Mom, Mom, Mom #15

An edited version (for length, I think) of this will run in the April 26th issue of the Alameda Sun:

What’s for Dinner?

I used to be a good cook. Wait, let me rephrase that: I was a good cook for a short period of time in my life. I miss it now—trying new recipes, experimenting based on my experience (“wow, if paprika worked for this, would it work for that?”), sitting down and enjoying—and sharing—a well-cooked meal. Today, I don’t cook; I throw things together for my girls and me. Sometimes we have nights when the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” is “Forage.” Got some pre-cooked chicken from Trader Joe’s, a bag of lettuce, some pasta and a jar of sauce? Voila! It’s dinnertime. We are all sitting down together for a meal, and it’s relatively healthy (the sauce is organic!). Does it matter how it got here?

I do have a handful of reliable, kid-friendly recipes in my cooking repertoire, things like turkey chili (with all of the spices omitted), turkey burgers, baked ziti and the ever-popular with the pre-teen set, Sloppy Joes.

As a teenager and in my 20s, before I was married and had kids, I was notorious among my family and friends for my lack of cooking acumen. “You can’t even boil water for macaroni,” was a recurring dig from my siblings in New Jersey. I had “book smarts” rather than cooking smarts, they would all laugh and nod condescendingly. Throughout college, there really was no need to cook. Who gets a chance to cook in a dorm or even in a college apartment? During my early adulthood, I ate out or fixed my nightly staple—broiled chicken, steamed vegetables and alternating rice or pasta.

When I met my future husband, I was incredibly relieved. He did the cooking the rare times we ate in and mostly to impress me. Grilled meats, special stews…I ate it up. It wasn’t until I was recovering from cancer surgery that my culinary life took an unexpected turn.

In 1991, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma from a small mole (a.k.a. tumor) on the back of my left leg, just above my knee. Once the doctors removed it, they left a big gaping hole they had to cover with a skin graft. They ordered me to keep my leg immobilized and elevated in a large, long brace for eight weeks. I was allowed bathroom breaks—“make it quick,” warned the plastic surgeon—but was pretty much relegated to the couch.

During that time, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading, napping and watching television. One day, bored, flicking through the channels with the remote, I caught Graham Kerr instructing an audience creating healthy meals. Remember Graham Kerr, the “Galloping Gourmet”? My mother was a huge fan in the 1970s and I recalled watching his cooking show with her. Urbane and witty, kind of nutty, Kerr would walk us through the most challenging, rich and decadent meals. Occasionally, my mother would try making one or two, only to find most of it in the garbage concealed by her kids’ napkins or in the dog’s bowl. She would then resort, angrily and resentfully, to her own repertoire of mundane, kid-friendly recipes.

During the time of my cancer recovery, Kerr, too, had experienced a health scare and had revamped his cooking from sumptuous and high fat to still delicious, but low-fat versions. Seeing him on TV every day was comforting. I watched for the fun of it at first, recalling those days with my mother, but then started making mental notes. “When I can stand again, I will try that out,” I thought. As the weeks went by, I became more determined to recreate what Kerr whipped up in his studio kitchen.

I had a lot of those thoughts during that time. “When I can walk again, I will…” just fill in the blank. I was going to run again and go places I had never been and be nicer to people and call my parents more and appreciate my brand new husband. I was going to write a novel and live out every single dream I had since I was a child. I felt as though I was given a second chance at living and, as soon as I could bend my knee and walk again, I would live my life to the fullest.

Fast forward 15 years, past the full recovery and three kids, one divorce and many more second chances along the way, I recently decided to pick up the spatula and slotted spoon again. Try new things! Introduce the girls to new tastes and foods! Buy locally grown produce and create mini-masterpieces. My first attempt was a new chili recipe called “Ultimate Beef Chili.” It called for a list of vegetables like peppers, onions and tomatoes, as well as fine grade beef chunks, three kinds of beans and plenty of spices—a far cry from the bland version with ground turkey I have been preparing for them for more than 10 years.

Not a total disaster, they seemed accepting. “This is okay, but we like your other chili better,” one of the girls commented. At dinner’s end I found a lump of the meal in a crumpled-up napkin and the sink full of bowls with just the meat and beans picked out. I thought of my mother and felt the payback.

I am not deterred. I plan on continuing to re-build my gastronomic skills and become a better cook. Despite my children’s dismay, they might even learn to like it and think of their mom as a good cook.

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