If I never cook again, it will be too soon. But, because I haven’t yet won the lottery and hired a personal chef, I’m forced to continue feeding my family. Luckily, I married a man who also cooks. For years, I credited both Flash and me with ensuring our son, Cowboy, didn’t starve. After all, he was dependent on us to cook his meals and prepare his snacks. Until he started high school.
“Cowboy is more independent in the kitchen than our seniors are,” one of his teachers told me a few weeks after his freshman year began. I was stunned. She responded to my look with, “That’s right, Mom. He’s been playing you. He can fix his own food, but he’ll let you do the work as long as you keep doing it.” I suppose he taught himself, as a survival tactic. After that great revelation, I told him to fix his own after-school snacks and help prepare dinner.
My disdain for cooking has grown through the years. When I was a child, it was fun. My friend Rose gave me a cookbook for kids, and my specialty was tuna casserole, complete with crumbled potato chips on top. But cooking was enjoyable only because it was optional. When I was single, it wasn’t so bad. Alone in my apartment, I’d crank up the music and experiment with different recipes. There were no other demands, no time constraints. Only the growling of my own stomach hastened me to create in my kitchen. But after marriage and kids, it became a necessary evil. The world harshly judges a mother who doesn’t feed her children.
Mom has said many times, in referring to cooking, “Just because you don’t like to do something, doesn’t mean you can’t.” Indeed. And she did it well for many decades. The family has raved about their favorite Mom/Grandma meals. Cherokee Casserole, Beef Bechamel, Smothered Steak, Shrimp Creole, the Best Pork Chops in the World, Perfectly Broiled Steaks, and Fried Chicken. And the Ultimate Mom-Cooked Dish: Beef Curry. There is no other like Beef Curry. The tender chunks of meat, the greenish, thick gravy. I can taste it now. Excuse me, dear reader, while I wipe the drool from my keyboard.
For decades, I frequently called Mom for help while I was cooking. Repeatedly, my questions of “How much salt do you use?” and “How long do you cook that in the oven?” were met with answers of “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t measure - just a pinch.” Or “Until it looks done.” Dad had cooked the same way, and I carried on the habit of concocting meals without writing down how I did it. It’s why my meatloaf tastes different every time I make it.
But several years ago, Mom started measuring ingredients and creating recipes for all our favorite dishes, so we could cook them too. When she had a hemorrhagic stroke last January, the doctor in the ER posed a question to me as Mom was lying in the other room.
“Your mom has had a significant bleeding stroke. The part of the brain affected was the area of balance. It could get better, or it could not. Do you want to let your mom fade, or do you want us to stop the bleeding?”
What a question. Life and death in the form of one little question.
“That’s her decision,” I answered. “She’s of sound mind.” We walked over to Mom, and I explained what had happened and what her choice was.
In true Mom form, she replied, “I want to stop the bleeding. I still have some things to do.” One of those things was finishing her cookbook, Recipes Old and New from Hither and Yon (and Points in Between). She finished it last month, both as hard copy and in electronic files, so all her family members can own a copy.
Included in her book are plenty of baking recipes. But, dear reader, my dislike of cooking is trumped by my boredom with baking. The thrill (overstated) of having meat in the oven while pots on the stove are filled with three different kinds of side dishes far surpasses making cookies. Or baking a cake. With each cake I bake, I use a giant redwood supply of toothpicks to check doneness before finally, magically, one of them comes out with no crumbs on it. Baking is too time-consuming, with too much down time. What is there time to do in the 8 to 10 minutes of each batch of cookies baking to a golden brown? Pie crust edges are a force to be reckoned with as I risk third-degree burns while trying to cover them with strips of aluminum foil, as the pie nears doneness, so they won't burn. Cakes fall. Brownies crumble. It’s too much pressure.
Unless, of course, it’s a candy recipe. Every year, when a Houston October drops the outside temperature to a balmy 80 degrees, my mind goes to Christmas and all things candy.
For many years, my brother, Doc, carried on the candy-making tradition in the family. One or two days before Christmas, he'd make fudge and sometimes, the more difficult delicacy, divinity. I adore that fudge; if it made a substantial living and could take out the trash, yes, I’d marry that fudge. When I was a kid, I thought it was Mom’s special recipe; when I was old enough to handle the truth, she told me it was the recipe on the Jet Puff Marshmallow Cream jar. Chocolate. With pecans. As fudge should be. I was glad to know the rest of the world had access to the Best Fudge in the World.
The secret to making candy is patience. Our method for making those heavenly chocolate squares was by using a double broiler; we melted chocolate in a stainless steel pot that fit on top of another pot containing boiling water. The heat from below melted the chocolate above. We had to stir continuously to prevent scorching. Because scorched chocolate is a cardinal sin.
When I was 25, I was ready to challenge the King of Candy, Doc. It was time to topple him from his throne. I methodically followed all the steps of the recipe – thankfully a recipe that included all needed measurements. I was rewarded with fudge that was as good as Doc’s. Then, it was time to go to bigger things; real proof of my skill would be in the divinity.
The next day, I gathered the ingredients. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that the sky was overcast. Divinity is a fickle candy, and a cloudy sky can turn a beautiful fluffy white morsel into an albino pancake. The air was humid; the mood was tense. I was undaunted and continued on, despite the trickle from the skies morphing into a downpour.
My reputation was at stake. My efforts were for all the little sisters of the world who live in the shadow of Masters of the Candy Universe. With tender loving care, I spooned mounds of sticky candy onto wax paper. I couldn't bear to watch them set, as the rain continued to pour. I left the room to watch TV, pretending all was normal in the kitchen. Would they flatten out? Would I be a failure, forced into years of therapy for my confectionery transgressions? And worse yet, years of Doc’s gloating?
With trepidation, I peeked around the corner every few minutes, as if the candies might spy me and melt right then, out of spite. Those alabaster blobs were aptly named - I was counting on the intervention of Divinity for my success.
And my prayers were answered. There they were, perfect, with little peaks on top.
Right after my first ecstatic bite, I called Doc. "I made divinity."
"Oh yeah?" He was playing it cool, but I could smell fear through the phone.
"It turned out perfect."
"And it's pouring down rain."
You could hear a rolling pin drop. But I could hear his mind trying to figure out how my flawless debut had happened. I waited patiently while he brushed his tears off his fallen, candy-coated ego.
"Well, I still make the best fudge." Okay, he can have the fudge gold medal. By my conceding that, he’ll still be the one to go to the trouble of making it each year.
The next move made in the Battle of the Baking was Doc’s. He called to tell me he was eating The Cake, to taunt me. Or my husband. Both Doc and Flash have had long-term love affairs with Mom's cake that she used to make every Christmas, Thanksgiving, and sometimes for one of their birthdays. When one of them found out the other had The Cake without both of them there, you could slice the jealousy with a knife. The bottom layer is heavy yellow cake, the next is powdered sugar, cream cheese, and Cool Whip, and the third is chocolate pudding. On top of the pudding layer is more Cool Whip sprinkled with chocolate shavings from a Hershey bar. My sister-in-law, Elly May, and I know we rate second to that 1,000-calorie-per-bite indulgence. The multiple pieces the gluttonous husbands carve out for themselves could feed a third-world village. Of course, the villagers wouldn't sleep for a week from the sugar buzz, but they'd be full.
One day, when I was whining to Mom that I needed some Beef Curry for my next birthday, she mentioned that her Chicken Gumbo was Doc’s favorite. Hmm. I’d done well with candy making; perhaps it was time to graduate to the cooking competition. Since Doc holds the title for Best Grilled Steaks in the History of Ever, I steered clear of large chunks of meat cooked over an open fire. But gumbo, I could do. It would be a challenge to match Mom’s, but I had to start somewhere. Before I’d finished my first bowl of gumbo, I dialed Doc.
“Guess what I’m eating.”
“The Cake?” he guessed.
“No. I don’t want to work that hard. It’s your favorite non-dessert recipe that Mom makes.”
"You made chicken gumbo?"
“How was it?"
"It’s great. Mmmm. I’m eating it right now. It’s as good as Mom's." It takes a lot of confidence to make that kind of claim.
"Um hmm. Jealous?"
“No,” Doc answered, but I heard his voice break.
That was the only move made towards our first Great American Siblings Cook-Off. I’m still waiting for Doc to make a move; I guess he got scared. With the holidays coming soon, the possibility of more competitions would be great news for my family; they’re tired of grilled chicken and burgers. I need the added challenge, to make preparing food for my family less painful. Even though miles separate me and Doc, we could freeze samples of our entries for the next time we’re together, and family members could vote. If they’re smart, they’ll declare it a tie, so we’ll both keep cooking for subsequent holidays.
Ready, Doc? Start your oven.