10.16.2010

If You Can Read, You Can Cook

The first six months of dating my husband, Todd, I have no recollection of consuming anything but tiramisu and Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. It was 1991 and those were the desserts of the decade. Later into courting other foods were consumed, like ordered-in, Carmen’s stuffed spinach pizza.  There were also meals at moderately priced, mediocre restaurants and, when our parents took us out, at slightly higher priced, pretty good restaurants.

The moment we started cohabitating (about three years dating then) was when we began expecting more, or at least something different, from our evening meal.  Dinner, we decided, should be quality time spent together, feasting on non-dessert, non-junk foods prepared by non-professionals, as in us, in the 70s style kitchen of our rental apartment.

On the first night of our new venture we searched the kitchen for dinner fixings, but the cupboards were bare, aside from a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread. “Where is the food with which we are to make our fantastic meal?” we asked each other, holding back the urge to blame one another for not taking on the household chore we both dreaded equally: grocery shopping.  For Todd this phrase conjured up unpleasant college memories of spending $100 on food that disappeared in three days while his always-broke roommate spent $50 and ate for the month.  (Apparently this guy was an artist who worked exclusively in the medium of Ramen, noodles that is.)  I too dreaded food shopping with little idea what to buy or how to cook. Given our deficits, what was the point?  To quote my friend, Jackie, who at the time had never cooked a meal in her life, “why not just leave it to the professionals?”

But instead, we set aside our fears and persevered. We wrote lists, shopped and assembled nightly dinners. Sure, there were occasional restaurant meals and takeout orders, but usually we made dinner together at home in our first shared kitchen. Lots of turkey sandwiches, soup from the can, and salads made with iceberg lettuce.

In 1994 Todd put a ring on my finger. And I have a theory that nearly every bride-to-be comes down with a virus (causing delirium) only curable by saying “I do.” I was no exception, as evidenced by my affirmative response to the question, “How about four bridal showers in two months?”  Sure, I heard myself say. Bring it on.

As small appliances, kitchen gadgets, dishware, flatware, and glassware piled up in our apartment, so did the thank you notes. After I’d written, say, 40 of them, I realized the magnitude of the situation. “Why the hell did I register for a Cuisinart?” I asked fiancé Todd. “Or any of this other crap?  I suck at cooking…what was I thinking?!”

Sitting before our personalized stationary and gift list, pen in hand, I scribbled false claims. “Dear so and so…thank you very much for the meat thermometer. It will really help me take the temperature of our Thanksgiving turkey’s ass so we don’t get salmonella…” All went downhill from there.

Shower number three. I unwrap cookbook number five of the afternoon, look into the crowd of menopausal women and make the following announcement: “Thank you so much…these will never see the outside of our storage unit.” Polite laughter follows.

“No, really,” I say. “I am a terrible, terrible cook.  Even with directions.”

And that was when I heard it for the first time. “If you can read, you can cook,” proclaimed one of my mother’s friends, nodding her head, pointing her chin at me with authority.

Ha! I thought, you probably tell your friend who needs to lose ten pounds she’ll lose weight if she stops eating so much. Well neither of us believes you! So I shoved those cookbooks on a high shelf to sit and collect dust.

Nevertheless, newlyweds we were, and now owners of enough cooking tools to fill our kitchen twice, we felt obligated to put a little more effort into cooking, or at least into making it look like we were, even if only to prove to a cousin of mine who, upon seeing our registry, asked my mother if we would in fact use the $400 Calphalon cookware set for anything other than heating a can of soup. My mother convinced her yes. I wrote the cousin a thank you note promising extensive usage “for years to come.”

The truth was, we liked using our new stuff. The new pots and pans were heavier than the old ones. The big dishes matched the little dishes. There were 12 forks and knives. As long as we didn’t burn down the building, we figured we had to at least try. Some meal, sometime, ought to turn out tasty.

So in our overflowing galley kitchen we proceeded as follows: Monday was pasta night; boiled spaghetti and Prego sauce from the jar and voila…a hot meal cooked by us. Tuesday, a big salad with crusty bread. On Wednesdays, too spent from all the cooking we already did that week, we’d pour bowls of cereal, hit the couch and watch TV. On Thursdays, the blockbuster NBC lineup of Mad About You, Friends, Frasier, Caroline in the City and ER motivated us to start our first cooking tradition: Thursday Night Pizza and TV. We would labor over a mound of homemade dough until it resembled a pizza crust, artfully load it with toppings, and wonder as it baked during Friends, will the result be good, bad, or even edible? Usually it was “just okay,” highly acceptable in the world of pizza, especially for two 26-years-olds. But sometimes it was downright terrible, the crust undercooked or burnt, forcing us to order a pizza, not eating until the second half of ER. Eventually we discovered the Boboli pre-made crust, which was to us what Lipton Onion Soup Mix was to our mothers’ generation: the greatest processed shortcut ever to be found on a grocery store shelf. We never ate past Caroline in the City again.

On Friday nights we decompressed from our 9 to 5 week by eating whatever was left of the Thursday night pizza. Saturday, date night. Out to the latest unaffordable trendy restaurant in Lincoln Park. And on Sundays, another restaurant meal with, and hopefully, paid for by the folks.

This pattern continued for months or maybe a year. Until one Wednesday evening (circa 1996) my husband announced, “I would love me a chicken pot pie.” You have got to be kidding me, I thought. “A what?” I said. “A chicken pot pie!” he said again. What he really meant was “Woman, I would love for you to make a chicken pot pie for me to eat.” No chance, I thought. But he looked so hopeful and hungry. “A chicken pot pie, huh?” I glanced at the top of the bookshelf. There sat our cookbooks, coated with dust as predicted.

If you can read, you can cook! I thought, and then, No! It’s a cliché, a farce of a statement, a form of entrapment from the older generation! Still, like a mantra it continued. If you can read you can cook. If you can read you can cook. I wanted to run to the nearest Boston Chicken.  “Fine,” I said. “But you are helping me.”

I found the recipe in The Great American Cookbook, the cover of which was plastered with food company logos like Lipton, Land ‘O’ Lakes, and Heinz, each recipe listing no less than one sponsor’s product. (Eventually I would use competing brands just to outsmart the book.) Anyway, the chicken potpie was made and I would not see my husband prouder until the day our first child was born. Unfortunately, the kitchen was destroyed and we did not sit down to eat until hours after the project began. Delicious as it was, we never made it again.

The next recipe we tried was Red Pepper Fettuccine found in the same cookbook. We followed the directions carefully and in 30 minutes the dish appeared tasty, hot and colorful with its real red peppers, chicken pieces, and basil. Too bad it was only hot and colorful. Todd said it tasted like ass. “That was the worst thing I have ever tasted in my life,” announced my soul mate. “This is what food must be like in prison.” So we dumped every bit of it. Maybe what my mother’s friend should have said was, “If you can read, you can cook, but what you cook might suck.” Wounded, we went back to our pasta-salad-cereal-pizza routine to recover.

A few months later I was flipping through the Great American Cookbook hoping (again) to add to our repertoire when I found a recipe for Red Beans and Rice that didn’t scare me. Sounded easy, only involving two cans of beans, tomato sauce, some sausage and very little chopping. I read off the ingredients to Todd. “I’m in,” he said. “Let’s serve it up!” Termed a “One-Pot Meal” it was actually a two-pot meal, the rice cooking separately from the other ingredients. But no matter, we chopped, sautéed, and simmered the onion, celery, sausage, and beans. And to our utter delight, it wasn’t bad, or just okay; it was really good! We served it up in bowls and devoured every morsel, patted each other on the back and agreed it was fit to be served to company, if we ever had any.

Red Beans and Rice became our signature dish. After eating it for the 20th time or so, Todd made the realization it might just be the only fantastic meal we would ever prepare. “Like the author, Calvin Trillin,” he said. "He wrote an essay about only being able to cook one great dish. Let me see if I can find it." He ran to the bookshelf and scanned the titles until he found Trillin’s memoir Too Soon To Tell, then quickly found his case in point. "Here it is!" he said, pointing to the passage. “…I do have a recipe for a splendid monkfish dish. Here’s how special it is: it’s the only dish I can make. I don’t mean the only monkfish dish; I mean the only dish.” Our Red Beans and Rice was no burnt monkfish, which according to Trillin took all day to make, but it was the only meal we cooked that consistently tasted delicious.

No more eating cookie dough ice cream for dinner, tiramisu for dessert. We had graduated to the next level for sure. But I wanted more. Much more.