I recall, with a certain amount of culinary chagrin, the first real meal I ever cooked. I’m not counting assembling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, toasting Pop Tarts or microwaving Campbell’s Beef and Barley Soup. I’m talking about real cooking with real knives, measuring cups, whisks, ovens and the like.
It was the summer of 1977. My bestie Kim and I had a lot of time but not an abundance of ingredients on our hands. And we were too young to drive—legally. Kim had been skillfully zipping us around the neighborhood in her dad’s car long before the state formally sanctioned her to do so, but we weren’t so daring that we were willing to risk a trip all the way down Windsor Spring to the Big Star on Peach Orchard Road. Instead we scoured my mother’s cookbooks for a recipe we could prepare that did not require a trip to the grocery store. We settled on bologna noodle casserole. Seven ingredients. How hard could it be? Despite following the recipe judiciously, we ended up with a concoction so foul that even my family’s voracious little poodle would not sup upon it.
In Recipe for Success, Gary Allen describes a recipe as a “set of instructions that permits a reasonably competent cook” to produce a dish. Competence was an ingredient Kim and I failed to bring to our early adventures in the kitchen. Competence...and a mother with a smartphone.
Last week, I was privy to a “textversation” between Marian and Liza, our American airman, who was attempting to recreate Marian’s curry chicken salad in an unequipped kitchen in base housing. This is a young woman capable of explaining the science behind the natural forces that cause the weather. What a temperature inversion is, how thunder is made, what the isobars on a weather map mean—any minute detail relating to temperature, humidity, air pressure, air density, clouds, precipitation and wind. But she still needs her momma in
Their text exchange went something like this (emojis not included).
Liza: Do you just throw this crap in a bowl until it is the right ratio or do you have some rough measurements?
Marian: What specifically are you having a problem with?
L: Do I drain the chicken? I haven’t even started because I’m scared. How much onion is too much?
M: Drain chicken, yes. I squeeze liquid out with the lid. u
L: Can I cut up a whole entire onion and then just put it in a Ziploc bag instead of always cutting up more pieces of a smaller and smaller onion?
M: Yes, you can do all that. I’d probably use a quarter cup of onion.
L: I don’t have cups. Is that a quarter of an onion? Should I break up the sliced almonds or are they good whole?
M: How about a cupped palm full.
L: OK sweet.
M: Leave almonds intact or they will turn to dust.
M: Same amount craisins and almonds as onions.
M: Maybe a tablespoon of curry powder. And enough mayo to make you know. And don’t over stir or you get cat food.
L: I go chop onions now. I have spicy curry powder and regular. Whatchoo think is better?
M: Ooooo you have to ask??? Spicy! And a little salt.
[ 20 minutes later ]
L: Yup. And it’s not cat food.
Had SMS messaging existed in 1977, Kim and I might have averted our casserole disaster. But we wouldn’t have learned a very valuable lesson...that a recipe is a lot like a map. You can clearly see what it will take to get you where you’re going, but there are many opportunities to lose your way en route to the final destination.
I’ve become much better at spotting potential pitfalls since then. I’ve successfully flipped frittatas, baked a respectable triple-layer strawberry cake and roasted Hatch peppers over a roaring flame in my quest for the perfect pot of green chile stew. I earned an advanced degree in gastronomy. And Madame Editor pays me American dollars to peck out this column a dozen or so times every year.
Kim rallied as well. She skillfully grills steaks, fries chickens and stuffs pork chops. She married into a dynasty of butchers, which explains her meat centric culinary perspective. Kim, we’ve come a long way since our daily dose of frozen crinkle cut fries and grape Kool-Aid. And we’re not the only ones who recovered from early kitchen disasters.
Danielle Wong Moores is the Dine & Dish columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. As a child, she spent a lot of time baking with her Aunt Dot, following recipes from a wonderful old illustrated Betty Crocker Cookbook. Here’s her story:
“We were definitely a rice family, but somehow I became enamored of homemade bread so decided that I was going to bake a loaf. I remember feeling very important as I bought the yeast since it was a ‘special’ ingredient. And everything seemed to go right until the bread was actually in the oven. The darn thing wouldn’t rise and stayed stubbornly white even though I left it in the oven for way longer than I was supposed to! I brushed it with melted butter, which added some color, but basically, I made a hard white brick of baked flour. I haven’t tried to bake bread since!”
She’s not the only Augusta Chronicle columnist who got off to a rocky start. Even Karin Gage Calloway, of Quick Cooking fame, took some time to earn her culinary chops.
“When I was first married and moved to Augusta, I definitely had my share of mishaps. The first time we invited another couple to dinner I made a chocolate chip cheesecake. I didn’t have a spring form pan so I made it in a standard pie pan. When it came out of the oven I tried to invert it out of the pan as you would a cake. I ended up with half a cheesecake down the front of my ‘interview suit.’ I had a job interview earlier that day. The suit was cream colored, so the chocolate chips were a real problem!”
Calloway also had a challenging first Thanksgiving. “I was on the phone with my mother and mother-in-law practically the whole day,” she recalls. “I overstuffed the turkey, so my dressing was shaped like a football and required a knife to cut it. My gravy was so lumpy I had to put it in the blender to make it consumable.”
Conversely, there are some among us who were born to the kitchen, always at ease by the cook top. Chef Dave McCluskey was a self-described latchkey kid who patiently waited for his working mother to return home in the evenings to prepare dinner for the family. One day, his hunger got the best of him.
“I was 10 and a growing young lad when I decided that I’d secretly cook myself some French toast with my granddad’s Adirondack maple syrup,” he tells me. “This went on several times a week for several months...me having two dinners and my mother none the wiser... until I got caught cooking roasted chicken breasts for myself. The same ones we were going to have that night for dinner! I was banished to only being allowed to use the toaster oven after that.”
Chef McCluskey is using much more than the toaster oven these days as he prepares heirloom pork shoulder morsels, Spanish-style roasted garlic soup, wild caught caramelized shrimp and artisan pizzas at Taste, the inviting tapas and wine bar in Hammond’s Ferry.
I wonder what he could do with bologna and noodles.