Lessons From a Lifetime of Cooking

My mom didn’t teach me how to cook. She taught me something more important.

My mother was an indifferent cook. She put nutritious meals on the table every night, but she didn’t find it interesting or satisfying in any way. What she liked to make most were simple baked dishes. Anything she could put together, slide into the oven, and walk away from was ideal. We ate a lot of casseroles.

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Mom’s real passion was sewing. Since my siblings and I liked wearing custom-made clothing, as teenagers, we took over the kitchen so Mom could stay in her sewing room.

With the kids in charge of the cooking, bland casseroles gave way to stir-fries, slow-cooked meats with fresh herbs, and complex pasta dishes. Given free reign of the kitchen, my siblings and I have all become excellent, self-taught chefs.

Even all these years later, after cooking countless meals for my own family, I’m still picking up new ideas. Here are three things I’ve learned this year.

1.Most cookbooks are aspirational, not instructive. I’ve bought a lot of cookbooks. Some of them I’ve only used once. But I’ve learned that it’s perfectly okay to look through gorgeous illustrated recipes for French cuisine and then cook a simple stew. If the cookbook got me into the kitchen, it’s done its job.

2.  No two loaves of bread are ever the same. I recently learned to bake artisan bread and it’s changed my life. It’s the only bread my family eats, I bring it to every potluck, and it’s my go-to thank you gift. With this one recipe, I feel like I’ve been given the cheat code for life. But I’ve also learned that effort and outcome are two different things. I’ve baked gorgeous loaves worthy of a magazine photo. I’ve also baked misshapen lumps, flat bread where I wanted puffy, and high-rising tall loaves where I wanted focaccia. They were all delicious, but every time I put the dough in the oven, I cross my fingers that I’ll get the results I was working toward.

3. When cooking a new recipe, always have a special dessert, in case it flops. Cupcakes always work. Not the grocery store ones, but the really fancy ones that come from the specialty store and look too pretty to eat. You bust those out after dinner and everyone will forget the curry that tasted like dirty socks.

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These lessons all have one thing in common: acceptance. You can only control so much. At some point, you have to let go and let the heat do the work, trusting it will be okay. And that you’ll survive if it’s not.

That’s one thing my mom did well. Most of the time, her recipes turned out just fine. But when they didn’t, it never bothered her. She had so little of herself invested in the outcome, she could take a Zen approach to it all.

A tiny bit of my heart still breaks when I spend hours on a meal only to have the roast turn into a chewy brick and the vegetables become a bland mush. But it helps to remember how lucky we are to have this food, and it helps to think of my mom, to know that one kitchen fail doesn’t mean much in a lifetime of cooking.

Especially if there are cupcakes for dessert.

About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories under her own name and near-future thrillers under the pen name M.H. Mead. Her characters never eat casseroles.

 

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