Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Ongoing Reactions that occur when Certain Ingredients are Combined.

I enjoy cooking.  I find the act of making the food I'm going to eat inherently pleasurable.  
And there is something even more pleasurable about making a meal for someone you care about.  I do not think it is a coincidence that a lot expressions used for someone you love are food related.  "Honey," "Sweetheart," and the act of kissing, where we bring our mouth in contact with another, emphasize the association we mammals have with love and nourishment.  The very first meal we took as children very likely came from our mother's breast.  
My mom is an excellent cook.  I was a very finicky eater as a kid and did not appreciate this very much back then.  My dad often told me that I didn't realize just how good the food was she was putting on our plates when I fussed about something I "Had" to eat.  I do know, though.  
My mom didn't teach me how to cook, but you could say she inspired me to do so.  It happened when I was about 13 years old.  
It was shortly after the birth of my youngest sister.  My mom took a couple months off from her job as a nurses' assistant to have my sister and take care of her.  During that time she also trained me, my brother and other sister in how to help her take care of the baby.  She then started to go back to work on a part-time basis and doing relief stints for the other employees.  
One day, as I came walking down the stairs, I saw mom gathering her stuff in the living room.  She was dressed in her nurse whites.  She spotted me as she was putting things in her purse.  
"Someone called in sick.  I'm going to take the last half of her shift."  She was using that rapid fire mode of talking she used when issuing instructions.  Both my parents believed in saying things once and once only.  Us siblings learned to listen and remember.  "I'll be back around seven.  Kathleen's sleeping in her crib in the family room.  It's Phil's turn to clean the dishes.  You need to take out the trash.  Virginia can help watch the baby when she gets home from her friends.  Make sure you guys don't fight.  Love you.  Bye."  Mom was slinging her purse over her shoulder and was reaching for the door knob.
"But..."  I was shaking my head as I put the timing of her absence together with my own desires.  "Who's gonna make my dinner?"  
My mom was half way out the door when she stopped.  She leaned back and looked at me around the edge of the door.  My mom had this look she would give us when said the wrong thing.  I was getting that look at that very moment.  "Oops" echoed inside my brain.  
Mom closed the door.  She set her purse on the back of the couch in the living room.  She gave me another look, one that confirmed that I should have kept my mouth shut.  "Come here," she said as she headed back into the house.  
Having no choice, I followed.  I found my mom standing in the family room, which bordered on the kitchen.  She gestured for me to stand beside her when I came around the corner.  She put her hand around my shoulder as if I were her most precious, special child.  That told me the punishment was going to be pretty bad.  
"You know what this place is?"  She nodded her head toward the kitchen.  
"Uh...  Yeah."  I was cautious.  Though the answer seemed obvious, I had already made the mistake of saying the wrong thing.  I didn't want to do it again.  "It's the kitchen, right?"  
"That's right."  She gave my shoulder an encouraging rub.  "And you know how to read, right?"  
I looked up at her.  I was nearly her height by this time in my life, but it still felt as if she were ten feet taller than me.  Still thinking it was a trick question, I nodded and replied, "yeah..."  
"And you know where I keep my cookbooks?"  
"Yeah."  I nodded toward the cupboards over the refrigerator and stove.  My mom had a library of cookbooks stuffed in them.  
"And you know where we keep all the food?  As well as the where the utensils are kept?  You know what a 'spatula' is, for instance?"
"Yes..."  I was getting a bit exasperated now.  "I know."  
"Well, then..."  She gave my shoulder another rub.  I braced myself for what was coming next.  "If you know how to read a cookbook and follow directions, and you know where all the ingredients and utensils are, then you know how to cook."  She gave me a pat on the back then turned to go.  
When I turned around to watch her leave, I found her standing in the hallway watching me.  
"And..."  She gave me another one of her looks.  This one told me to pay attention to what she was going to say next.  "While making your dinner tonight, I would greatly appreciate it if, while I'm out earning some of the money that goes to buy your food, you would make a little extra for me for when I get home."  She gave me one last nod before walking away.  I was still standing there, staring at the empty space she had occupied when I heard the front door open and close.  
I fumed for a little bit, though not for very long.  Like I said, I knew my mom well enough to know she wasn't kidding.  If I was going to eat that night I was going to have to make it myself.  
I pulled down almost her entire library of cookbooks.  I started reading them.  My brother, Phil, came home and into the kitchen/family room area.  
"Whacha doin'?"  He gave the pile of cookbooks a nod.  
"I'm cooking dinner."  I lifted my eyes from the page I was reading, wondering if we had a pan the size described to make lasagna.  "Go watch Kathleen."  
Phil gave me a look like I had told him I was building a rocket to fly to the moon, but he went into the family room and peeked into Kathleen's crib.  I flipped to another page after deciding lasagna might be too hard, and that I wasn't certain we had lasagna noodles in the house. 
Eventually I decided on a soup.  It was an Italian style tomato & potato soup.  The only thing I didn't like about the soup was that it was supposed to be a chunky soup.  Back then, and to this day, I like creamy soups.  There was another soup, a cream of broccoli recipe, on the next page.  I decided to combine the steps for making that soup creamy with the soup I wanted to make.  
I made sure we had all the parts for it.  I had watched mom make stuff enough times to know you were supposed to do that.  I also got out the blender, to puree the chunkiness out of it.  I read the directions once all the way through before starting, again from watching mom.  Once I got the soup simmering on the stove, I pulled out stuff to make a salad.  I followed the instructions in the creamy soup to lower the heat and keep stirring to keep it from curdling.  
I made some sandwiches to go with it.  Ham and cheese sandwiches.  Creamy soup always seems to go with sandwiches in my mind.  It's a natural fitting, like steak and potatoes or turkey with dressing.   
It must have taken me a while to read through the cookbooks and get started, because my mom got home just about the time everything was finished.  She went into the family room to check on Phil watching the baby, dropped her purse on the end table there, then walked into the kitchen.  
She was smiling when I looked up at her.  She also seemed every so slightly surprised.  "What's for supper?"
"Soup."  I set a bowl in front of her.  I could see the steam curling from its surface.  It had a rich, tomatoey smell that was making me hungry.  "And salad.  And sandwiches, too."  
"What type of soup is this?"  She was examining it as she stirred it with her spoon.  I told her and she looked up at me.  
"But that soup is supposed to be...  Chunky."  
I shrugged.  "I made it creamy."  
"But I like it chunky."  
I then remembered something I had heard from mom a number of times when I complained about the way she had made something.
"Well, then...  You can make it yourself next time."  
Her eyes went wide.  For a moment I thought that maybe I had sad the wrong thing again.  But then she smiled and nodded.  
"Fair enough."  She sat down on the stood before the 'breakfast counter.'  Taking the spoon, she lifted up a mouthful, blew it off and took a bite.  "Good."  She nodded.  "Really good.  It would have been better chunky, but...  Really good."  
I started cooking a lot after that.  I learned to make pancakes and waffles next.  I made a lasagna, too.  My mom sat at the breakfast counter and watched me.  She didn't help except to tell me where all the ingredients were.  We talked about stuff, school and things like that, while she watched.  I learned to make homemade pizza, too.  And I mean real homemade pizza, where I made the dough from scratch, allowed it to rise, flattened it out and then poured the sauce I made by hand over the top before covering it with cheese and pepperoni.  
The next school term I took the home economics class at school.  I was the only boy in the class that term.  My friends kidded me about it.  I shrugged it off.  By the end of that term I had my own cookbook of recipes we'd learned to make, including one for crêpes with strawberry filling.  Some friends joined me for the second cooking class that year, to the point where we were one-third of the class.  By the last cooking class there was only one girl in a classroom filled with boys.  She dropped out by the end of the first week. 
Today my favorite things to make are Japanese style chicken curry and lasagna.  I like to watch cooking shows.  My mom and I do this a lot when I go to visit my folks.  She records hours of cooking shows on her TV and we'll sit in the kitchen where they have a TV set up and watch them together.  
We've never actually cooked anything together, my Mom and I.  When she's cooking I'll sit by the table and watch her.  We'll talk about stuff.  When I use her kitchen, she'll do the same.  She'll help me pull out all the pans and utensils I need and will tell me where she keeps her ingredients, but will then sit down and watch me cook.  We'll talk about stuff.  
And then, we'll serve the other what we've made.  We'll take a bit and say, "This is good.  Really good.  Though...  It would have been better if you had made it this way..."
To which the other will reply, "If you want it that way, you can make it yourself."  
"Fair enough."  
Love you, Mom.  Happy Mother's Day!


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