I recall an occasion many years ago when my now-ex and I were having dinner with some friends at their house; my twenty-something kiddo was still a peanut, say age four or so, and was included that evening because he and our hosts’ young daughter were attached at the hip, eagerly anticipating the play date. We arrived at their house and the two littles bounded upstairs to entertain themselves in the playroom whilst the grownups stood around the kitchen island sipping wine and making small talk as supper boiled on the stove; you know the scene.
A short while later, the pair of children came barreling back down the stairs to the kitchen; the girl was cranky and on the edge of tears, our kid was curious and saucer-eyed. My friend swooped up her child and plunked her on a stool at the short end of the island, and I did the same with mine.
“What’s wrong with her?” my little guy wanted to know.
My friend whipped out a box of mac and cheese and started prepping it on the cooktop at the other end of the island.
“She’s just hungry,” she said.
A short time later, she plopped a pair of bowls filled with cheesy steaming noodles in front of the two children, handed each of them a spoon, and quipped, “Just watch. After she’s had a bite to eat, she’ll be a new woman.”
The grownups continued to talk while my friend labored over an irksome sauce that refused to reduce, pushing dinner a little later than expected. It was all the same to us; the wine kept flowing and so did the happy conversation. I glanced down the island at the pair of children and saw that my own kid wasn’t really eating much, not too surprising given his finicky habits. But he was staring intently at his friend while she shoveled the pasta into her mouth.
Then a few moments later came the question, posed in all earnestness to our host: “Is she a new woomin yet?”
We all chuckled at this notion that my kiddo really expected his playmate to somehow transform as if by magic into a new woman, or creature known as woomin, right there at that kitchen island. As a matter of fact, she was a new woman, her belly filled and blood sugar, and mood, restored. Mission accomplished, the two of them shot back up the steps to play.
Meanwhile, my friend’s sauce finally reduced and we enjoyed our lovely supper. There is much to be said about the good things that come to those who wait. But also about the beauty of mac and cheese from a box that transforms into something edible when you need it to, stat, and how filling one’s belly can indeed make you a new woman. Or man, as the case may be.
Biscuits Can Also Come from a Box
Or a tube. But probably should not. The thing that inspired my instructional post last week was the abomination known as biscuits from a cardboard tube, the kind you whap open on the kitchen counter (or poke open with a spoon if you don’t wish to live dangerously), and then separate the doughy clump inside it into perfectly uniform biscuit pucks, plop them onto a sheet, and bake. I admit those biscuits do possess flaky, buttery layers that look and taste pretty dang good when you’re cranky because your belly’s empty. Still, they’re mass-produced in a factory and shoved into a cardboard tube, and so lack the soul and character of scratch-made biscuits. My kid had sent me a photo of one of those cannister-style biscuits he had baked and then drowned under thick, fatty, clumpy, gray gravy, a concoction he knows disgusts me. My answer to that was the gift of my great-grandmother Gracie’s scratch biscuit recipe.
A short time later a friend linked me this essay by Southern writer Sean Dietrich, that resonated all over the place with me (only you will truly appreciate this, she said), in which he describes an interview with a friend’s elderly mother in her kitchen in the Deep South. (If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, he writes, you are lucky enough. By that measure, I am lucky enough indeed.) But what struck me most was this notion of cooking by feel, as the old woman explains in the interview.
Cooking by feel is a skill I’m still fussing over and fine tuning, probably will be forever.
My mother sat down with Gracie late in her life and asked her to quote back some of her recipes, which she kept stored inside her head, so we could have them for posterity. Later on, I transcribed a couple of them from my mom’s notes for myself, so I could attempt to make them in my burgeoning young adult life. The cooking-by-feel paradigm is everywhere in these transcriptions: “add milk until right consistency,” and “bake ‘til golden,” go her cornbread instructions (I’ve discovered that the cornbread can in fact be golden on the exterior, and still mushy and underdone inside). She’s also vague about important metrics, like the oven temperature. As a young woman I found this lack of specifics so vexing it dissuaded me from even trying.
Living with a Chef Helps
I admit to it, to cooking out of boxes and cardboard cannisters, cleaving unto the reassuring and clearly enumerated 1-2-3 bullets printed on the packages, as a young adult. But somehow, gradually, I managed to step outside that comfort zone, when parenthood insinuated itself on the horizon.
After my marriage ended almost a decade ago, I found myself back in that place again, of preparing food just for me in my own kitchen, as I had in my early adult life, more accomplished to be sure. Enter Chef David, an instant later. This time, I felt ready to embrace the notion of cooking by feel, a phenomenon any professional chef shares with any elderly Southern woman who takes out aggressions on lifeless lumps of dough. There is nothing I’m afraid to undertake in the kitchen, with The Chef by my side. Or at least in an adjacent room, where I can holler questions and get immediate answers; once in a while he stands up and walks in for a look-see before settling on the best piece of advice.
So I suppose one day the sauce finally reduces and one simply arrives; I’m not sure I’ve really reached the cooking-by-feel milestone, but can definitely navigate my way around a kitchen that’s equal parts Southern, Yankee, and professional chef.
Postscript: When Winging it Works, Like Magic
A couple of nights ago my kid sent me a video of a large pot of chili simmering on the stove in his new place; it is but one in a parade of lovely meals he’s prepared recently. Did you follow a recipe? I asked. I just winged it, he answered. Later on, he sent me a photo of the finished product next to a glass baking dish of cornbread.
Cornbread? I asked, somewhat rhetorically. In his characteristically irreverent way, he quipped, No, it’s spaghetti.
He has lately ventured into life on his own, and looks suspiciously like he’s already cooking by feel, transformed as if by magic, from the person who until recently lived on whatever he could find at the nearest drive-through window. Seems to be winging it, and most definitely getting the job done. I guess you could say he’s a New Man.