My grandmother was typically a pretty poor cook. But then she’d knock out a Thanksgiving feast of such perfection that it might have gotten the European invaders to agree not to rip off the Natives. (No, I mean REALLY agree. And keep it.) WTF??? My mom, on the other hand, was usually a great cook. Not so much in the lean years. Actually I remember a lot of Spam in those years. (No, not the unwanted mail; the mystery meat.) Fried Spam. Baked Spam. Sandwich-Spam. I will never again eat Spam.
But when I was in high school, things were a little less lean, and her repertoire expanded. She cooked Southern, from her years growing up on a farm: fried chicken, butterbeans, biscuits and gravy. She cooked Mexican, from her years living in Southern California: burritos, rice and beans, guacamole. These were not typical fare in the rural Pennsylvania town we had moved to. But even her typical food was atypical compared to the somewhat bland style of the area – her sauces spicier, her roasts more tender and flavorful.
There was only one problem. She made dinner like we still worked that farm.
Every dinner had a meat and a sauce. Salad smothered in creamy dressing. A starch covered with butter. A vegetable dripping with butter. Bread slathered in butter. Sweet tea. And of course, a sugary dessert. If I count correctly, that’s 6-7 servings of saturated fat, plus 4-5 servings of white sugar/flour. In one meal. It’s a wonder I could drag myself to my bedroom afterward to pour over my fashion magazines – er, I mean geometry book.
I didn’t start cooking till after college when I lived on my own in Philly. OK, at first there were a lot of baby carrots and canned soup. But in the box of pans and utensils that my mom put together was a cookbook, so I started experimenting with recipes. I recall successes with turkey rice soup, corn pudding, bay shrimp salad, and tuna noodle casserole (some wouldn’t call that last one a success.)
After I moved to LA in my mid-20’s, I stopped using recipes. I made chili, which came to be my ‘signature dish.’ It’s not exactly a boeuf bourguinon, but hey! People ask for it! All the time! And just like my mom’s dishes, my chili is a little different from most others. With the exciting ethnic restaurants in LA, one of my favorite things became to sample dishes and then try to recreate them at home with my own twist. And that’s how I came to be known among friends and family as a “good cook.”
What I didn’t expect was that one day I would end up in a nature writing workshop, in which the teacher, author Susan Tweit, would give us an assignment to write a book proposal. WHAATT????? I thought we’d walk around a botanical garden and write a few essays about trees. But Susan’s concept of nature is generous. I started thinking about the bodies that we live and love in, and nourish from the earth…the more I thought about it, the more an idea began to grow.
So, in Licking the Spoon, my book in progress about food, sex and relationship, you might find an Ethiopian doro wot, Native American posole, a Cuban black bean pasta, Puerto Rican gandules, a Spanish paella, or my mother’s guacamole. But of course, the key ingredient, which I coyly decline to reveal here, is the delicate combination of herbs and spices.
Plus, that special something that my mom put into her food. No, not the fat. Maybe the love…