I got started cooking the way most people did. I watched my mom. When I was about 9 or 10, I had a Girl Scout project assignment to cook an entire meal for my family. My mom and I sat down and decided on meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I can’t say for sure what recipe I used, but I’m willing to bet that it was the recipe from “Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook.” I still have that cookbook. Most of the pages are falling out of it and the meat loaf page is very stained and worn.
The first few pages of the cookbook have all kinds of hints for preparing and eating a meal. That’s right … there is even a page covering “Setting the Table,” “Fun at Dinnertime” and “Good Manners at Mealtime.” Re-reading that page, I see that I follow a lot of their suggestions still today. We set the table and take care that it is set correctly, and we stress good manners at the table, unless it’s “elbows on the table night,” which we have sometimes.
When I was growing up, we moved around a bit. My Dad was in the Air Force, and we always lived quite far from my parents’ home state of Iowa. My Mom was the one in who family that kept us from going nuts with all the moving. Each time we moved, she treated it as a new adventure … another chance to learn about the customs and culture of our new location. One of the main ways she did that was through food. When my family and I moved to Indian Land from Minneapolis in 2002, our new friends would sometimes say “bet you don’t get too many grits up there in yankeeland, do you?” Well, the fact of the matter is, a frequent guest at our Saturday morning breakfasts at home was grits. My Dad would cook them up with fried eggs and bacon. I also ate red beans and rice a lot growing up. Along with moussaka (a Greek dish with eggplant), rolladen (a German beef roll) and other ethnic dishes.
I became a cook in my own right after my wedding in 1982. We had no money to speak of. We watched every penny and never did anything for entertainment that cost money. Except grocery shopping. Every other Friday night, my husband and I would go to the grocery store and buy groceries. We worked from a two-week menu and listed every single item, right down to the ketchup. If we were feeling flush, we would each get a “treat,” like a special jar of pickles or a box of brand-name cereal.
It was the menu writing that really got me to try new recipes. I cooked meals for four to six people, even though there were only two of us, because then we would have leftovers for lunches. We could not afford to buy our lunches. Each day I would come home and make a full meal of two or three items – usually a main dish and vegetable side, maybe a starch too. Every Sunday night we ate at my parent’s house. It saved money, and my Mom and I would cook together most of the time.
I still jot down a sketchy menu before I go to the grocery store. Now I go once a week so I can take advantage of any specials that are running and so my produce is fresher. From May to November, I also get a half-bushel of organic produce from Sammy Koenigsberg, a farmer in Wesley Chapel, NC. He grows a wide variety of veggies for some restaurants in Charlotte and also has about 24 of us “shareholders” that reap what he sows. I’m never quite sure what is going to show up in the box from farmer Sammy, although I can make fairly good predictions based upon the season. But it is this box of goodies that continues to stretch my culinary talents. It’s from the farmer that I learned how to roast garlic, make basil pesto, and sauté greens with olive oil and garlic, tossing them with hot spaghetti with for a magnificent lunch.
My philosophy on eating is that everything deserves to be tried at least once. And so my philosophy on cooking is that food should be prepared in such a way as to make people want to taste it. It’s always easier to taste food that is not intimidating or ugly.
And now for the bombshell. There is one food that I have left behind. It is lima beans. I’m telling you … no matter how many times I’ve tried them, I haven’t found any that I’ve liked. If there are a couple in my food, like in a stew or a pot pie, that’s one thing. But if there is a pile of limas on my plate, I’m likely to leave them behind. A friend of mine says I just haven’t had them prepared the right way yet. So if you have a lima bean recipe that you think I should try, send it on in to the newspaper. I’ll try it. I’ll try anything.