Sunday, January 13, 2013

When I Learned to Cook

Do you remember when you first learned to cook?

If you are like me, the learning took place over quite a few years, beginning as a child of about nine when my sister Judy and I began experimenting with making desserts. We had helped our mother make Christmas cookies and fruitcake but that summer we wanted to try cooking all by ourselves. We made Floating Islands first as I recall, a thin, pale yellow custard with a dob of meringue floating on top and sprinkled with nutmeg. We then learned to make meringues, whipping eggs whites and sugar to stiff peaks, adding vanilla and food coloring and baking them to a golden brown. We went on to make cakes, scones and cookies before we became teenagers and our training took a new turn: cooking meals for our very large family of 13 children.

By the time I was a teenager, Mom had begun to have some serious health issues. When I was in eighth grade, she had to be in the hospital for a six-week stay. It was up to Judy and me to take care of the house and do the cooking. We managed it by taking off from school, alternately missing days so that while one was in school, the other was home, cleaning, doing laundry and cooking. When the rest of the family came home, they had work to do too: bringing in and putting away laundry, washing dishes, and helping get dinner on the table.

Today such absence from school would not be tolerated but back then in the 1960's no one objected much. We kept our grades up, making the honor roll so I suppose there was no reason for concern. I remember that I missed over 40 days of school that year as I learned instead some complicated home management.

When I married at 17, I thought I knew how to cook but I soon discovered that cooking for 15 and cooking for two are vastly different. My recipes were mostly inexpensive, hearty, and used very little meat because meat was expensive and Mom had taught us to make the most of any meat we used. My first husband, on the other hand, was Texas-raised and thought a meal meant meat, potatoes and an optional vegetable. I learned to broil steaks, fry chicken and bake potatoes. I tried making my first pies, using a piecrust mix and instant pudding, and found a recipe for something called Bavarian that used Cool Whip and Jello. I puttered around my tiny pre-World War II apartment in Fairlington, Virginia and loved the view from its window, overlooking huge oaks and the winding road up which my husband would travel on his way home.

After a year of marriage and the birth of our first son we found a little house we could afford to buy. We had $1500 to put down--can you imagine doing that today? The kitchen in this house was even more basic than the apartment kitchen, although it was a little larger. This house was a log cabin that had been covered on the exterior with smooth stucco, and on the inside with poorly installed drywall. We tore our the drywall to expose the round logs, put up a few shelves, painted the homemade cabinets, put in a dutch door that opened in the middle to swing open at the top while the bottom stayed closed. That was about the extent of our renovations to the kitchen but I loved that kitchen too--it opened out onto a porch that ran the length of the back of the house, and overlooked the Occoquan River far below. In winter I could see the water sparkling through the trees between my house and the water; in spring the water could still be glimpsed through young green trees but in summer I only had the memory of seeing the water. ( The photo at left was taken in December 1973--I was holding baby Aaron, and Derek is beside me; Jon on the left and oldest son George on the right, ex-hubby in background. On the mantle is the coffee grinder I still use today, and we still have the old crock too).

After the birth of our second son less than a year after we moved, I began to experiment more with cooking. One beautiful spring day I took out a book that had been a wedding present, Fine Old Old New England Recipes, and found a recipe for bean soup. Believe it or not, I do not remember ever having eaten any kind of bean soup except split pea. I followed the recipe and made the soup. The heavenly aroma filled the kitchen and spilled out the door into the soft spring air. That same day, I attempted my first fruit pie--apple. This time I did not use packaged pie crust mix--my cookbook had a recipe for making pastry and a recipe for Deep Dish Apple Pie.

Both recipes worked. When my husband came home I spread a cloth over a table on the porch and we ate our dinner where we could smell the sweet blossoms on our plum tree (that never had any plums) and enjoy the greening of the world around us. I remember the spicy sweet smell of the pie and the rich heartiness of the soup.

I also remember how very happy I was on that day in my kitchen, wearing my apron and following the recipes so carefully as I mixed and rolled and chopped and baked. I remember the pretty curtains I had hand-sewn, fluttering in the breeze coming in the kitchen window. But mostly I remember the feeling of supreme satisfaction at having successfully made such good food all by myself. I was hooked at the moment on cooking from scratch and I have never left that path. It was no historic day; no one but me probably remembers the pie or the soup and yet it is one that stays in my memory as golden moment, a treasured memory of scents and sights and contentment.

That is how I learned to cook. How about you? Do you remember your early cooking experiences?

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Rowan said...

Like you I started learning to cook when I was a little girl - about 8 years old I should think and rice pudding was the first thing I learnt to make. By my teens I could bake and make jam - I always preferred baking and making puddings to cooking savoury things - still do:) Like you I've cooked from scratch my whole life and the idea of buying packets of cake or pastry mix seems really odd to me - both are so easy to make yourself and taste out of sight better not to mention being more nutritious.
My daughter also cooks from scratch and is a great cook.

Sue said...

This was a great read, thanks.

The first thing I learned to cook, and I did it for the family, was meat loaf!


Nance said...

ahh, feel like I've just had a chat with a friend. I do enjoy getting to know you. Love the photo of you and yours boys & Ex in the log cabin. As far as cooking goes, I had 4 older bosy sisters so I was usually only good for peeling potatoes and cutting up marshmallows for the jello salad. Setting the table. Menial chores! Along another vein, I have never learned how to make good, high meringue. Wish you could teach me how.

Granny Sue said...

Rowan, I agree--baking is ever so much more fun than cooking dinner! I like the way you differentiate between the two--I never thought of dinner, etc as "savouries" but I like that term very much.

Granny Sue said...

Sue, meat loaf was something rarely made at our house. First because my mom didn't make it very well, and second, I think, because it took a lot of meat and she was all about stretching meat as far as possible! I did learn to make it later, with a recipe for the microwave. It's still my favorite recipe, even if I put it in the oven.

Granny Sue said...

Nance, I expect my younger sisters suffered the same plight as you. Judy and I did pretty much boss the kitchen; but most all of my sisters turned into pretty good cooks. My brothers? I don't know; I don't recall ever eating anything they made.

Nance said...

Sue, can you teach me how to make 'high' meringue? I'm still not a cook . . . so good thing I married a great guy that can : )

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