I used to be a pretty good cook. I sautéed shrimp scampi. I filled crepes suzette. I spread two-layer heart-shaped cakes with chocolate frosting, the cake and the frosting both made from scratch. I made everything that way – buttermilk pancakes, French baguettes, banana cream pie.
My first mother-in-the law gave me her recipe for lasagna. Before you think, eh, I make that all the time, let me point out that rather than just frying the ground beef in a pan with some onion and then layering it with the noodles and cheese, this recipe requires making meatballs of ground pork, ground beef, numerous herbs, and cracker crumbs, then frying them until uniformly browned and crusty. Then – get this – you break them into pieces to layer with the noodles and cheese. I’m surprised it didn’t call for creating the ricotta in the home kitchen, something I would have done, since the stuff you find in the store is nothing to write home about.
After I left my first husband and became a working single mother for twenty years, I continued to cook, giving in to my children’s pleas for McDonald’s or Long John Silver’s only when I was a) exhausted or b) out of ideas. This brings to mind my long-suffering mother, who would stand in front of the cupboard calling out, “What do you want for dinner? I’ll make anything if you just tell me what you want!” Boy, could I relate.
Study after study tells us that the family that eats home-cooked food together, around a table at home, is not only healthier but also more well-adjusted. The kids, that is; I have no idea what it does for the parents, although one would hope it’s good for everyone. We did that, most of the time, and – although this is not the point of this week’s sermon – we did it without television and without cell phones. Cell phones had yet to be invented, and while we had a TV, I couldn’t bear even hearing it yammer during mealtimes.
Even in my family of origin (Mom, Dad, sister, me), where conversation was never scintillating, we only dined while watching TV when “The Wizard of Oz” was on. I have fond memories of those nights, when the meal never varied – Campbell’s tomato soup made with milk and, on the side, chunks of Velveeta and saltine crackers, all served on TV trays in the living room.
Even after my divorce, I had so many cookbooks, the kitchen had a bookcase of its own. For just me and the kids, though, I kept things simple, though still homemade. Macaroni and cheese. Beef and barley soup. Browned pork chops with, okay, applesauce from a jar, the chunky kind with cinnamon and too much sugar.
I have often told my second husband, Bob, that had he not come along after the kids left home, I would have subsisted on popcorn and chocolate. I mean, really, what’s the point? Work still left me weary, and all I really wanted to do at the so-called dining table, once I began occupying it alone, was to read. I never stooped to frozen dinners or boxed mixes, except for Stouffers’ frozen creamed chipped beef, which I love, served on toast, for inexplicable reasons. With no one in the house to answer my plaintive cry of, “Tell me what you want! I’ll make anything!” cooking lost its appeal.
Now, though, I not only have a husband (who does most of the cooking, unless we’re having guests and I feel like pulling out a cookbook to feed them something special) but also a church that holds potluck suppers and picnics now and then.
Which is why you would have found me, a few weeks ago, scouring the shelves of my favorite fruit mart in Madison, crestfallen to learn that Michigan blueberry season was ending, and what remained were highly overpriced, in tiny cartons. The fact that I’d misread the recipe and thought I needed four-and-a-half cups rather than one-and-a-half didn’t help; at that rate, the lemon-blueberry Bundt cake I had planned would have cost sixteen dollars for the fruit alone. I love my congregation, but if I want to give that much, it’s better placed in the collection basket.
Back home, I found less precious berries, and put the cake together. Since it had been a while (last Christmas) since I’d baked a cake, and since a Bundt cake I’d made a few years ago stuck to the pan and came out looking like the cat had gotten into it, I followed the instructions as if my junior high Home Ec teacher were standing behind me. The timer rang, the tester came out dry, and I let it cool as instructed.
Then I turned it out of the pan. Oh my. Talk about a hot mess. All the berries, which were apparently overripe, had sunk to the bottom, which was now the top. There was also a center layer that looked like lemon glue, although it tasted okay.
I wish I could say we went to the picnic anyway, bearing chips and salsa from the store, but by then I was too depleted to do anything but bemoan my failing skills while eating a few pieces dipped in lemon-flavored icing. I heard later that everybody had brought bean salad. They might have welcomed my funny-looking cake. Of course they would have. A potluck is not an episode of “Top Chef,” and cooking for friends is not a competition. It’s a good lesson to have learned as the holiday season ramps up: Calm down, and if it tastes good, eat it.