One from the vault. I wrote this 3/20/21 but never posted it. The thoughts are timeless, so why not share them now?
I began to dabble in cooking in high school. My mom, a great cook, had died when I was 10. Dad took his stabs at putting food on the table, but let’s say he did not exactly have the knack. Seeking to improve our fare, I looked into my Mom’s old Joy of Cooking, for which I bought paperback copies that I still use (1), and some of her church recipes, including those she typed out in cursive and draped with an oilcloth cover. What came out was pretty good and it was fun to do. Good cooks ran on my mother’s side of the family, with my Grandma Slater and Aunt Dorie being excellent farm cooks who spoiled this only boy rotten, and with more than just food. I learned much later that it might be in my genes, as my biologic dad was a gourmand who instructed his offspring “approach each meal as if it might be your last”. Dad didn’t mind when I took the lead. U of M didn’t give me much chance to grow on that front, as the West Quad kitchen provided all of our victuals. There were many nights in our Chicago House dorm room we got mighty hungry, but I didn’t have a hot plate. Things changed junior year when I moved into an apartment with Wayne, who conveniently managed Kalamazoo’s Big Boy in summers and knew his way around a kitchen. He taught me a lot. We never made anything fancy but we ate well. Next year, I moved into the North Campus co-ops and lived there for 2 years. It’s a stone’s throw from where I live now. Everybody had to do two jobs. By my second year I learned that head cook for one night a week counted for two jobs. I signed up. I leaned heavily on dear Aunt Dorie, adapting her recipes for 80. Things worked out o.k. except when I chose to put whole peppercorns instead of ground pepper into the beef stew and had to field complaints about “little bombs”. Med school saw another regression, although I had a hot plate in my room at the Shoreland Hotel (“The old folks’ home in the college” – Dylan; it really was a retirement residence before UofC decided to move students in). Where we ate at Burton-Judson didn’t feed us Sunday nights. The only adaptation I recall from those times is hanging a six pack of beer in a plastic bag out my window in winter to keep it cold (we didn’t have refrigerators). My classmate Don found us a subsidized apartment in a high rise near the lake. Our cobbled furnishings did not do justice to the location. We shared cooking duties, Don reproducing family recipes and me doing whatever. Don escaped to his family in Palatine most weekends, leaving the place to me. It was a great place to entertain young ladies, and I learned that a man-cooked meal was an excellent aphrodisiac. Thank you, Aunt Dorie!
On to Mound City, I took the cooking thing even more seriously. The life of an intern wasn’t going to allow much dabbling in the kitchen, so time there had to count! So one of my first big purchases was a big chest freezer, which I still have today, where my output could sit till it was time to thaw, warm, and eat. My kitchen at 18 S. Kingshighway was the size of a postage stamp, smaller than my current walk in closet. But you could still cook stuff there, and my occasional female visitors were always appreciative. My last year in StL I moved to a magnificent 16th floor penthouse in the same building, site of a grisly gay murder a year or two previously. They were having trouble renting out the place. I didn’t mind. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”, and what a view!
It was a bit of a comedown in Ann Arbor when my condo mainly overlooked the parking lot and the hill up to Broadway. But the Huron river was right outside the door around the corner and it was close to the medical center. Back in AA I could revert, food came from ghetto Kroger’s (now torn down) and the old co-op on 4th street, plus of course the Farmer’s Market. The condo had a decent kitchen and I could entertain, plus feed myself, of course. Aunt Dorie in Royal Oak was a short drive away and I spent many good times eating with them. My Aunt had the whole state scoped for the best produce, and used to do things like bring us 50# of asparagus, tied up in bundles she and her husband Jim made. It was a challenge to get through them all. Once Kathy arrived, I had help. I met a guy who sold strip steaks out of his van in the parking lot of the Med School. Such a deal. “Steak and asparagus” became a staple for us during the latter’s season, and still is.
Purchase of an actual house after receiving a real job offer of course changed everything. There was a deck, grills, and a big kitchen. Let’s say we had a good time. Much has changed in our 36 years hence. During the first Gulf War, we had the kitchen revamped as well as some bathrooms. Much more open, Corian sinks, and new cabinets from Killbuck OH, home of Kathy’s maid of honor. Come 2004, my dad and Aunt Dorie dying the year before and me aflush with inheritance money, came the big revamp. We moved out of the house for a full year and it was worth it. Curiously, the kitchen was deemed perfect and was not touched. It had received a tweak 6 years previously when I almost burned down the house in a homebrewing mishap. Thanks to the insurance, we have a nice Viking stovetop , the previous model melted by the pot of burning wort. We tweaked it February before last having our Killbuck cabinets refaced with maple. Beautiful, and much worth it.
Now Kathy and I abide in paradise. And it’s up to me to provide meals to match. Kathy can cook, too, and is a really good baker, but she defers the whole operation to me. It all begins with the recipes, of course, and we have those aplenty. The Gulf War builders included a bookshelf in our kitchen and on those shelves sit 46 cookbooks. We have a bunch more in our downstairs kitchen (yes, we have 2 kitchens). The stalwarts are there: Rombauer & Becker’s Joy of Cooking (1)(same paperback 2 volume set I’ve had since college, even though I have my mother’s and my aunt’s downstairs), Julia Child’s The way to cook (2). I learn something new from Julia every day. The Culinary Institute of America’s very retro cookbook, very thorough. Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ The New Basics Cookbook (3), a pretty and thorough cookbook that looked at some trends when we entered the 90s, which is about when we started attention, then Steaks, Chops, Roasts, and Ribs (4), a cookbook recommended to me by a guy in bar which is our go to reference for anything on the grill, which we do often, even in the winter. One of their slim volumes we like a lot is Madhur Joffrey’s Introduction to Indian Cooking (5). Indian cooking is fussy and complex, but very rewarding. She makes it a little easier. Then there are the “organic” cookbooks, always changing. Some years ago my scientist wife convinced me to record my culinary dabblings in a proper lab book, which I have done. Lately, I’ve been converting the better results to recipes on printed-out 3X5 cards, which feels like publishing, tho’ I don’t think I can enter it on my CV. I’m very meticulous with my entries. Had I been this conscientious when I was doing actual bench research, I might have been more successful. The other working document is the binders. Every day you get everything on your e-mail, right? Well, I get recipes, mainly from Food.com, and boy don’t they look good? Realizing I can’t make them all, I only print out a few. But they go into page protectors and then into the binders, of which there are now 4. Once I get and use a good binder recipe it goes on to a 3X5 card and out of the binder, making room for more. The list of winners is too long to include here, but suffice it to say I truly enjoy my online recipes.
The actual cooking proceeds from all this. The resources are more than abundant: the Viking range, A Kitchen Aid double convection oven right next to the Magic Chef microwave clad in the same stainless steel and looking so much like its big neighbors as to be a little brother. The blue enamel clad Chantel pots we bought after we got married are still serving us well. But my favorite are the crude cast iron jobs that rest on our lowest counter. I have no idea when I got my fry pans. I’m sure they were possessions of those sainted farmer cooks of my youth. I feel privileged to carry them forth into still another decade. I have 2 Dutch ovens. One I bought at a StL garage sale and now lacks half of its handle owing to an unfortunate drop. The other I just bought on e-bay and has legs. Cumbersome in the cabinet but could be helpful at the campsite, if we ever do that again.
The good kitchen is equipped with ample spices and trinkets and mine is. A curious useful trinket has been my brother P-touch labelmaker. Labels come out not only for new spices and other ingredients, but also for leftovers, each dated. My missus dips into these for lunch each day, and appreciates the information. Cooler trinkets I couldn’t live without are my spice grinder, my SodaStream, my scale, and my instant meat and surface thermometer. With Amazon eliminating the gap between wish and fulfillment, who knows what else I might add. Plenty to work with already, so I’m amply supplied for my activities. Let’s eat!
- Rombauer IS, Rombauer Becker M. Joy of Cooking. New York: Signet, New American Library, 1974 (note, first edition was printed in 1931) https://www.amazon.com/Joy-of-Cooking/dp/0743246268
- Child J. The Way to Cook. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989. https://www.amazon.com/Way-Cook-Julia-Child/dp/0679747656
- Lukins S, Rosso J. The New basics Cookbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 1989. https://www.amazon.com/New-Basics-Cookbook-Sheila-Lukins/dp/0894803417
- Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. Steaks, Chops, Roasts, and Ribs. Brookline MA: America’s Test Kitchen, 2004. https://www.amazon.com/Steaks-Roasts-Editors-Illustrated-Magazine/dp/0936184787
- Joffrey M. An Invitation to Indian Cooking. New York: Vintage Books, 1973. https://www.amazon.com/Invitation-Indian-Cooking-Madhur-Jaffrey/dp/0375712119