A Tricoastal Woman: How I Learned to Cook

The Joy of Cooking

My edition of The Joy is the fourth one from the top. I still have it, though it’s falling apart.

I never took home economics classes in high school. Even if I had wanted to – and I didn’t – my mother would have talked me out of it.

“Anyone who can read,” she used to say, “can learn to cook or sew.” It was not lost on me that learning how to read – not to mention how to think – was more important than learning how to be a domestic goddess.

I don’t regret this decision. It’s true that I’m not much of a seamstress, and it’s probable that a sewing class would improve my skill. There are tricks people can show you that aren’t found on patterns.

Cooking, though, can be learned from good cookbooks, as long as you’re willing to take risks, try new things, and accept that not everything you make is going to be tasty.

The other night we had oyster stew for dinner. That sounds intimidating, but actually it’s an easy thing to make. All it takes is some oysters, milk, cream, spinach and onion. (So, OK, I threw mushrooms and potatoes in there too, because why not include other things that make a good cream soup in with the oysters.)

The only hard part about oyster stew is getting the damn oysters out of the shell. I wouldn’t have bought them on purpose, but we get a delivery from a sustainable fish group every other week and, as with community supported agriculture food boxes, we don’t get a say in what we get. And their oysters come in the shell.

Since I love oysters, I was motivated to figure out how to open them, though I’m still far from mastering this skill. It takes me too long. No way I’d make it as an oyster shucker at an oyster bar. But the oyster stew was delicious.

Here’s the thing: Once you figure out how to do one or two things in the kitchen that seem incredibly complicated, you get up the nerve to try something new. And that’s how I learned to cook.

What put me over the top and made me willing to try almost anything in the kitchen was baking cakes.

Understand, the only cakes my mother ever made came in a box from Betty Crocker. I have no childhood memory of cakes from scratch. If they were so hard to make that people bought special boxes, I figured they must be very hard indeed. Intimidating.

But during the fall of my last year in college I was essentially living alone. I had a housemate who came home to sleep every once in awhile, but mostly he just stored stuff at the house and stayed with girlfriends or stayed up all night playing bridge in cafes. I was cooking for one.

So I got out my copy of the Joy of Cooking – a book I bought for myself in hardback – and turned to cakes. I figured if I could learn to bake cakes, I could do anything.

And I was right. My cakes were never beautiful – not works of art like the ones Madeleine Robins makes – but they were tasty. And the process of figuring things out got me over the hump.

I progressed to soufflés. To quiches. To stir fries and curries and noodle dishes from a variety of cultures. To – most recently – oyster stew.

I can bake all varieties of bread, from quick breads to yeasted loaves. (This week’s cornbread, made with yogurt instead of buttermilk, was especially tasty.)

My mother did teach me a few things, though she hated cooking herself. I learned to make and dress a salad at an early age, because my mother was good at that and taught us how. To this day, I am appalled when someone’s idea of salad dressing is a bunch of store-bought bottles on the table.

She taught me how to cook dried beans from scratch, too. But most of what I know how to do has come from trial and error over the years.

Living in group houses also helped. In most of them, we each cooked one meal a week. Often when it was my turn there was a refrigerator full of odds and ends and a lot of leftovers. We were students and mostly broke, so those things needed to be turned into meals. I got very good at that.

These days we do a lot of our shopping at the farmer’s market. I love wandering around, looking at the vegetables and coming up with tasty ways of putting them together.

I have no regrets about skipping home ec. But over the years, I have found myself wishing I’d taken shop. It would be handy to know how to handle carpentry and metal working tools.

Those skills, like sewing, are easier to learn when someone – preferably someone patient – shows you how to do things. Reading will only get you so far.

Of course, back in the day girls couldn’t take shop. I’m pretty sure home ec and shop were both intended to make sure girls and boys knew what they were, and were not, supposed to do.

Which is, of course, the real reason my mother objected to home ec.

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A Tricoastal Woman: How I Learned to Cook — 14 Comments

  1. My late mother was raised posh in China, and arrived on these shores unable to so much as boil water. But she learned fast, and could manage three separate cuisines (American, Chinese and child) entirely well.

    • That’s a real skill, shifting among those three. My mother never bothered with “child”, though. We learned to eat what the grownups ate. That included liver and tongue. My parents never took us on a child-centered vacation, either. We were just dragged along to the places they wanted to go. I never thought this was weird, and I’m sure if I’d had children I’d have been the mean mom who never took the kids to Disneyland, too.

  2. My mother didn’t like to cook–although she was quite good at it. And she opted out whenever possible–to the extent that when I was a teenager, if my father wasn’t home, we ate exclusively from the menus of Swanson’s and Stouffers. So learning to bake (and to sew) were acts of rebellion for me. And there’s something magical about combining disparate materials to create something marvelous.

    And regarding cakes: the main and most important function of a cake is to make the consumer happy. For many, this means that cake is a delivery system for frosting (or raspberry filling, or dried fruit, or what have you). But it’s first and most important feature is that it is tasty. If you’ve got that, all other considerations are way secondary.

    • My mother hated to cook, too. Actually, she didn’t really like to eat that much. I’m convinced she would have lived on chocolate, coffee, bourbon and cigarettes if she hadn’t had children to feed. But a lot of her objection was feminist. She was a journalist. She never wanted to be a housewife. But in the 1950s …

      My father was actually a good cook. In later years, he did a lot of the cooking. He loved food. In a more perfect world, he would have done more of it when we were young, but, like I said, the 1950s.

    • BTW, I haven’t made a cake in a long time, but I’ve been working to master scones of late. Nice whole wheat scones (made with the fabulous heirloom wheat flour we get from the farmer’s market) with lots of dark chocolate and nuts and just enough sugar to bring out the chocolate flavor. They’re getting better all the time. An almost healthy pastry, if you ignore the amount of butter per scone.

  3. I too have the Joy of Cooking on a handy shelf in the kitchen. It was a 16th birthday present from my brother who is the only gourmet chef in the family. But I turn more often to Fanny Farmer’s Boston School of Cooking book. My parents gave it to me for my 1st wedding anniversary so my mom could have her copy back. It’s that reliable.

    But cooking is a lot of trial and error. Some of my best recipes come from happy accidents, being out of vanilla and substituting peppermint instead. You can always melt butter as a substitute for corn oil in baking. etc.

    Best advise I have was from Pearl Bailey who was a renowned cook in Hollywood. She said on a talk show long ago, never leave the kitchen while cooking. Yup. Cuts way down on the burnt offerings.

    • Trial and error, yes. And over the years, you learn what things really mean. These days I use recipes as a guideline. I almost always say, “Oh, I can substitute this for that” or “Nah, it doesn’t need that much salt or sugar.”

      I don’t use the Joy much anymore, but it gave me the basics when I was starting out. My favorite general purpose cookbook right now is Mark Bitman’s How to Cook Everything.

      • I love that book too!! My other go-to cookbooks are Jamie Oliver’s and Michael Smith cookbooks (aside from special-purpose books like books on canning). I like their approaches – lovely everyday-style foods, and often suggestions for substitutions to change a dish.

        • I’m partial to Martha Shulman’s cookbooks. Most of hers are vegetarian, and while I’m an omnivore, I do a lot of vegetarian cooking. I knew her slightly when she lived in Austin back in the day and catered all the radical and hippie events. Having eaten her work, I trust her recipes.

  4. My mother was a very good “plain cook,” and basically (I think) enjoyed it. She certainly was going to farm stands long before farmers’ markets and green markets were a thing.

    Like you, I learned to shell oysters when we were getting a sustainable seafood subscription. My partner and I did it with the help of a YouTube video on the subject, and found it fairly straightforward, and actually kind of fun.

    • I used that video, too. And the second time we got them, I broke down and got an oyster knife. As Guy Clark sings, “the right tool for the job.” (He’s someone who understood food; he has another song about home grown tomatoes.)

      I think my father would have enjoyed farmer’s markets, though I don’t know that he ever went to them. He went through a phase when he went to Fiesta, a local chain in Houston that started out aiming at the Mexican American community. He’d come home with a huge assortment of fruit and make wonderful platters with everything sliced just so.

  5. I have the blue plaid Joy of Cooking (third from bottom) and use it quite a lot.

    A friend gave me a chocolate cookbook, whose almost every recipe is far above my pay grade. It’s illustrated with slick food-porn photographs.

    One is… a good example of the meme “You had ONE job…” It’s a picture of a chocolate bag (made by painting a small paper bag with melted chocolate and peeling away the paper) and apricot cream (creme?). It’s posed tipped over.

    It looks like a used airsick bag.

    I get a lot of laughs showing it to people. I’ve never tried to make it.

    –V.

    • I confess that I am not tempted to learn to make fancy chocolate things. I am content to pay someone else for them. That way I don’t eat too many of them.

      I’m not sure I could eat something that looked like a used airsick bag, even with chocolate. Perhaps just the image is enough.

      • The image is the best thing about the cookbook, or anyway the funniest. I’ve never made the recipe, or almost anything else in the cookbook. I don’t think I could eat the chocolate airsick bag results. (Not sure if I would throw up or laugh uncontrollably.)

        The cookbook does have a souffle recipe but I’ve changed it so much that it hardly qualifies as following that recipe.

        My fallback is chocolate chip cookies. But they always come out pancake-flat. They taste ok but leave something to be desired, aesthetics-wise.

        Once in a while, for parties, I make chocolate decadence, but I don’t like it much myself. It’s kind of overwhelming. And the last time I made it, it came out a total FAIL. Like a chocolate brick. Haven’t had the nerve to try it since.

        –V.