For those of you who, like me, love to cook, I need not explain the title. For those who don’t, I hope after you read this you will begin to love to cook.
If you read my blog, “Wrestling With Racism,” you know that my father was restauranteur and I worked as a teen in his kitchen. What I didn’t mention was that Pops was a great businessman who knew so little about cooking, my mom had to make him cheese sandwiches. But while my experience in a professional kitchen, perhaps taught me not to fear cooking and how to work quickly, it was not there that my love of cooking began.
I had been fascinated with cooking from the time I was barely out of toddlerhood. My divorced Mom and I lived with my grandparents and she had to work. This left my grandmother to take care of me. She and I departed from her home each morning and went from food store to food store purchasing each item from what they specialized in. If she needed a chicken, she’d go to the butcher shop and pick out a nice live one. The butcher carried it squawking into the back room. I can still recall, vividly, how there was a sharp clunking noise that abruptly ended the squawking. We waited while the bird was plucked and then continued on to the grocer where Grandma filled sacks from open bins, always looking for a deal on produce that was just about to wilt. On Fridays, we went to the fish monger where we picked up a nice big carp who would have the pleasure of swimming around in the bathtub until Grandma got around to making the gefilte fish.
Freshly cooked food from scratch was so much the norm in that household that one day, when an uncle presented us with a can of something, we all regarded it as a relic left to us by aliens. Not a one of the the adults in our extended household had a clue about how to open it. If you read the blog “Pepsi For Breakfast,” you know that I was the cook from early in my marriage. I realized at some point in my adult life that my love of cooking originated from the many hours I spent as a pre-schooler shadowing Grandma, mesmerized by the magic of creating wonderful meals from the simple ingredients we had procured. Grandma never purchased packaged bread or deserts. Everything was from scratch.
But here’s the kicker. Grandma owned nary a cookbook and there were no cup measures, measuring spoons or food scales in her kitchen. Grandma cooked by the process that in Yiddish does not mean what it sounds like, “shitt arein,” literally, to “toss in.”
Like a great jazz musician, Grandma improvised from basic themes, producing harmonious flavors the way a musician creates unique harmonious sounds. Cooking is really a matter of knowing a few classic techniques and riffing on them with the ingredients at hand. As a guitarist, I learned early on that I was never going to learn to play by slavishly copying the arrangements of other players. It was not until I found a teacher who opened my eyes to the fact that you need to find your own style and create your own arrangements— after mastering a lot of basics such as scale patterns all over the fretboard that could be used in any key— if you are really going to enjoy playing. Why stumble through some professional’s arrangement where all your mistakes stick out like a sore thumb when you can let the music move directly from your heart to the strings? Like homemade food, that music may be on the simple side, but the flow and sincerity more than make up for the lack of complexity.
I’m not going to pretend that I just picked up cooking out of the ether. In fact, in my early twenties, I spent many hours watching TV chefs like Julia Child and Graham Kerr (the indomitable “Galloping Gourmet,”) and tried to replicate their recipes at home. Early in my married life, I also read cookbooks as though they were textbooks, virtually tasting the food mentally as I read. What I figured out early on was that there are certain basic themes you just jam to. For example, the difference between biscuits, muffins, waffles, pancakes, cakes, pastries and quick breads is simply the proportion of the ingredients and cooking method. Homemade bread requires the proper proportion of liquid to flours, something you learn by feel after a while, mixed with yeast, whatever shortening and sweetener is used, salt, and maybe some eggs, seeds or spices. You knead it by hand or in a mixer, let it rise, form it into loaves and bake it. Like, seriously, is this so complicated? Not when you shitt arien.
I have to laugh every Thanksgiving when the newspapers and magazines explain, for the gazillionth time, the mystery of cooking a turkey. Here’s the truth. You take a turkey, rub it with oil, sprinkle inside and out with salt, stick it in a roasting pan and put it in a 325 degree oven. Then you walk away for a few hours, depending on the weight of the bird and come back when it’s done. Check for doneness with a meat thermometer, let it sit for 20 minutes, and eat it. Now, tell me, how hard is that? The rest of the meal is, likewise, a snap, but space does not permit me to describe the obvious. Just make sure you don’t bother with measuring anything and, for the love of God, do not incorporate jello, canned fruit or vegetables, marshmallows or canned cream of mushroom soup into the meal.
When I cook I’m in touch with my grandmother’s kind and beautiful soul. Grandma was no philosopher, but she knew the secret of life. Live it homemade. Live from the heart. Give love by cooking from the heart. Cook the way a great musician plays. Keep it simple and fresh. The joy is in the doing. And, of course, in the eating.
Happy Thanksgiving with the hope that we may share it with our loved ones this time next year.