Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cooking really does Suck

I can’t cook. Pure and simple. Plus I hate it.
Thirty years ago I decided honor my parent’s anniversary with a partially home-baked cake, choosing Duncan Hines’ yellow mix for the base unit, topped with what I imagined to be made-from-scratch fudge frosting, worthy of my long-married, oft-suffering parents.
The suffering parts were due to the misbehaviors of their two teen-aged daughters, me and Sister Sandy, two years younger, who Mama says made her hair turn gray and gave her two blue bags beneath her eyes. Nothing like Crisco and sugar icing to make up for coming home drunk one night and passing out as Mama lectured on the dangers of drinking and how it could lead to an assortment of societal ills, including and foremost, unwanted pregnancy and life in a series of low-income rentals and trailer parks.
Guilt is why I didn't buy the icing already prepared, even though common sense would tell a 15-year-old kitchen virgin she has no business baking or topping anything whipped up from scratch.
I spent most of an entire morning working on this debut cake, and the house smelled like a bakery in high gear, giving off that warm, fuzzy everything-is-wonderful-in-life feeling. All was going beautifully until I scanned the recipe and found it called for three egg whites.
“Egg whites?” I turned toward my 13-year-old sister who followed me like a little puppy into every situation but trouble.
“The shell, moron,” she said and stuck out her giant front teeth the dentist kept promising her face would grow into. “Anybody could figure that one out.”
This didn’t seem right. “I don't think you’re supposed to stick the shells in with the sugar and Crisco, are you? I’ve never had a cake with eggshells in it.”
“Well, what other part is white? I told you to buy the canned icing. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
I did some thinking. If I hard-boiled the eggs, then I'd have a more edible egg white, and such was the route we took, followed by de-yoking and chopping the whites into the icing mixture. We were dismayed to see marshmallow-like lumps poking through the chocolate icing as we frosted the cake, and in the end, we trashed the eggy abomination and bought a Sara Lee.
Thirty years have passed and not much has changed in my kitchen. Often I find myself sitting at the rectangular oak table, once again choking on my own cooking, holding the Ragu-splattered recipe in hand and wondering, “Where did I go wrong?” Why is it the recipe never turns out for me, even though I read the directions to a T?
These rare forays into the kitchen typically occur when I tire of the cafeteria life and that prison-guard barking of one forced to choose a meat way too fast for the brain to register. It is on those occasions I produce my little-used Bi-Lo Bonus Card, go shopping and prepare optimistically for a normal meal: a meat and two vegetables. Sounds so simple.
I will, at this time, acknowledge that some women (and men) purely enjoy cooking, and may God love them and reward them in Heaven with top-of-the-line cookware and 24-hour access to the Food Network. The rest of us want to get on with our lives and are looking for the easiest ways out while still remaining alive and fairly healthy.
We’d rather not spend two hours a day over our ranges and sinks, unless someone special is coming for dinner and I’ve yet to meet anyone that special. I will, however, watch and enjoy the sassy cooking shows and vicariously produce major feasts courtesy of Emeril and Rachael Ray. I also love reading recipes in cookbooks and magazines, dreaming of the day I might actually concoct something that resembles the photographs of the delectable dishes.
This is as far as it usually as far as it goes unless a carcass that will fit in my Crock Pot is on sale at Bi-Lo. That’s not really even cooking since all you have to do is Stop, Drop and Roll it in salt and pepper, maybe add some chicken broth or Lipton Onion Soup mix and voila! The family’s happier than a preacher sneaking Bud Lites during a Dinner on the Grounds.
The good thing is, with Crock Pots, you can throw in raw and even unwashed, unpeeled vegetables and they come out tasting pretty good. If some potato grit ends up in someone’s mouth, you can pretty much be sure they’ll just think they chipped a tooth.
Whoever invented the Crock Pot gadget deserves the Nobel Peace prize. Maybe he or she can share it with the Tuna Helper inventor. More on the utter joys of Tuna Helper later.
On a recent night when I attempted a meal from ingredients on hand, my family mostly stared at the barely recognizable platter plop and pushed the dried-up, parched lasagna around on their plates.
An hour later I heard my husband pouring a bowl of Total, and it was then I decided not to cook from recipes again, but to remain loyal to those tried-and-true food companies that never let me down: Tuna Helper, Banquet, Stouffer's, Campbell's, Pillsbury and Betty Crocker.
I’ve learned how to take a tacky pre-made or boxed meal and class it up with cheese and a colorful side dish, one you don’t have to cook, such as a fan of raw fruits and vegetables. If you can draw a fan shape, you can arrange the carrots and strawberries (or any other fruits and vegetables) in this very fashion.
I’ve tried many times to evoke homemade smells in the home, going as far as putting a pan of butter and onions on the burner, letting them sizzle and spread that five-star restaurant aroma throughout the house. One can only smell a kitchen full of Taco Bell or KFC for so long.
The neighbors can see, too, if you’re always coming home with take-out and fast food bags, and they will talk behind your back no matter how Christian and decent you might think they are. In the South, and probably parts all over the world, being willing and able to cook remains a standard by which some measure decency.
This is one reason it’s a good idea to at least perfect a few doable recipes, such as a cake with chocolate icing, minus the egg whites.
It is my belief that anybody can learn to cook, and if not, he or she can at least get by without starving or completely toppling the government’s guideline and food pyramid. We can, with a few simple tricks, fool people into believing we know our way around a range and four burners and aren’t chained and locked to the microwave and Crock Pot.
I decided to write this book – a wild collection of food-related stories, culinary missteps, and dining disasters, including recipes at the end of each chapter - for all of my fellow cooking virgins, women who if given a winning lottery ticket, would hire a personal chef first and foremost.
Those things we once wished for: the hot boyfriend who used to be a Hollister model, the old man with a trust fund and weakening pig-valve heart, the tummy tuck and personal relationship with a discount plastic surgeon, would march silently behind the desire for magical skills from a personal chef, one who would do all our chopping, dicing, blanching, parching and poaching. He would also shop for the right ingredients and understand how to read recipes or deliver his own scrumptious signature dishes. It goes without saying we’d lose weight and look wonderful due to the combination of his ingredients, our increased heart rates from looking at him, and Omega 3 fatty acid selections he’d fix.
Those of us wanting a personal chef more than anything money could buy, wouldn’t care how the chef looked as long as he knew how to make our Pyrexes bubble. He could be real ugly. Dog ugly. Ugliest thing alive and weighing 400 pounds with a weenie the size of a miniature golf pencil. It matters not as long as he can wield and spatula, fill our pots and pans, and make mealtimes moments of joy, harmony and good health.
While we are dreaming of the day our chef comes in, this is the book for all of us who have felt guilty because our potholders don’t have the burn marks of real kitchen queen, whose pans aren’t scratched and half-scorched, whose Cuisinart has never been taken from the box and even sports the old yellowing bows from the land of Unwanted & Unopened wedding gifts, including Salad Shooters and Chop Wizards.
It’s for those who use our woks as potato chip bowls, who click on the blender only when Bacardi is involved and believe the person who invented Tuna Helper – particularly the creamy Parmesan style - should win the Nobel Prize for family harmony.
We are a group of human beings known as Kitchen Virgins, even though we may dabble and concoct the occasional meal when guilt slaps our conscience and our children say things like, “Chelsea’s mother cooks over a stove and says microwaves and fast foods are for lazy sloths and mothers on meth.”
“Well, Miss Chelsea,” I might (if pms’ing) retort, “has a mother who doesn’t have three jobs and a husband who won’t eat most of her meals. That snuffling hog she wed will gobble anything she throws on the table.”
I might be more inclined to cook, too, if my household members didn’t groan or complain of stomachaches every time I attempted a real meal. It might be easier to stand with flour and raw meat juices running down my forearms if in the end, someone would say “Hmmmm. Ummm” with every bite and talk about how delicious the food was.
Instead, I hear things like: “Mom, this chicken is so tough I need the electric hedge trimmers to get the gristle out.”
“It’s pure white meat,” I tell them. “No gristle. Best you can buy…Butterball.”
“My orthodontist said not to eat your meats,” my teen-aged boy once said. “No offense, Mom.”
I don’t get it. I used the only gadget besides the microwave I can work, the Crock Pot, which is designed to make everything tender and edible. Why, I’ll bet some people could take an old work boot, pour in some Lipton’s Onion Soup mix and it’d turn out tender as baby greens.
“Sorry, Mom,” my son has said more than once. “You’re a great mother, but Nana and Mama Peg are a lot better at cooking. Don’t feel bad. Everybody has special gifts.”
Oh, he’s mimicking me. I should have never given him the old “special gifts” speech when he brought home a few clunkers from school or was a bench warmer for the basketball team.
This is an excerpt from my new book "Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin," due out in late April from Kensington.

1 comment:

Keetha said...

What a fun post! I'd like to look for this book in the spring - um, what is the author's name?