How I Learned to Cook

Back in my party girl days (a reputation that was both earned and overblown; I was a saint compared to most of my friends), people were shocked to hear that I had a domestic side. “What? You like to cook? I thought you lived on French fries and beer.” While my love of both is well known and definitely not overblown, (and there have been times when it sure as hell seemed as though I was living on French fries and beer … usually after a break-up), cooking has always been a huge part of my life.

I don’t recall my mother actively teaching me how to cook. When she cooked, she cooked alone. It was more me deciding to watch and learn, coupled with the detailed notes she would leave on the refrigerator before she left for work, explaining what we had to do to get dinner started. (After learning how to decipher those notes, I could probably teach myself Russian. Her handwriting was awful.)

My mother was never a gourmet cook. She is, after all, Sicilian, and most of what she made for us was food she ate as a kid. It was peasant food. The popularity of nouvelle cuisine in the 80s made her roll her eyes. To this day, she insists that she likes her vegetables cooked to death. This could just be an undying belief in the old way to cook. (It’s just as likely to be orneriness on her part.) I have, perhaps unfortunately, inherited some of that orneriness. I’ve been known to roll my eyes at some of the sillier trends that pop up.

As is obvious to anyone who reads my posts here, what I learned from my mother informs much of how I cook. What really stuck with me is a preference to cook alone. The kitchen is the one place I’m a complete control freak. You know those articles in Bon Appetit and Gourmet that recommend giving everyone at your dinner party a glass of wine and a task to help you prepare dinner? The ones with the pictures of a dozen people having the time of their lives while they chop and mix and saute? That’s a version of hell to me. All I’d need is an endless loop of Celine Dion music and I might have an aneurysm. One, because I’m almost pathologically particular about how my food is prepped; and two, because I’m not going to invite my friends for dinner and then make them cook it themselves.

The kitchen is my domain, as it was my mother’s. She probably let us cook only because she had to. She wasn’t always a patient cook, and she was an unconventional mother, to say the least. But I hope she got some solace in the kitchen. I like to think cooking was a joy for her. She certainly seemed to love it, even though she proclaimed every meal she’s ever made to be dry and tasteless. But that doesn’t matter. I lay both my knowledge and my love of cooking at her feet.