Cooking Up Batches of Memories

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 10/24/06)

On the first really chilly morning of fall, the swirling leaves confirm what I know in my heart – fall is here, and winter can’t be far behind. So I do what I do on the first blustery fall day every year. I get out a loaf pan and make some zucchini bread.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be zucchini bread. Other years it has been split pea soup, beef stew, a carrot cake, stuffed bell peppers. All I know is that when the weather sends me indoors, I head for the kitchen.

I have never made or served my family a microwave or frozen dinner, or used frosting out of a can. I mentioned this recently at a party, and I may as well have said that my spaceship had just landed and I was looking for volunteers for science experiments. I have no ill will toward those who don’t cook. Nor do I hold myself up as a model homemaker (opening a closet in my house could cause grave injury or even death). I just know what I like, and what I like is the smell of something in the oven.

Take mashed potatoes for instance. (Mmmm…) Friends have told me you can get decent mashed potatoes freeze-dried in a box. I’ll never believe it. Give me some medium size russets, dusty with the dirt they grew in, smelling of Idaho sun and soil. I’ll scrub them, peel and simmer them, then whip them with the electric hand mixer my mother gave me when I got my first apartment. Add butter (real butter) and salt and pepper. Those are mashed potatoes.

I associate my love of cooking directly with my mother. With seven children and a limited budget, my mother was a creative cook out of necessity. Of course, those were less liberated times, when dads got home and expected a home-cooked meal on the table. But my mother never complained about cooking. She seemed to find pleasure in our pleasure.

Some of my earliest memories are of cookie sheets clanging, learning to use a flour sifter, getting to break the yolk, licking the beaters or the bowl. And biting into the first batch of snickerdoodles or molasses crisps fresh out of the oven. Like biting off a piece of heaven.

When I had my own children, I realized I had learned other things from my mother besides how to make perfect chocolate frosting. I had learned patience (when little hands are spilling), a sense of adventure (let’s try and make that cake shaped like the Easter bunny), and a sense that feeding a family was an occupation worthy of both time and energy.

When my children were tall enough to reach the kitchen counter standing on their sturdy wooden step stools, they started cooking with me. They learned to cream the butter with the sugar, to pack the brown sugar firmly, to watch out for eggshells in the batter, and not to measure salt right over the bowl. When they were older and there wasn’t much time to talk during the day, it was good to work side-by-side in a cozy kitchen. Then to sit down and eat the cookies you made together, and talk a little. There is a reluctant drawing apart when it’s time to get back to the day’s business.

My daughter thinks it is endlessly amusing that I still have recipe cards imprinted with my maiden name. The recipes From the Recipe File of Kathy McDermott are written in a careful, round, precise scrawl of someone familiar yet not, and are stained with drops of vanilla extract and chocolate, and dusty with flour and powdered sugar. Homemade Lasagna, Sally Lunn, Mom’s Potato Salad, Ambrosia.

I understand the appeal of buying, say, stuffed bell peppers, ready to pop in the microwave. Who has time to cook? scream the supermarket ads. But what do microwaved stuffed bell peppers smell like? A faint meat smell, almost like cat food, with a tomato scent that lingers for thirty seconds. Contrast that with homemade peppers. First you parboil the peppers and let them cool. While that’s happening you saute hamburger meat with onions and salt and pepper, and toss some rice in the rice cooker. There are few things in the world that smell better than hamburger and onion cooking over medium heat. When the rice is done, you stuff the rice and burger mixture into the peppers and cover them generously with tomato sauce. Tent with foil and put in the oven at 350 degrees. In an hour your family will be gathered in the kitchen begging for dinner. And you will be smiling.

I am not a Martha Stewart type of cook. Not for me the gingerbread mansion with twinkling electric lights. Or the soufflé made with twenty exotic ingredients. Rather I am a cook who cooks every day. I love to collect cookbooks, but one I turn to most often is a yellowing Betty Crocker paperback that is missing the front and back cover, and a few pages out of the index. The spine is broken, but it falls open automatically to Brownies, a nearly translucent page smudged with countless chocolate fingerprints.

There may be two kinds of people in the world. Those who own Bundt pans, deviled egg serving plates, and rolling pins, and those who don’t. As soon as the first frost coats the pumpkins, I start dreaming of tart apples simmering in a feathery crust, steamy moist pumpkin bread fresh from the oven, buttery Spritz cookies decorated with sugar sprinkles, winter squash soup.

My husband once wrote a beautiful poem for me called “The Offer of Food is Love.” The title alone told me everything I need to know in the world.

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