the things that belong in the serious home chef’s kitchen. What’s a moulinex? A potato ricer? Wait, a French press? There is such a thing as copper cookware? Who knew?
Aside from steeping my own kid in classical music and straight-ahead jazz (those were part of the fabric of my own childhood), I’d make sure he appreciated cooking as much as he did eating. I was less afraid to allow him to destroy my own kitchen than my mom was hers, although still a bit twitchy that way. But his other grandmother was a saint: on an irregular afternoon I dropped him at her place and the two of them wreaked havoc in the kitchen. I’d pop in to gather up the boy and take him home and find him perched on a chair at her kitchen counter, wrapped in an apron, with the contents of her cupboards disemboweled: every herb, spice, bottle of vinegar, bitters, and all manner of other things in tiny jars and bottles strewn across her kitchen, and in the middle of all of it, a stainless steel bowl swimming with little flecks of things in a brownish-gray slurry. It was never anything you’d actually want to eat. They called it ‘making a mix.’
That freedom to explore, though, inspired a certain fearlessness in my kiddo. He’s not above heating a box of frozen wings or hitting the nearest drive-through window, but he definitely knows his way around a kitchen and has made some reasonably inspired food from time to time. And he developed this penchant much earlier than I did.
Meanwhile the Chef and I are swimming in kitchen gear. I joke with him on occasion that he really just wants me for my All-Clad. And somehow, we have no shortage of small, single-purpose kitchen appliances cluttering our countertops, cabinets, and the metro shelves we set up for the overflow. Ice cream maker, stand mixer, hand mixer (two types), blender, food processor, electric tea kettle, rice steamer, crock pot—a big one and a smaller one—the list goes on.
The only thing missing? That little monolith called a bacon-er, of course.