Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We Don't Cook Here

We Don't Cook Here

The first time I entered a Macy's kitchenware department I was filled with nostalgia. It looked exactly like my mother's kitchen. Shelves were filled with every kind of pricey gleaming kitchen gadget imaginable and there wasn't a sign of actual cooking anywhere.

For a while when I was younger, my mother used to cook. She'd grown up in the fifties and had been schooled in the home arts, both at home and in school. The same high school that didn't really think girls would need math had written tests about ironing.

So in the beginning, and through most of the 1970s, my mother cooked and sewed. And did oil paintings. And hung wallpaper. And refinished furniture and caned chairs. But she refused to ever show my older sister or I how to do any of these things. She claimed sometimes to be too busy and sometimes that we probably wouldn't be able to catch on. As we got older her excuse was that she feared we'd break something or catch the house on fire. Personally I think she just wanted to be the only one with those skills.

Then she discovered the microwave. Soon we knew dinner was ready by hearing an electric DING and meals didn't taste quite the same. Sometimes food contained a molten center and sometimes we would guess incorrectly about what could go into the microwave. Explosions were mostly rare. We adjusted and took the same ten minutes to eat dinner and argue, the same way we had always done before, but this way my mother didn't have the inconvenience of necessary prep time before and cleanup afterward. This left her extra time to pursue her interest in watching daytime talk shows. My mother, who used to lovingly exclaim, "Oh that Marlo Thomas!" would now say "Oh that Phil Donahue." I think she assumed he was wise right from the get go because he had married Marlo.

Although she had mostly boycotted cooking, my mother continued to collect expensive cooking tools: she installed two bookcases in the kitchen pantry specifically for cookbooks and kept hundreds, arranged in an order known only to her. She requested kitchenware as gifts, specifying to the giver which make model and color to purchase. In this manner she acquired a full set of copper cookware which she hung, eye pleasingly, from the ceiling with ornate scrolled ironwork. This collection went unused and so, remained in mint condition, never needing washing, only polishing. She had crepe makers, a bread machine, a pasta maker, waffle irons, and a trio of KitchenAid mixers. Walking into the kitchen on a sunny day meant being nearly blinded by the gleam. The more gadgetry she collected, the luckier it was that she rarely cooked. There was simply no room.

Once in a while she'd still make the occasional dessert and when the other women would ask her for the recipe my mother would give it to them except with the ingredients, amounts, and cooking temperature altered. This way the other women would be bested twice: not only had they had to request my mother's recipe but even when they supposedly had it, they lacked the ability to recreate the perfection. This aspect of cooking my mother enjoyed.

Often my mother would skip the whole illusion of cooking and we'd just go out to dinner. I have nothing against this cooking method. Sometimes we'd even go to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. It turns out they prepare turkey just about everywhere and we could spend the same ten minutes eating arguing and guilt tripping each other but in fancier clothes.

When I was in junior high we had one six week coed course intended to cover cooking, budgeting and sewing. The cooking segment featured two, count 'em two, items: cookies and scrambled eggs. The cookies I could never master. Several times I tried and was able to produce only a muddy lake of cookie. The scrambled eggs I got. To this day the one dish I prepare? Scrambled eggs. It's possible my high school had a cooking class of one kind or another but if so it was nothing required and nothing I'd have sought out. Why would I seek to learn about something as useless as cooking when I could take classes I might really need someday, like drama and stained glass?

I still remember a lady I babysat for. Her name was Dorenna and when she casually mentioned I could just give her little girls a can of soup for lunch, I looked at her, bewildered. The can of soup I could recognize but had no idea how to get the soup out of the can. I was fourteen. When I asked her how it was done, she told me I could find a can opener in the top utensil drawer. I opened this drawer, saw numerous shiny metal tools and could not identify a can opener by sight. Never once gasping in shock or pausing to comment on my idiocy, Dorenna showed me which one the can opener was. Holding it in my hand I still had no idea which part did what to open the can. And so this patient woman opened the can for me while I watched with delight. Learning you added water, learning you measured a can's worth, learning with cream soups you added milk and yes, again a can's worth and that yes, they had planned it that way, all of these things were revelations to me. It's amazing she still left me alone with her children.

By the time I was living on my own I understood I had been given a gift by my feminist soul sisters. I could choose what kind of woman I wanted to be. And the type I wanted to be had no interest in cooking. Grocery stores must have thanked God for people just like me and they were nice enough to stock their shelves with instant and precooked foods of every kind. No need to buy dozens of ingredients or spend time chopping or straining or welding or whatever it is cooks do. No need to scrub pots and pans that I still say act like they dislike being used for cooking.

And ladies and gentlemen, may I mention the invention of delis inside grocery stores. For a while I worked at one and noticed many women would come with their own tupperware or cookware and would request we put items inside them so they could pretend they were homemade. These weren't exactly my soul sisters, as I took pride in my non cooking and would have never thought to hide it, but they were at least my soul cousins, and I helped them keep their secrets. In a deli you can get every possible salad, side dish and main dish. It's a great big picnic basket, that's what I think. It also proves there must be a lot of people not cooking out there; it's not just you.

I understand there are some people who take great pride in preparing food, for themselves or others. More power to them. I'm just not one of them. I can't understand spending more time preparing a meal than people are going to spend eating it. To me dinner is about 15 bites worth of fuel that makes me stop feeling hungry. It doesn't mean love or devotion. It doesn't make me happy or sad.

And so I instituted the 15 minute rule. It's an excellent rule, feel free to use it yourself if you'd like. No meal can take longer than 15 minutes to prepare. That's from walking into the kitchen to sitting down at the table to eat: 15 minutes. Exceptions are made on Thanksgiving and Christmas which may take no more than 30 minutes.

Yesterday my son mentioned "those cookies you make" and I thought for a minute he had mistaken me for someone else. Turns out he was talking about the pre cut circles of cookie dough Pillsbury gifted us with, the ones you stick in the oven for 10 minutes. My son refers to this as my cookie recipe and really, it's the closest thing to a recipe that I have.

Some of you may be thinking 15 minutes isn't enough to make a meal but trust me, it is. Unless you're waiting for the pizza to arrive, in which case it takes longer. But back to cooking: what I usually do is have one pan of frozen vegetables cooking on one burner and some kind of pre cooked meat that I stick, frozen, on a cookie sheet and cook for 10 minutes in the oven. Potatoes or rice, I'm quite talented, I do both, and both require boiling water (which I do, myself) and mixing stuff in and stirring. With instant potatoes I get quite fancy and add a little square of butter on top, which I mix in. So don't tell ME I don't cook.

The result of this speed cook is this: I hardly spend any time cooking and when I eat with my son I'm not exhausted or ticked off about the amount of effort I've put in. The food tastes fine to my son and he will almost certainly eat the meal in less time than the 15 minutes it took to prepare. After the meal it takes me two seconds to do the dishes because it hardly took me any to cook it in the first place.

Dessert? Of course. But it should only involve a few minutes to serve, during which time I can easily slice a store bought cake or pie, scoop ice cream into bowls or really go expert and put together store bought shortcake and fresh berries and whipped cream. If I bake cookies, you bet, they're usually the pre made dough kind and according to my son "they always come out perfect and always taste great." My other cookie recipe is opening a package of Pepperidge Farms. As a special bonus I can tell you my son will have no problems replicating the beloved tastes of his childhood. He will never get the ingredients wrong. Home will be right there waiting for him, in any grocery aisle.

I can hear you protesting. How how how will my family know I LOVE them if I don't make a flour covered martyr of myself? How can I eat dinner without proving my devotion by whacking the head off a chicken or doing unspeakable things with string and raw meat? Why, the vegetables alone! Aren't you supposed to scrub them and peel them and send them to dental school? You cannot just open up a package and stick them in boiling water.

Oh but you can, you can!

Did you know, some people make their own jam. OK now this I just do not understand. Unless a family is living way out in the middle of nowhere and must rely on their own crops to live off of all winter, I do not understand canning. Not for any city person who has access to Smuckers and all they provide. Do I really think I'm going to make better tasting jam than Smuckers? Come on now. That's if nothing explodes in my face as I'm making it. I already had a bad attitude about cooking. Adding in possible explosions does not increase the appeal.

My son and I do have one holiday tradition. It was not intended to be a tradition but was originally just an amusing story I told him. When I was growing up we never said Grace except at Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those occasions we would fold our hands and close our eyes and my father would say a traditional Grace, with one interesting difference. He would close the Grace by saying "...and God Bless Jimmy Hoffa."

Up until I was five years old I assumed everyone said Grace this way. I had heard about Jimmy Hoffa, someone my Teamster father referred to as his 'brother' so often that initially I thought he was my uncle. But by the time I started kindergarten I was able to retell my dad's favorite holiday story.

It's a good story. It goes like this:

In 1959 my parents got married. She was 17 and he was 18. And in the spring of 1960 when my mom delivered my older sister, the doctor told her that something was wrong with my sister's legs. To try to fix the problem she would need numerous surgeries and they'd have to be performed hundreds of miles away. The chance of these surgeries fixing my sister's hips and legs was quite small. And the cost of even trying would be several times the amount my father could ever dream of earning in three years time. By today's standards, the surgeries would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The doctor told my parents that my sister would walk someday but only with metal braces. She might be able to swim. She would never dance or run. My mother, lying in her hospital bed, couldn't stop crying and my father felt useless. And so the next day he went to see his boss. He had started working, driving a truck, a few months before. He had heard they had some kind of medical plan. He was worried maybe he'd get fired for even asking about benefits since he hadn't been there very long.

But then he remembered my crying mother and so he did.

And after he told his boss the story the boss said "Jerry, I think you're confused. You seem to think you're my employee and I'm your boss. You're forgetting that you're a Teamster. And because you're a Teamster, I'm your brother."

When he would tell the next part, my dad would always have tears in his eyes. He said the boss told him "the medical care your daughter needs? Consider it done."

And then my dad would need a minute to collect himself so he could speak again. He said those words, Consider It Done, were the finest words he had ever heard in his life. My sister got those surgeries, got the physical therapy, and by age 4 was a healthy child. She runs and dances and swims and walks, never with braces, never with a cane or even a limp.

And my dad would then describe how that kindness came to happen. That long ago before I was even born this man, Jimmy Hoffa, had wanted to make life better for working men. He said that before Jimmy Hoffa, a man was only a tool, just part of the truck, and that Hoffa wanted a union, so that men could be guaranteed decent lives and fair deals and so that if they needed help--like my dad had--it would be there for them and they'd never need to beg for it.

At age six I learned what a scab was. Not the on your knee kind, but the strikebreaking kind. Men who would take the jobs of the union men during a strike. And that scabs, in this way, were taking the food right off the plates of union members.

One day I came home from school with the question: were the Teamsters involved with the Mafia? And my dad surprised me. He said he didn't know, but "Possibly." And then he explained: when you get that many people and that much money, chances are there's going to be a little bit of shady business. "But do you know what I think?" my dad said, "So what if they are? It doesn't change the good they've done. And if my nose is clean, what's it to me?"

The next day I informed my second grade teacher of this answer, What's It To Me, and she never asked me anything more about the Teamster union.

My favorite part of my dad's Grace (for truly the story always told following the Grace became part of it) was when he would marvel at the dedication of the first Teamsters. I was a rarely quiet child but would fall silent listening to my dad describe how these men had been beaten in the streets to make their union. "And I mean beaten, to death. I mean they died," my dad would clarify. He said they went through all that knowing that they themselves would never see the rewards of their work. They did it for all the people coming after them. "People whose faces they would never see." My dad specified they had done that for people like our family. For him and my mom and my sister and me. That Teamsters right or wrong, good or bad, had paid for our house and the clothes on our backs and the food on our plates. "And that was pretty amazing that they did that," my dad would say. "That's why we say God Bless Jimmy Hoffa."

This story delighted my son. "Oh we need to do this," he insisted. And so, every time we say Grace, and especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas, we close the blessing with: and God Bless Jimmy Hoffa. We retell the story. The men getting beaten in the streets. The men caring about faces they would never see. The teen couple crying with their newborn daughter. My father's boss and his words: Consider It Done.


We Don't Cook Here is one of the 23 stories in Starfish On Thursday, available at www.amieryan.com