Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Being an "Until It Looks Right" Cook

I’ve always described myself as an “Until it Looks Right” cook, but never realized until recently why or how I became a non-measuring cook.


I grew up the oldest of six kids in the days when Stay-At-Home-Mom was a given and not a job title. No matter what your income was, raising six kids was expensive and we were no exception.

Hand-me-down clothes were not a sign of poverty or embarrassment. It was just how things were done. Neighborhood moms frequently exchanged clothes when their youngest outgrew them and there was no younger sibling to pass them down to.

I explain frequently that we had perfect attendance at school because that’s where the food and the heat were. We lived in a couple of places that heated by wood and if there was no wood then we had no heat. Having heat stoves or furnaces that required fuel oil was no guarantee either. When the choice had to be made between buying fuel oil or food, we usually put on our coats and doubled up in the beds at night to keep warm.

I don’t look back on these days with resentment or regret. On the contrary, I’ve often shared that growing up dirt poor taught me things that many people never comprehend in their entire life. I learned there’s always a way to get by ….. and sometimes just flat out survive …… during the bad times. I learned there is a lot you can do with nothing.

And that segways into being an “Until It Looks Right” cook.

We rarely had food enough to feed eight people in our house, let alone all of the “fancy dancy” ingredients listed in recipes found in a Betty Crocker cookbook. The meals we made were invented on the spot based on what we had in the cabinet.

Another reason we just threw things together, other than never having all of the ingredients that a recipe called for, was because most recipes were never big enough for our family. We were a family of hearty German appetites and recipes to “serve 4” were cute to read about but never came close to being able to feed our clan.

I remember the day we pretty much only had tomato juice and flour in the house. Our homemade version of Tomato Dumplings were born. Another favorite was a chicken-bread casserole, similar to Thanksgiving stuffing except it was just baked in the oven. Canned chicken, onion, mixed with torn bread pieces, covered with a heavy coating of sage and baked until the top was crispy.

My family only knows potato salad as “Mom’s Mashed Potato Salad”. As a kid, all we had were some generic instant potato flakes and those were turned into a unique form of potato salad made with mashed potatoes. (To this day, the idea of biting into a piece of cold, unmashed potato just grosses me out!).

There are many people who, without having a bag of real potatoes in the kitchen, would have thrown up their hands and said, “No food tonight …. We’re out of potatoes.” But at our house we learned to improvise and adapt to what we had. Throwing things together to see how they turned out was just standard operating procedure.

So when I was learning to cook, we didn’t have cabinets of spices and a variety of ingredients. We didn’t own regular measuring cups and measuring spoons! (A coffee cup was “one cup” and a cereal spoon was “one teaspoon”). We made do with whatever was available.

And that, my friends, is a life lesson you can’t buy in a culinary school. It’s how I learned to throw things together to create my it-will-go-to-my-grave chocolate chip cookie recipe. It’s how I developed my signature Lemon Chicken Rosemary in a buttery Chardonnay sauce that became a mainstay of my catering business. It’s the science (so to speak) of my Potato-Pepper dish that is not only delicious and healthy but just colorfully beautiful!

So don’t ask me how much chili powder goes into my chili that my kids beg me to make. I just pour it in until it covers the top. Don’t’ ask me how many onions I chop. I chop enough until the red in the meat and the white in the onion look balanced.

You know ….. until it looks right!

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." — Julia Child

"Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again" — Julia Child

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Graduation

This was written in September of 2004, a couple of years after this event took place. My daughter was out of the country and I was feeling "like a mom" as I reflected on the journey she was taking.

I looked around and marveled that we were here. The large crowd of parents, brothers and sisters who had come to the auditorium for the ceremony milled around outside in the pleasant weather waiting for the doors to open. Some families had driven quite a distance to be here. Some waited under a large shade tree just a few yards away. Most of us stood on the steps of the auditorium entrance, wanting to be able to get the best seat possible.

I looked at my two children and my husband, who were patiently and anxiously waiting with me to go inside and see our oldest daughter, Christine. We hadn’t seen her for a few weeks. John, her 11-year little brother, wouldn’t admit to missing his big sister, but I could tell how excited he was about today. Elise was only 4 but all I heard on the way here was how she was going to give her “Sissy” a big hug!

The doors opened and the waiting families began moving through the doors, all of us craning our necks for a glimpse of our child.

We found our seats, managing to get close to the stage and on the aisle, so we could slip out and get pictures. The band was playing as we waited, the brass section predominantly featured in most of the musical selections.

A side door opened and our children marched in. When I finally spotted Christine, I couldn’t believe it. When had she grown up on me? This little girl, who I remembered as the 5-year old kid swiping my cookie dough when she thought I wasn’t looking, was suddenly a young woman, who was about to step into the real world and embark on her own life.

I was among those parents who took our cameras over to the group to get a snapshot. As we tried to get their attention, the graduates sat erect and focused, disciplined and in control. It was their day.

The speaker went to the stage and we scurried back to our seats. The speeches were short and the pomp and circumstance began. Our children were being called one by one to the stage. With military precision, the ceremony went off flawlessly.

Two by two, parents slowly approached the stage with cameras in hand to get a close up of their child as they crossed that invisible threshold from child to adult. When we saw Christine ready to walk across the stage, we left Elise with her big brother, and my husband, Phil, and I took our cameras to the front. Phil stood closer to the center of the stage and I positioned myself at the side so I could capture a picture of her as she descended the stairs.

As she marched across the stage, I marveled at the subtle yet very noticeable change in her in just a few short weeks. She wasn’t that little girl I had hugged and waved good-bye to just 6 short weeks before as she began this journey. I could see the confidence in her walk as she marched across the stage. I was so enthralled with watching her that I almost forgot to snap the picture. But we got our pictures and returned to our seats. As I sat down, I tried to blink back the tears but I wasn’t doing a very good job. Suddenly Phil’s arm is in front of me, his handkerchief in his hand. I took it gratefully and return his knowing smile with thanks. Wiping my mom-tears, I welcomed his arm around my shoulder as he gave me a squeeze.

The ceremony concluded and the brass-heavy band played one last tune. The graduates were dismissed and with trained precision, they marched out of the auditorium.

My daughter had done more than graduate. She had just completed her six weeks of basic training.

My daughter was now a member of the United States Army.

Army life is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who are proud, determined and dedicated to the ideals we hold dear.
----David G. White; Deputy Chief, Well-Being Division