Saturday, April 01, 2006

My Life - Part 2

When we moved into the Peterson house, Mom immediately remodeled the kitchen then promptly stopped using it. Oh, she didn't completely stop cooking. She still made breakfast... sometimes... on a Sunday. And I'm sure she must have made suppers occasionally, too. I just don't remember them. Since we were two doors down from the nursing home all lunches were eaten there. Mostly I remember eating out every day. If not at the nursing home, then at a local cafe.

Mom was so anal about her new kitchen that she wouldn't let me cook anything. I finally begged her enough that she did let me make cookies at around age 13 or so. But I was given strict instructions not to "mess up" her kitchen, or else! Then she left and went to the nursing home. Luckily I could read and follow the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip bag for Toll House Cookies.

So, slowly (very slowly) and carefully I made my first batch of cookies. Heeding my Mother's warning, I would use a measuring cup or spoon, wash it, dry it, put it away.... then get it back out for the next ingredient! THAT is how I baked for years afterwards. I swear to God. Luckily that piece of perfectionism finally fell away. I can now wait to wash my utensils until after I'm done. (But... ahem... I do have three measuring cups, four sets of measuring spoons, dozens of spatulas and lots of mixing bowls. OK, so I'm anal too.)

When I was around 18 years old, the cook quit - right before serving dinner. Mom turned to me and said "Get in there and serve - you're taking her place." (I might have had something to do with the cook walking out... I can't remember...) Then she promptly walked out the door! (Do you see a pattern here?) Talk about "baptism by fire". Luckily our other cook was a real gem. (Thank you, Nyda Gleason.) Since I didn't know the first thing about cooking, she taught me everything. Basically, when serving 40 people, you just open up bigger cans. (That's a joke...) The hardest part of cooking for 40 is getting everything done at the same time for serving. I still struggle with that aspect, but it doesn't make me cry anymore.

I worked as a cook at the nursing home for about three years off and on and grew to really love it. I would start about 4:30 a.m. getting whatever meat we were serving ready to go into the oven by 7:00, then make and serve breakfast. After breakfast, I'd do the dishes and start on the sides to serve at lunch as well as the dessert. We served lunch at 11:30 (I would dish up and the aides would deliver) and I would help feed those that needed help. After lunch I'd do the dishes (again) and get supper ready and in the refrigerator for the night shift to serve. Maybe it was just soup and a sandwich, or maybe it was a casserole. This was where I learned that literally anything can be made into soup. The night ladies were responsible for putting it in the oven and serving it. Then I would clean up and scrub the kitchen floor. By 2:00 I was out of there. It was exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. And it was the best way EVER to learn how to cook.

It was during this time that I had an epiphany. There are only three ways to prepare a meal: boiling, frying or baking (roasting). That's it! Everything else is just flavoring. What herbs and/or spices you use or what gravy or sauce you put over it gave each recipe it's unique flavor. What region of the world you live in determines what spices, herbs or sauce you use depending on the ingredients you have available. I learned to smell a spice before using it. I knew what my meat tasted like with just salt and pepper on it, so how would this stuff taste on it.

That's when I stopped depending on cookbooks for my recipes. Not completely mind you, just mostly. Today, I cannot follow a recipe exactly. Maybe it's just because I don't have an ingredient listed. Or maybe I just think that adding this one thing would be good. (Like those tomatoes that are spoiling in the 'fridge.) This doesn't make me a bad person. This just makes me a cook. And that's all I'll ever be - just a cook. ("I'm Harry... just Harry") (Sorry, Harry Potter overload from the grandson.) I'm not a gourmand. My taste buds just aren't that discerning. But I'm a damned good cook! And I have my Mom to thank for that. Even though she was of the "sink or swim" school of teaching, in her heart she knew I had it in me. I think she would be proud of me now. Thanks, Mom.


Ivonne said...

I just loved this!

It was great to learn more about you and I especially loved the part about the cook walking out and your mom telling you to get into the kitchen ... and you MAY have had something to do with it.

Too funny!

Sally said...

Ivonne -

I'm glad you enjoyed this post. It was a joy to write. In some ways I think I'm doing this blog as a journal of sorts. So when I'm old and have lost my mind I won't completely lose my memories.

And, yes, I did say something smart ass to the cook to make her walk out. Mother was completely right in making me take her place. LOL