Old recipe brings back memories of cooking past trials and tribulations
By Paula O’Kray
A few weeks ago my sister sent me something interesting. It was something she’d found in our mother’s cookbook, used as a bookmark. It was a recipe from a home economics class assignment I had done in high school, and she thought I’d like to have it.
It was really strange, seeing the old recipe, written in my high school hand. I looked at it a long time, recalling the class, the room, our instructor Ms. Walters, and the other kitchen lab members listed on the sheet. Home Ec was always sort of a joke to me. I was never really interested in cooking, and have never felt that comfortable making my way around a kitchen.
I don’t remember my mom ever asking if I wanted to help cook dinner. Nor do I have any memory of her ever baking cookies or anything else for that matter, so I have a feeling she might have had the same disdain that I did for the skill.
I do remember helping make food for my father’s tavern, though. There was a secret family recipe for making hamburgers (although I didn’t know it was a secret then), and every once in a while she’d pull out her beautiful crock mixing bowl, and we would gather all the necessary ingredients on the kitchen table.
I found it enthralling to watch, as she didn’t measure a thing, just dumped it all in. Breadcrumbs, French dressing, Worcestershire sauce, some eggs, probably a few other things … and eventually the hamburger. Then she would mash it all together until you couldn’t tell one ingredient from the other.
Maybe that’s where I learned the “dump and cook” method I use today. My job was the fun part. Using an ice cream scoop, I would drop scoops of the mixture onto a machine that held dozens of little squares of waxed paper. I would pull the handle down and press, and open it up again. Voilà! A hamburger.
The awesome part (for me anyway) was how when you lifted the press handle, the brand new patty would be transported automatically off the press, and onto the table in front of it, making a neat little pile of hamburgers, which we would freeze in little stacks. I thought it was the coolest thing, and was happy to make the patties as long as there was stuff to make them from.
When Easter would roll around, we’d never make Easter Eggs for ourselves. I would mix the colors all by myself from a kit, dip several dozen eggs, one after another, and make a batch of colorful hard-boiled eggs for my father to sell at the tavern. My mother was a genius, as it kept me quiet and busy for hours.
When I was raising a family, cooking was a duty, so I did it … albeit without any enthusiasm. Coming home after a hard day at work and being expected to produce a meal each night was akin to having to take an additional exam in math after you’ve been up all night studying for one in science. As a result, I subjected my family to a lot of Hamburger (and Tuna) Helper.
Having a fussy family didn’t make it any easier. Whenever I would find a new recipe that I was interested in making, it usually wasn’t met with any approval. The remarks got so bad I finally just asked for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down in order to preserve my self-esteem. Eventually I just gave up.
The perfect example of my lack of skill and enthusiasm for cooking is reflected in a family story my children love to tell about me making grilled cheese sandwiches. When my kids would ask for one, instead of dragging out the butter, slicing the cheese and dirtying a pan, I would make toast, put processed cheese slices inside, butter the outside, and microwave until melty. Never had any complaints or dishes to do, and it was done in a jif.
Unfortunately, their grandmother changed all that. Upon picking them up from a day of visiting at Grandma’s, my daughter approached me with a very suspicious expression on her face and barked out haughtily “Grandma made us REAL grilled cheese sandwiches today, Mom!” I was busted, but I didn’t care. “Well now you know where you have to go to get them.” I snarled back. Hey, nobody’s going to guilt me into cooking better. Not even Grandma.
Later, when living in an apartment after my kids were grown, I found myself looking at recipes more and more, and being interested in trying them out. I realized that without the pressure of pleasing an audience, or needing to have an entire dinner done by a certain time, that I was much more willing to make an attempt. And if things didn’t turn out, there was no one to criticize. I just threw it out without any drama whatsoever.
Wow! What an epiphany. Knowing this, I tried a lot of recipes, and if the meals turned out well more than once, I put them into a little binder for reference. Eventually I built my own little cookbook, and still use it faithfully. I’ve even learned how to (gasp!) CHANGE a recipe without it turning into something completely inedible. You laugh, but for someone like me, that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always been pretty sure the food sees me coming.
Eventually, after my kids were on their own, I wrote up all the family recipes (they did enjoy some of them growing up) and presented them in a cute little recipe file as a gift. Flash forward to last Thanksgiving then, when my son decided to treat me by making a few of the family recipes for the holiday dinner.
It was a lot of fun. We made the dishes together, with him madly checking the recipe again and again. Having made them for years, it was all in my head, and I basically supervised. I watched as he put the meal together, amused, because he had bought a few of the wrong ingredients, and also forgotten a few.
I didn’t say one word about it though. And the meal tasted just fine.