Pim Techamuanvivit of the blog Chez Pim made a resonant point on her facebook page recently. She said:
“It annoys me every time I hear someone say “I’m a self-taught cook/chef/whatever”. There is no such thing. You learn from SOMEONE, via books or eating or other experiences. Be grateful to those who came before you and acknowledge that lineage.”
Often I hear that cooks, food-lovers, even food-writers are “self-taught”. In fact, I am guilty of claiming autodidacticism in my own culinary trajectory. I have come to realize that it is important to acknowledge what made me who I am so that I can build a better future-me. This is the age-old dilemma with history repeating itself. If we don’t look back and appreciate what made us learn, leap and fail, we’ll never succeed to our fullest.
Here are some of my decisive kitchen moments in the early years.
It starts with one story that some of you have heard before. It involves me, my best friend Slobber, and his untimely demise. As you may know, when I was little, my father moved our biracial family to an extremely small town in Idaho from the suburb of LA, California where we had been living. My dad is white, but my mom and her two children from a previous marriage are black. I am not adopted, in case you were wondering, I just happened to get most of my dad’s coloring. I like to think that I inherited nice lips and supple nipples from my mom’s side, but that’s about it.
The town my dad chose to live out his farmer/rancher fantasy is called Mountain Home, and as the cow tips, it’s mere bleating distance from another populous with the best name in all of America, Dickshooter, Idaho. I won’t go so far as to call the people residing in Mountain Home in the early 1980’s prejudiced, I just think they had no idea what to make of such a strange family. Consequently, we were largely left alone.
My brother and sister returned to their father in California within a few years, but not before my brother endured a brief stint as a Boy Scout. One of my favorite things to show people who haven’t met my family is a photo of my brother with his Boy Scout troop. I always ask them to pick him out, and inevitably they point to the blond boys, then the redheads, increasingly-growing agitated, until I put them out of their misery and show them Ernie. Then they become very, very confused. And I explain, but it still does not compute. Sometimes I have to lift my shirt and show them my nipples before they realize I am serious. And crazy.
As the girl who wore pants under her dresses and had a technicolor family, I didn’t have many friends. I conjured an imaginary one called Sally, but when she pushed me into the gravel while I was riding my BMX and trying to balance a make-believe ice cream cone with 31 scoops, I kicked her to the curb. I still have the scar on my knee to prove it.
One spring, we got a baby cow and I named him Slobber. I bottle-fed him and we became fast friends. When the ducks would pick on him, I’d puff up my little naked chest (I thought I was a boy until I was about 10, so I always went shirtless) and run at them until they backed off. The ducks ruled the ranch, but Slobber and I were a close second, at least when we were together. I snuck him food off my dinner plate and we went on long walks at dusk plotting our futures. I yearned to bring him to show-and-tell at preschool each week, but my evil parents wouldn’t let me make the five-mile walk to school with a cow in tow.
Toward the end of summer, I went to visit family in California for a few weeks. On the evening of my return, my dad said we were having hamburgers to celebrate my homecoming.
“But Linda,” he said, “it’s important that you understand where these burgers came from. Do you know?”
After a moment of hesitation, I answered confidently, “McDonalds”. He shook his head.
“The store?” I ventured, timid and perplexed.
“No, Linda, the hamburgers we’re eating tonight came from Slobber. We butchered him while you were away.” And with that the air escaped my little body and tears pooled in my eyes.
I did not eat dinner that night. I cried in my room and tried to make sense of it. No one had ever explained why we kept all the animals. I had never seen anything killed, didn’t understand the connection between growing it and eating it. It was a missed opportunity for a very good lesson.
Instead, I became vegetarian, which I maintained until my early 20’s. During that time, eating wasn’t easy. My parents rebelled against my rebellion, refusing to alter the split pea soup and ham hocks or meat loaf that were a part of our weekly rotation in hopes that they could coax me out of my “silly” fad. I’m not sure how they viewed it as a fad, given the fact that we lived in BFE and I’d never even heard of vegetarianism before, but they persisted in their adult-onset rebellion and so did I.
The truth is, my accomplished PhD of a mother can’t even make macaroni and cheese from a box. I learned that a few months ago when I was busy with an unfinished modernist cooking extravaganza and I knew it wouldn’t be done in time to feed to Bentley. I asked her to make him a box of organic mac and cheese, and she hesitated, but soldiered on. I didn’t think to keep my eye on her, but before long, she asked me why it wasn’t thickening. She said, “I added the macaroni, cheese packet, butter and milk to the boiling water, but it doesn’t look right. I think you bought a bad box”.
Indeed, all of the ingredients were swirling around in a dervish of boiling water and it became hilariously-clear how I’d learned my way around the kitchen. It was a matter of cook or starve. Sure, I’d gleaned the art of noodle-making from my German grandfather and learned to poke holes in pound cake so that the lemon glaze seeps in from Great-Aunt Ruth, but the hard and fast cooking was a study in failures during the early years.
In fourth grade, my parents left the house for a few hours and I took it upon myself to make pancakes. I’d done it before, but someone always fetched the frying pan off the high shelf. This time, I opted for the glass pie pan in the lower cabinet because it was light and reachable. All the while I was smugly praising my own cleverness- “why would they grab such a heavy pan, anyway? Dummies.” I thought.
I learned the answer, and a valuable cooking lesson.
The pie pan splintered into batter-soaked shards and I was left with a dangerous mess to clean up and a quickly-ticking clock. They were due home soon. I’d been grounded the week before for spending my entire allowance on candy to give to non-existent homeless people should I find them, and I wasn’t going to add to my sentence.
I moved swiftly. The proper way to clean up a literal hot mess is by shovel. While the blackened, cakey stalactites of glass cooled from the pahoehoe stage to the magma stage, I thrust my shovel into the dewy dirt in the backyard. I made a pie pan tomb and tossed the shards in one-by-one. I said a burial prayer wishing for tutelage in the great arts of safe pancake-making, and I hastily shrouded the unmarked grave in autumn leaves.
I got away with my crime.
Shortly thereafter, Mollie Katzen came into my life. Well, her book, The Moosewood Cookbook did, anyway. The Moosewood, with its quaint illustrations and hand-lettered recipes, became an anthem of my early teen years. How many kids do you know who hosted dinner parties in junior high? Well I did, and the recipes came from The Moosewood. Mollie championed me with her encouraging notes about “accessible and nonmysterious” sauces, and so I cooked for my friends and they rarely noticed the food was vegetarian.
I learned the basics from that book and it inspired me to get back to my true love in the kitchen, which was experimentation. If Mollie suggested peanuts in sauce, I’d use cashews. I started by changing one ingredient, and if that worked, I’d change two, three, then four. Soon, I was springboarding from The Moosewood into my own bona fide recipes.
They weren’t sophisticated, but they were mine. And Mollie Katzen gave me the nudge I needed to be able to do it. I pulled out my utterly-battered copy of The Moosewood for the sake of this post, and I found one of my own Mollie-inspired early recipes tucked inside. It’s for “Super Deluxe Good Yummy Amazing Dynamic Cookies”. Can you believe those terrible layered adjectives? I even illustrated it with little brown and orange blobs which I’m sure I meant to be cookies but in fact look like vomit-speckled chef’s hats.
I had to make the cookies, just to see what a day in the life of Linda was like back in the early 90’s. You know what? They aren’t half bad; maybe a little H.I.T. (hippie-in-training) for my current taste, but pretty good. Note how I suggested “optional ingredients” but stipulated that “you must use some”. And the brackets? Good call. I also admitted to short-cutting- bad, bad Linda. I said “chill dough in refrigerator for several hours, or freeze for 15 minutes, realistically”. I’ve since discovered that cheating on a recipe only weakens the final product.
One thing I learned from being a vegetarian for many years is the art of experimentation. When you don’t have basics like meat stock-driven mother sauces to anchor your recipes, you are forced to get creative. You must extract flavor from things omnivores sometimes overlook. In order to balance your compositions, you stretch, skew, and learn a wholly different set of fundamentals. When I added meat to my repertoire, I had a lot of catching up to do, but at least I did it with some outlying tricks already up my sleeve.
I’d love to hear who or what has inspired you to take up your spatulas and turn on your immersion circulators. It’s probably been a long journey, but do you have a particularly enigmatic moment or teacher who catapulted you into the kitchen? Drop a comment and let me know.