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More Stories - The Way We Were
A Kinder, Gentler Kitchen
Remember some of the gaffes you made when you first started to cook? I certainly remember four spectacular ones. A half-century later they still smart.
The first thing my mother taught me to make from a recipe when I was nine years old was cake. I learned to make a plain vanilla cake and another called "Cherry Jubilee". I'd made each one a couple of times before I went for my summer stay at my Grandpa Wilbur Hine's farm outside of Newfield, New York. I asked Grandma to let me make a cake.
"We don't eat much in the way of sweets," she replied, "but if you can divide it up, you can make half a cake."
"Of course I can," I assured her. Math was one of my favorite subjects; I saw no reason to doubt I could do it.
"Don't waste ingredients," she warned sternly. This was far more a legacy of the Great Depression and the shortages of World War II than any stinginess on her part.
Between the desire to show off and please my Grandparents, worrying about wasted ingredients, and the fact that no one warned me that when dividing a recipe, one should copy it down first, I ended up doing everything right except forgetting to divide the sugar. The cake was sticky, heavy and overly sweet. I was mortified. My grandparents never said a word, which was almost worse than if they had complained. We ate some, and the rest went into the pigs' slop bucket.
Unfortunately, within a year our lives had changed in such a way that I didn't learn any more cooking skills from my mother until I was nearly eighteen. At fourteen, I was asked to bring a cake to a Youth Group's Christmas party at our church. Nice; a chance to impress some of the boys with my cooking skills. Well, I had cake down pat at this point. Except I always had my mother's help with the icing. I waited until the last minute, got ambitious, my mother had to go someplace, and the icing didn't go well. It was too runny; I added more confectioner's sugar. It was too stiff; more water. Etc., etc. until I ran out of sugar. In addition I tried to ice the cake while it was still warm. The red and green icing ran together into a brownish-purple and soaked in; it was the ugliest cake I've ever seen! It was so hideous no one at the party would eat it.
Then there was the bacon incident. One morning everything was going wrong as we were all trying to get off for work or school. Mother had just started a large griddle of bacon when one of the small siblings started hurling. "Attend the bacon," my mother shouted, "and make sure it's crisp." Half dressed, I staggered out and grabbed a spatula. As an excuse, let me say first, I had never cooked bacon and second, my mind doesn't kick in until my body's been up for a while. I cooked it. And cooked it some more. Eventually it got as crisp as we all liked, and also badly scorched.
My mother returned in "last straw" mode and started shouting: "What are you doing? You've burned the bacon!"
"It wouldn't get crisp," I told her. She didn't think much of my excuse that she had never told me it would get crisp after it was removed from the heat.
The last big mistake was spectacularly embarrassing. I was not quite seventeen and in my own apartment for the first time. My friend Angelica suggested we invite a couple of guys that were on break from college, one a sort of relative of hers, to a spaghetti dinner. Both guys were hunks! We really wanted to impress. I had never cooked spaghetti, but assumed 'Lica had, since she was two or three years older than I and it was her idea.. I did have a good sauce recipe, however. I could handle that.
We bought the ingredients and a loaf of French bread, and I started the sauce early. When the guests got there, we put on a large pot of water. As luck would have it, the box of the cheapest off-brand pasta had very little in the way of instruction.
"When do we put in the spaghetti?" I asked 'Lica.
"Let's wait until it gets hot," she suggested confidently. As the water began to steam, I took the spaghetti out of the box and-- oh, oh. It was way too long; wouldn't fit in the pan.
"Just stick one end in the pan and let it stand up; when it gets hot, it will slide down into the water," 'Lica instructed. I jammed one end of the bundle of spaghetti into the barely heated water, checked the time, and went back to entertaining our guests, something much more interesting than cooking.
At the appointed time, we all trouped out into the kitchen, eager to chow down. Yuck! The bottom half of the spaghetti was a solid, gummy mass; the top half was still raw and stiff. Two hungry guys were not impressed at all. You guessed it; 'Lica had never cooked spaghetti before, either.
We pulled apart all we could and re-cooked it. What a mess! The guys ate some and left early. I decided at that time to buy some recipe books, start asking questions of friends and relatives, buckle down and learn to cook. See how to make Perfect Pasta.
I'm convinced that both boys and girls should learn their way around the kitchen as early as possible. Let them help as soon as they can stand on a chair or stool. It's a good time to communicate with them, too, and learn what's going on in their lives. Teach them not only cooking skills but good eating habits and better nutrition while small. Don't wait, later will probably be too late.
Most important, be kind and gentle with your kids when they mess up; that's just part of the learning process. We all have made spectacular mistakes, haven't we? Wanna confess yours?