A Friend and An Angel

I saw and heard my future friend and angel many times, on the playground and the streets, before we actually met. The official introduction happened winter 2002 at a toddler park district class where the munchkins run around, ride little plastic cars, and fight.

“Hi!” she said, pushing a double stroller past me, chicken necking to look back. "I'm Gayle."

“Hi, I'm Lisa, nice to meet you. Are they twins?” I asked of her same-sized stroller passengers.

“Nope,” she said. “Fifteen months apart.” She noticed my wide eyes and said, “Yeah, it’s crazy…having two babies. I don’t even know how I got pregnant. This one was six months old when we found out."

Later that week I spotted her out my living room window. She was bopping down the street, her brown, curly top-of-the-head ponytail cocked slightly to one side and swaying to and fro. I opened my door, yelled her name and she crossed the street to say hi.

“This is where you live!?” she said, not really asking.

“This is where I live,” I stated.

“Lovely,” she said. “This is my route to the park every day. From now on I’ll walk on this side of the street and look for you on your doorstep!” Great, I thought, a peeping Tom.

Her stroller was loaded up with more supplies than I pack for a weekend out of town. “When I hit the streets,” she said, “I load up. Toys, snacks, drinks--the works. And if it’s above 50 degrees, we don’t go home for lunch.”

After that we kept running into each other all around the neighborhood. Her stroller was always overflowing, kids almost always smiling. A friendship began. As did phone calls, lots of them. Early morning. Late at night. Whenever.

I answered with, “Hello.” She answered talking full details of the scene at hand, usually about food in various forms. “I’m mincing an onion for turkey chili!” or “I’m browning meatballs for Barefoot Contessa’s spaghetti and meatballs!”

When she greeted me one morning with, “It smells delicious in my house--I’m sautéing leeks!” I decided she was in fact a lunatic. What in the world was she doing, sautéing leeks (or anything else?) at 8 a.m.? I didn’t even know what a leek was, and so I asked, “Leeks? What are those?”

“Are you kidding me?” she blasted back. “They are de-li-cious…you can never have enough leeks in a soup!” I was flabbergasted. “You make homemade soup?” I asked. No one born after 1950 made homemade soup.

“Of course, I love soup!” So did I. From the can, or a restaurant.

Later that day Gayle showed up at my house, unannounced, holding a plastic cup with aluminum foil covering the top. “I had to bring you a taste,” she said. “This is the butternut squash soup I was making when you called earlier. It is spectacular!”

Never before had a friend appeared on my doorstep with such an offering. I was touched, impressed and a bit confused: did she not have enough room in her refrigerator, or a compulsion to feed those who call when she is mid-sauté? Whatever the case, I took a taste. She was right. It was spectacular.

✳ ✳ ✳

Seven years later I'm in the produce section at Whole Foods bagging turnips and parsnips when a man turns to me and asks, “What are you going to do with those? How will you prepare them?”

Shocked, I nearly forget why I’m buying them in the first place. “Oh, I’m, uh, going to sauté them and serve them as a side dish,” I reply. “Sounds good!” he says, and walks away.

Why in the world is this man talking to me? I ask myself. Doesn’t he know I’m a terrible cook? "Don’t be deceived by my confident exterior!" I wanted to shout. "I don’t really know what I’m doing, just because I’m buying parsnips!"

On my next grocery shopping trip (really, the following week), I grab a bunch of leeks and as I toss them in my cart I see a woman looking my way. “What are those?” she asks.

“Leeks,” I reply.

“What do you do with leeks?”

“I’m using them for a soup.” Two weeks in a row a stranger has spoken to me in a grocery store. Asking me questions about cooking. What is happening?

At checkout as I loaded my items onto the belt I smiled and recalled my former self. Was I now the expert? Are others now watching me? Shadowing me? Or did I just look old?

Returning home from the grocery store and unloading my items onto the counter, I felt old yet victorious, embracing the former as a fair trade for the latter, and looking forward to dinner.

But first I needed to call Gayle for directions on the best way to wash a leek.

Two Markets and a Baby

The first Chicago Whole Foods Market was located two blocks from the apartment we moved to in 1994. The heavenly aromas I inhaled walking past the store seemed to promise deliciousness, though I stayed away, initially. The place seemed too fancy for people like us. Until one Saturday I succumbed, walking through the automatic doors instead of past them, into the wafts of sweet, warm sustenance.

Dizzied, I floated up and down every aisle. I’ve long forgotten exactly what I bought that day, but this I remember: I left holding only one bag of food. All I could carry and conveniently, all I could afford. Unloading the three, maybe four items onto the kitchen table I reminisced. The salad bar with no iceberg lettuce, beautiful photographs of delicious looking everything, the word organic. Until then Todd and I had only shopped in “grocery stores.” Whole Foods was no grocery store, it was a market. A market where we would we spend large sums on enough food for one meal and possibly a snack. 

In June 1997, Todd and I moved into a condo and began our quest to procreate. This replaced grocery shopping as number one on our list of “scary things.” As if having children wasn’t enough, I decided practicing the aforementioned eating habits (If You Can Read, You Can Cook) was fine while we were still DINKS (Double Income No Kids), but not fine when we become parents. By then Todd had proclaimed he would rather eat deli meats every night than to participate in cooking another meal in his life. He promised to clean up as I furthered our dinner horizons. I decided to give myself five more years, thinking if we had a baby soon, it couldn’t possibly remember family meals prior to kindergarten.

By the time son number one was born in June of 1999, I had made zero progress. With three years left in my five year plan, I was now consumed with changing diapers and schlepping baby boy to play dates. My inner voice, which seemed to intensify in my postpartum state, chanted, “learn to cook…be a good mother.” One evening I told the voice to "shut up!" so I could focus on the Giordano's menu and decide what kind of pizza to order.

Of course the voice came back, the next day and the next, elaborating which while helpful, was quite annoying. “You can do it! Remember, if you can read, you can cook. Unpack those cookbooks in the basement closet, you know, the ones in the box next to the uncomfortable shoes you will never wear again. And while you’re at it, donate those shoes to charity.” So I read the cookbooks (donated the shoes). The voice even persuaded me to purchase unusual ingredients and use spices instead of Lawry’s Salt, which by the way my cousin believes is God’s gift to edibles and probably sprinkles it on chocolate. I identified with his position, but listened to the voice instead.

Regardless, “The best chicken according to my mother-in-law” was a bust and the “savory braised lamb with delectable mint sauce” was just okay. They were supposed to be delicious and fantastic, according to the recipes. Yet not a single meal I cooked was drop-your-fork-to-applaud great. Why was this happening? I kept asking myself. I was following the recipes meticulously, timing how long I sautéed the onions and simmered the sauce.

After a while Todd began putting my attempts into three categories. There was, “Not bad…not bad…I would eat this again, but add more salt next time.” Then, “It’s just okay, but not a repeater.” And most often, “Don’t ever make this again. Ever. Do we have any peanut butter?” When he started telling dinner guests my cooking was “50/50: half the time it sucks and half the time it’s edible, depending on your hunger level,” I nearly gave up.

Then new hope arrived by way of the farmers’ market. How I loved where the peaches for sale really do ripen by sundown, the tomatoes are devoured on the walk home, the ten year-old cheddar costing more than a movie ticket is so worth it, all sold by smiling people withstanding rain, sweltering heat, and swarming bees. Not a bad place to spend a morning, particularly in lieu of a grocery store. I longed to stand before the local farmer grabbing everything in sight intending to whip up a magnificent meal that would send my husband and I (and guests?) reeling.

Unfortunately, the scene so often overwhelmed me I usually left with a bunch of flowers and nothing else. (Did you say two bunches of daisies for $3, or three bunches for $2?) Or aimlessly spend $40 on produce that later sat rotting in the fridge as I spent days perusing cookbooks for a recipe calling for those exact ingredients. Neither scenario worked for me, but I kept at it. I suspected there was a “farmers market code” that might just translate into cooking prowess. So I returned week after week and eventually, I hatched a plan involving my fellow shoppers.

My new approach was to study the "experts": grinning 40-something women donned in long, flowing colorfully patterned skirts and t-shirts, khaki hats, espadrilles or sandals, sporting fabric eco-friendly recyclable bags. Confidently they marched along, gripping lists, purchasing unfamiliar (to me) fruits, vegetables and herbs. I shadowed them, bought what they bought, even if I hadn’t a clue what to do with a spaghetti squash and never before purchased a fresh beet. I would go home with my exotic vegetables and again, attempt to cook yummy meals. This had to work.

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.