My good friend Daryl came over for Sunday Supper the other night. It was a blustery day (thank you ,Winnie the Pooh) , brisk but still with enough leaves blowing around to keep thoughts of full blown Chicago winter way in the back of your head. On days like that, Daryl and I agreed, one always feels like baking or cooking big pots of soup or stew or roasting something in the oven. He brought beautiful fleurs that were still growing in his garden.When the lovely Ms. Conway and Daryl and I all used to live within blocks of each other we would often dine together during the week. One of us would make up a pot of soup or some noodle dish or a big stir fry and call the others and say “Hey! I just made this! Come on over and eat some of it!” and we’d talk about work, art, films, whatever came to mind and drink some wine. Cheryl’s was the best Sunday Supper phone call, because she knew how to roast a chicken! That might seem very basic to the uninitiated, but there are flocks of over cooked, dry, or rubbr’y skinned birds that came out of my oven until I learned the Art of Roasting. It’s actually pretty easy.
But, Cheryl always had a knack for throwin’ a chicky in the oven with some herbs and lemon and then sitting with us in her living room yakkin’ while the bird became moist and flavorful and memorable. I do not ever remember there being a sub par bird.
So, on Sunday I felt like making a meatloaf (don’t say ew-you would like it, I promise) mac-n-cheese and some roasted veg. Everything went into the oven mostly at the same time (‘cept the mac-n- cheese because I prefer to make my cheese sauce while the noodles are boiling and I don’t really bake it because that makes all the sauce go away. Sometimes I make a crumb and cheese topping and zhizh it under the broiler, but not this time.) so there was no muss or fuss.
And, as we were chatting and drinking red wine Daryl asked me something I hadn’t really thought about.
“Where do you get your interest in cooking?”
Having been friends for…let me do the math…Holy Mackerel! Twenty Three Years! Daryl knows that my mom was not a big cook. She was of the era of heating things up. And, I don’t think she liked cooking at all. Not her thing. So, we, like most other families in the ‘70’s, had convenience foods, pot pies, tv dinners, cans of hash and green beans. And when she cooked from scratch she made the stuff my dad liked. Very meat and potatoes but all good....um except for the infamous...hot dog casserole! But that is a post all unto itself. So, casseroles, spaghetti, sloppy joes, roasts…those things were on the weekly rotation, unless it was Lent, then we had fish sticks or pancakes on Fridays…or noodles with butter as I sometimes demanded…
And because we lived with my grandmother and my mom worked, my grandmother would cook dinner most nights. (Dinner was on the table at 5:30 when my dad got home from work, so it was started at 3!) And while she cooked dinner, she would spout bonmots such as these…
“I guess this is all I’m good for, I’m just the maid!”
“Must be nice not to have to DO anything while old Nana does all the work!”
“Hey, you gonna SIT there all day, or are you gonna HELP me? Don’t you want to learn anything? You’re gonna need to do this one day. Woodenhead! I’m talking to you!”
“Hey, tin ears! Get over here!”
“If I knew you were going to do it THAT way, I wouldn’t have asked you to do it in the first place!”
“C’mon! C’mon! I don’t have all day! I thought you were gonna HELP me!”
“Just GET OUT of the way if you don’t know how to do it right! It’s not hard. Why don’t ya use the sense God gave you!”
“Look what you made me do! It boiled over! Dammit! If I didn’t have to watch you like a hawk! Why didn’t you tell me it was boiling!”
“You asked me to mix…”
“Oh- so it’s MY fault now? The nerve!… You kids….Do I have to do everything around here? What good are ya? GO on! Go watch TV, it’s all you’re good for! Oh, what? Ya gonna cry now? Go ahead, cry! CRY, you baby! Well, it won’t work. It wont work on ME! You try and make ME feel like the bad guy and here I am trying to make YOU dinner! Well, maybe you know how to do it better than me!” (throws pan in the sink.) “Go ahead! I’m through! You can make dinner Or your mother! She’ll have to start it when she gets home and you won’t eat until late! Or go hungry! Eat some shit out of a can ! See if I care. You think you’re so smart! Yeah, you know better than everyone! Where ya gonna get the money to make dinner for everyone? You know how much things cost? No you just sit around with your nose in a book or whatever while everyone else does all the work!”
And then you frantically apologized and slinked off back to whatever you were doing before she asked you for help. Or demanded...as it has been pointed out...
SO, while one might have been eager to learn, you mostly felt inadequate or intimidated or downright scared. Perhaps cooking was best left to someone more competent. But, hmm… Catch 22…there always was an appeal for assistance but, if you helped, you failed. If you didn’t help, you also failed. No matter how hard you tried, you always were on the receiving end of her anger.
WOW, JILL--THAT’S DEPRESSING- WE THOUGHT THIS WAS GOING TO BE INSPIRATIONAL !
Wait! Don’t Go! Here’s the happy part!
Enter my neighbor Kathy. She first hired me to babysit for her infant son, Corey. She needed me to watch him while she was out with her husband or when she had errands to run or to keep him occupied while she prepared for a party.
Kathy was always having gatherings at her house. Open houses on Christmas day, communions for friends’ children, backyard barbeques, holiday celebrations there was not a month that went by without Kath having something going on at her house.
So when Corey was down for a nap, or watching tv, I’d go in the kitchen and see what she was doing. I stood back because I knew from my home experience that ‘If I didn’t know how to do it right, I should stay out of the way’-- but I was curious. I really liked the home arts.
“Jill, grab that cabbage and hollow it out for me. I’m making this dip for vegetables and it will look pretty in there.”
“!!!” I was nervous. I didn’t want to ruin anything.
”I’ve never done that before.”
“Oh, well, cut the top off and then take enough out of the center until it looks like a bowl. Don’t cut through the bottom, though. Whatever looks good to you.”
I didn’t know what to say. This woman trusted me with her cabbage! I cut the top off of the vegetable and started chipping away until I had a fair receptical. It wasn’t Martha Stewart perfect, but it looked pretty good.
“Great!” said Kathy. “Fill this to the top, then put the ‘lid’ back on it- and could you cut up those carrots and peppers and celery into sticks? Put them all around the dip and then I need you to make some artichoke dip. You never made artichoke dip? Here’s what you do…””
I kept waiting to hear how the veg was cut wrong, or I was too slow, or I was making a mess, or how I was not using the sense God gave me…but Kathy never said any of those things. She was grateful for my help. She complimented me on my hors d’oeuvres execution and she educated me about cooking in a way that made me want to do it again and again. She asked my opinion about what I thought her menu was lacking and never lashed out at me when I gave her my answer. “There are no potatoes…”
“You’re right! Potatoes it is, then! How about tiny baked potatoes?”
She laughed with me, talked with me as an equal even though I was over 10 years her junior. She entrusted me with the care of her son!
More often than not in the years that followed, Kathy would call on me to help her with her parties even when she did not need me to babysit. I learned how to peel and devein shrimp the same afternoon that a fisherman had caught them and then how to sauté them quickly in a pan with garlic and olive oil and toss them with pasta. I was astounded to learn that this was 3 year old Corey’s favorite dish!
I learned how to make a mimosa and a bloody mary for the brunch buffet tables that were a wonderful Christmas day tradition.
Savory bread puddings, fruit salad baskets made out of watermelons, cheese biscuits,in the summer, burgers and hot dogs and barbequed chicken on the grill. And I was always asked (as well as my family and all of the neighbors) to come and join the fun. Kathy was nothing if not gracious. Her philosophy was all are welcome. And she was always happy to see you. She had a smile on her face and a hug for you and she wanted to hear all of your news.
I never felt so loved and accepted and competent as when I helped Kathy. She instilled a love for cooking and entertaining in me that I still hold to this day. It makes me feel incredible inside to be able to create delicious things for my family and friends. To open my home and heart up to them. To create shared memories to look back on fondly. Good times to make us smile and laugh. Kathy was gracious and strong and funny and kind and generous. She was my first real role model and someone who I think of as an older sister.
I took the excitement for entertaining with me when I went to art school and helped my pal Dave throw a 21st birthday surprise party for his girlfriend/now wife in his super tiny studio apartment. I made many of the ‘party foods’ that Kathy had served at her parties. Man, we crammed so many people in that tiny apartment!
I threw myself something similar for my own 21st birthday. Nice outfits 1980’s! And any other occasion I could get a chance to cater- I’d go for it. It took some thought, but it wasn’t hard! You make time for the things that are important to you. And the payoff is so worth it. I mean, if you spend time cooking for yourself on a daily basis, there really ain't much difference if there 's one person at the table, two people or four! (Unless I'm just grabbing a sandwich, or eating something in front of the fridge! Which is sometimes a meal when Brian is not around.)
Craig Russell throws the best dinner parties and I was lucky enough to learn so much more from him when I lived in Kent, Ohio. There were Halloween parties and New Year’s parties and traveling dinner clubs…
One of the things that clinched it for me with my husband, Brian, was his enthusiasm for life and his amazing entertainment skills. He and Lux threw some legendary parties in their giant loft, there were football Sundays with homemade pizza and big submarine sandwiches for his friends, rooftop barbeques so you could see the fireworks downtown on the fourth of July… we held our Wedding Reception/my birthday party in my tiny Chicago apartment- we made all of the food ourselves and filled the bathtub with ice and beers and champagne, we hosted a small dinner gathering at least every two weeks for a wild mix of friends, and we had cocktail parties where everyone had to dress foxy like you should at a cocktail part…and wonderful Christmas open houses!
If you ask me what I want to do for my birthday, the answer has always been (for the most part)- I want to have people over! (however, if you want to throw me a surprise party- I’d love that! But you can’t throw yourself a surprise can you? But the party part is there, see?!)
I like to make food for a bunch of people. I’m inspired by the thought of a theme. We got a bunch of brats in the freezer from the Northwoods? Leaf raking party! Or a Pumpkin carving party- or Big Football Sunday! Let’s do a cowboy Christmas! Or celebrate Chinese New Years! Get a lacquered duck from the Chinese market and make a stir fry- you don’t always have to make everything yourself. It’s about the community you create.
My grandmother served deliciously prepared food on a plate of contempt and anger. With a side of oppression and obligation! It was not a delight to sit at her table. It was a requirement. Whether that was her intention, I have no clue. For a woman who always said “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar…” she seemed to have forgotten to buy the honey! And she wondered why everyone walked on eggshells around her. You never knew what was going to set her off! And something always did. Discussing other cuisines you might be interested in trying meant you did not like her cooking! Mentioning your good time at Kathy’s led to “You like it so much over there why don’t you go live there!” Having seconds meant you were a hog and selfish. But not eating enough could result in her threatening to never cooking again because you obviously did not like her food!
Kathy served you love that tasted like food. With a side of self-esteem and quality time sprinkled with fun and memories. It encouraged my creative side, made me interested in the process of cooking and made Martha Stewart a bit richer with my subscription habit to her magazine.
And it is not a party for me without Kathy’s artichoke dip on the table.