My mother is not a gourmet cook, but she did cook a meal nearly every night. And not too much in the way of Hamburger Helper either (well, maybe once every six months or so). She really did cook from “scratch” and only now am I realizing that my mom really knew how to stretch a dollar. At one time, there were 8 of us living in the house, since my grandparents were also living with us. Even if I don’t often cook the same foods as my mom, I still definitely get nostalgic for home cooking.
I think there were definitely some aspects of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s that affected my mom’s cooking. She was a big fan of putting fruit in the Jell-o. I was a big fan of picking it out. And living in Nebraska, we definitely ate a lot of beef. We also ate a lot of casseroles. And leftovers. My mom was very good at figuring out how to make new food out of old food. Or sometimes she didn’t even try. We’d just have “leftover night” where she would put random bowls of everything we’d eaten earlier in the week, and so it was kind of like a buffet. To this day, I still have a hard time eating leftovers.
It also makes me realize that I’m still in the process of defining what being a home cook means to me. As much as my mom cooked when I was a kid, I was never really that interested in learning how to cook myself, and wasn’t a very good helper in the kitchen. I remember being terrified once when she wanted me to help her brown the ground beef. All I’d ever been good for was grating cheese and shucking corn.
I think the first time I really started to appreciate different food, was when I moved to Hartsville, South Carolina. See, there is seafood in the south. My dad hates fish, so my mom never cooked it. Once a year, if we were lucky, she’d buy a box of breaded shrimp or fish sticks for us kids. It was a big deal. So when I had dinner at my friend Jessie’s parents, her mom made shrimp linguine. It was this delicious pasta dish with shrimp and who knows what else…I’m sure just a mix of heavy cream and parsley and shallots or something, but either way, it was truly unlike anything I’d eaten as a kid, and I loved it. Later on in the year, Jessie and I went to her grandmother’s house for Easter, and her grandmother lives in Charleston. Her uncle had a shrimp boat, and had gone out that morning and caught enough shrimp to feed the whole family for many different kinds of shrimp dishes for Easter dinner. I was in total heaven, and still don’t think I’ve had better shrimp to this day.
From then on, I kept discovering new things to eat, and it helped that I was earning my own money and buying my own groceries. I still didn’t exactly “cook” though. I would order fun stuff when I went out to eat, but still pretty much stuck to grilled cheese and canned soup at home. I moved back to Nebraska in 2003 and discovered Wild Oats market. I bought a lot of sandwiches and pizza and food from their deli. Sometimes I even tried to cook. Well, not really. I’d buy a rotisserie chicken and boil some pasta and pour some jarred alfredo sauce on top, and call it dinner. Not a very healthy or tasty one, but at least I was trying. My roommate Jill could cook, though. She could make rice! And pork chops! And grill a great steak!
Soon, I met the man who I would eventually marry. We’d make some attempts at cooking in his kitchen. I remember a breakfast of pita bread stuffed with scrambled eggs and cilantro. We also made a lot of boxed falafel. The good thing is that he worked at pretty much the only vegetarian restaurant in town, and while neither of us were vegetarians, it did force us to look at food differently. Like, vegetables don’t always have to come out of a can! There are salads without iceberg lettuce! And the smoothies! Anyhow, I started doing most of my shopping at Wild Oats from then on. I had a lot of friends ask how I could afford it, but well, I’d never had a car payment, and I was single splitting rent, so I just didn’t care.
Right before I got married, I started working at Whole Foods, and I’d say this is where the real food evolution came. I got married a month after I started working there, and knew that I didn’t really know how to cook. I used to brag that “I don’t cook, I assemble.” However, being engrossed in the new food culture I found myself in, it was only a matter of time before I started getting confident enough to try my hand at cooking. I think the first thing I was proud of was cooking a chicken in the crock-pot with potatoes and carrots. It tasted like home. The second thing I remember feeling good about was making a barbeque chicken pizza. I even made the dough! Sure, it was a mix from a box, but it still involved yeast! I made some buffalo wings once that almost set our kitchen on fire. At least they were a hit at the Christmas party. Oh, I should probably mention I had the smallest kitchen on earth during this time. One of those tiny stoves, and pretty much zero counter space. I remember rolling out some pie crust on the dining room table.
So then we moved here to NC. I was still working at Whole Foods, and we now had a kitchen about 3 times as big as the one in Nebraska. I started buying actual kitchen appliances and better knives. I got a big dutch oven and a roasting pan. A blender, a good food processor, and a Kitchenaid mixer. A mezzaluna, a magnetic knife holder, microplane zesters and graters. Magazine subscriptions, a growing collection of cookbooks, and some nice heavy bottomed hard anodized pans. I even planted my own herbs.
We live in town with lots of great restaurants and farmers markets. People here love to eat good food, and it’s definitely had an effect on me. So while I’m not my mother and I don’t cook from scratch every day, when I do cook, I love it. I’m much more adventurous now, and am no longer afraid to use yeast. My favorite thing is when my husband really likes what I made.
But I have to say, my favorite things to make are the things that remind me of home. My mom’s chicken and dumpling soup is one of the only things that I look forward to eating the leftovers. And the caramel rolls she made on holidays, while time consuming, are still one of the best pastries I’ve ever made. However, whenever my parents come visit, you can be sure I’m making them Jamaican Jerk Pork Burgers with Bacon, Smoked Cheddar, and Green Apple Slaw. It will blow their minds.