I may not be the world’s worse cook, but I’m pretty close. My new role in life has forced me to try my hand at what some southern men would categorize as women’s work. Most of those men have bumpy heads caused by the direct blunt force trauma of a cast iron frying pan.
Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of men who cook. Some are good at it. I’m good at eating more than I am at getting things ready to eat. This takes thought and preparation and a well-stocked pantry. It also requires that you be able to understand certain recipe code speak.
For example, many recipes use abbreviations, which I am sure have been around for centuries and are understood by most experienced cooks. 1 tsp. salt. If a fella were to read that as “tablespoon”, right after suppertime he might find his heart racing around like a rabbit in heat. Pay attention to the capital Tsp.
Then there are the instructions. Most of these are written by some Kitchen Engineer/Chef person from MIT. Or, wherever greats cooks come from. They use words like chop, dice and slice, which are vague to me. If the meal calls for little, itty-bitty pieces of onion in it, then they should just say so. Men like words that are direct. If I’m supposed to chop onions and dice tomatoes, and slice carrots the results are all going to be the same. Little bitty pieces.
Being prepared to cook is just as important as cooking. I read through Beth’s recipe for Chili a few weeks ago. I loved her Chili. Come the first cold weather of fall, I’m ready for a hot bowl with cheese on top. I knew enough only to know that chili comes from a crock pot.
I did some looking around the spice rack and pantry. I couldn’t find a few of the ingredients, so next time at the grocery store, I had them on my list. A little chili powder. Some of those diced tomatoes in a can, so I won’t have to worry about how to cut them up. Kidney beans. Now, all I need is 12 extra hours in my life to get it all in a crock pot and let it simmer.
There’s a lot of pressure to provide a good meal to eat. A lot of things have changed for me but wanting to eat is not one of them. For a time, friends and family made sure I had plenty of food. I think at one time I had 14 chicken casseroles of one kind or another in my fridge. Then the time came for me to take on the role of cook in my house.
The first thing I did was to sit down with a calendar to map out what I would be eating on which night. I figured that I wouldn’t go overboard. Just one week. It was on a Sunday night, which is usually peanut butter and cracker night. I skipped right on to Monday with pork chops. Tuesday with Lemon pepper chicken. Wednesday with spaghetti. Thursday with meatloaf. And Friday with pizza.
By Tuesday night I was off schedule. The only thing on my calendar that actually happened as planned was pizza on Friday night. I knew then that this was going to be harder than it looked.
I’ve had at least one resounding success since August. One of Beth’s cousins from Oklahoma posted a recipe for baked chicken and dumplings. My eyes got moist just reading about it.
I grew up on chicken and dumplings. It was a staple of my Mama’s kitchen. Honestly, it was rabbit and dumplings more often than not. She’d cook the meat in the pressure cooker. The little weight jiggling on top of the lid, spitting out steam. It was one of those sounds that caused a saliva reflex. I would walk in the door from the back porch, hear that sound and immediately know that something good was about to happen.
Baked chicken and dumplings is not that. But it was easy, even for me. One of the reasons I thought I’d never have dumplings again is that it requires the finesse to make the dough. With this recipe, you just pour everything into a baking dish with the chicken and let the oven take care of the rest. I’m telling you. It was some amount of good. And the leftovers were even better.
My next great failure was cornbread. Beth has this corncob shaped cast iron dish for cooking cornbread. Just like Mama. I don’t believe my wife ever made a bad batch of cornbread. I could be wrong. She burned a few biscuits. But her cornbread was to die for. Crisp crust on the outside. Soft on the inside. Enough butter to choke a horse.
I looked up a recipe in one of her books the other night. Beef stew, cornbread, and Braves game. That’s what I had on my mind. The book was titled Cotton Picking Cookbook. I figured, there’ll be some true southern cornbread in there for sure.
I scoured the pantry for ingredients. The recipe called for enriched cornmeal. I had that on the shelf. Baking soda, check. ¾ tsp. salt, check. Teaspoon dummy, check. One egg, check. When I blended or whisked or stirred vigorously in the mixing bowl, it looked good to me.
I preheated the cast iron in the oven. Put a few drops of grease in each corncob shaped little hollow. The instructions said to bake at 425° for 25 minutes. I checked the clock so I could follow as directed.
The results were a little disappointing. It was crisp. It was light. But it wasn’t like Beth’s cornbread. I realize now that all I had was a white enriched cornmeal. I’m thinking it probably needs to be yellow cornmeal. Not sure. My daughter said to me simply, “Cornbread is hard to get right.”
My only hope is that experience breeds success. I have no ambitions of becoming a true chef like my brother-in-law. He is a superb cook. He designed his kitchen for extraordinary cooking. He understands what it really means to chop or dice, simmer or sauté. All I want to do is to be able to cook the basics.
Every now and then I go down the list of foods in my head that Beth set on the kitchen table over the forty-something years of our marriage. I think, “Dang, I should’ve paid more attention.” I’ll never have her touch. She took notes from her mama and my mama both. My girls and my son called her all the time about how to do things, how to make things without a recipe, and how to get it just right.
Look, I’m not asking for sympathy. Don’t be shedding any tears over my pathetic cornbread. No sir. I’m making progress. I’m not starving. I’ve been to the grocery store at least once and it’s getting easier. I’ll be a real cook one day.
In the meantime, if you know how to make banana pudding, my number is BR549.