Cooking lessons from the South
After spending years venting about TV reality shows, I have finally succumbed. For the last six weeks, I have watched, entranced, while would-be TV chefs got eliminated each week from Food Network’s “Who Will Be The Next Food Network Star?” It’s now down to two, and while I would never be caught dead casting a vote on “American Idol,” I have been voting twice daily for my favorite, a sweet Southern boy who works in a bakery, and I’m thinking of burning candles for him before the final tally this Sunday (Go, Reggie!).Cooking on TV has got to be one of the hardest things to do, next to brain surgery and skiing naked down the Super Pipe at Copper without any alcohol in your bloodstream. Having your own cooking show takes not only skill, dexterity and personality, but a breathtaking level of multi-tasking that can only be compared to, say, driving down I-70 with your feet while playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a Casio keyboard, with five screaming children and a Great Dane having puppies in the back seat. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.Having spent years on the road, I never cooked much. But I ate plenty of exotic foods. I can remember spending seven months in Sweden eating reindeer meat for dinner almost every single night. Unfortunately, this was right around the time of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and reports started leaking out that the Swedish reindeer got contaminated. To this day, I have a doctor in Atlanta who is convinced that I am a victim of Reindeer Nuking, which is hard to explain on a medical insurance form, but would be a rather picturesque, if not rarified, way to go.At the old family homestead in Atlanta, my mother was descended from a long line of non-domestic, non-cooking Southern Belles. This meant that, while the rest of us foraged for food, my mother lived off of strange diets consisting primarily of saltines, fat-free ice cream and Hershey bars. She still does, in fact.This also meant that my Dad did all the grocery shopping (Southern Belles don’t go to the grocery store except to pay social calls.)On my Dad’s days off, he liked to cook spaghetti. This was at a time when no one was doing much cooking at our house, so the kitchen had fallen into some disrepair, inhabited primarily by dogs who slept there, lured by the long-lost scents of days gone by.
It wouldn’t have made for a very good cooking show, unless it was a cross between “The Addams Family” and “Fear Factor.”Episode: Daddy Cooking SpaghettiDad: “Where’s the ground beef I got??Mom: “I put it in the freezer.”Dad: “I was gonna use it!”Mom: “Well, thaw it out!”Dad finds some ground beef in the back of the freezer which is frozen solid. Out of desperation, he nukes it in the microwave.
Strange and terrible odors emerge from the kitchen. Our dog Toby, trying to sleep under the table, emits a low moan.Sibling Chorus: “Daddy! Don’t use that meat! It’s bad!”Dad checks the meat wrapper, which shows an expiration date of five years previous – the last time my mother went to the grocery storeDad throws out ground beef, finds more in back of freezer with a slightly newer date, and hopes for the best.While he’s nuking it, parental argument ensues over whether or not we have any spaghetti. Dad finally finds two packages which have fallen on the floor behind dusty fruit cake tins left over from 1967.Phone rings, and it’s a relative of my father’s who only calls a couple of times a year. Dad leaves platter of meat sitting on high counter next to stove.
Toby suddenly appears. He has been lying low, waiting for this moment all afternoon. Twenty minutes later Daddy returns to stove. Empty platter is lying on the floor, completely intact, licked clean by Toby.Entire process begins again.I like to cook occasionally because back home in Atlanta, no one would eat my cooking. They still won’t. My mother won’t eat it because I put in things like salt, or pepper, or nutmeg – basic spices that have sat unused on the shelves in her house for several decades. I also use egg yolks, which she is convinced will kill you quicker than a hand grenade.Last spring when my husband Tim and I were vacationing with her, I cooked an elaborate Easter dinner for all of us. She came out to the kitchen, looked at my Easter dinner with a look of disdain that only a Southern Belle can muster up (it takes practice), and said, “I’m just gonna boil me some eggs – without eating the yolk, of course.” She did, too, and added a few Hershey bars for that extra burst of protein.That’s why, when I do cook for Tim, I enjoy it. That, and the fact that he does all the cleaning. It is Tim’s contention that when I cook, more food lands on the floor than on the stove, and he is probably right. The reason for this is that I am used to a passel of dogs catching the scraps, which back home constituted for mopping the floor while giving the dogs a tasty between-meal snack. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to culinary multi-tasking.
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