My mom was born in 1924 on a family dairy farm near Rolla, MO. She and her identical twin sister were numbers 3 and 4 of what would become a family of 9 surviving children during the depression years. When my mom talked about scratch cooking it had little resemblance to what we call scratch cooking today. We get our ingredients ready-to-go from a market, she had to strangle, pick and clean the chicken and pick the beans from the garden. She stood on a chair at age 6 to roll a crust for the apples she and her sisters climbed a tree to pick to make a pie.
That’s who taught me to cook. (Though blessedly I never had to murder dinner first.)
Like her mom, mine had me standing on a chair at the counter or stove doing whatever tasks she felt I could handle. I remember stirring the gravy until it thickened and scrambling eggs. Mastering my dad’s favorite easy-over-basted eggs in the grease after frying a pan of bacon was a huge milestone – I can still feel his joy from his favorite meal, breakfast, at any time of the day.
I think I was 14 that day my mom called home saying she was working late and would I cook those pork chops she took out of the freezer for dinner? Sure, Mom, happy to. Don’t think I’d even hung up the phone before the realization hit me: I have no freaking idea what to do with those pork chops. Didn’t want to admit that and call Mom back though so I grabbed the Betty Crocker cookbook and started frantically flipping. Then I chilled once I saw that all of the instructions for the recipes were simple things I knew how to do. Actually, simple things anyone can do.
I will never forget the meal I made for the family that evening. I fixed pan-fried pork chops with Spanish rice (from scratch) and stewed tomatoes (from fresh). They liked it! I was so proud and I’d had a blast cooking it, the first entire meal I’d ever planned and cooked. I asked Mom if I could do it again the next day. Her eyes got big with surprise and she answered, “Yes! I would LOVE that!”
From that day until I left home for college I did most of the family cooking during the week. Mom and Dad did the weekends and evenings when I had stuff going on. My parents and brother were the best sports ever. The good stuff was enthusiastically praised, the less successful attempts were critically appreciated, and the failures (OMG there were some ghastly ones) were good-naturedly… okay, mercilessly… teased but in my family those were moments of hilarity and love. And there was always the fried chicken carry-out place down the street when the failure was total, like setting fire to the ribs on the grill. Twice.
But the biggest thing I took from those years? Part was learning how to plan meals and cook, for sure, but the sweetest memories were seeing my mom come home from work, change clothes to get comfy and join my dad on the patio for a drink; a really big daily To Do thing taken off her list. All she had to do when she got home in the evening – for the first time in her life – was sit down and enjoy herself until I told them dinner was ready. It was a gift I could give her and it was a priceless one. Wins all around.
That’s the real joy of cooking, isn’t it? Food is primal – filling an essential need. It’s life. Cooking is an intimate expression – knowing your family’s/loved ones’ tastes and making that small effort to see their delight. It’s love on a plate. Even when you are just cooking for you. Show yourself some love!