Someone somewhere *rummage rummage* asked me if my mother was a good cook or if I taught myself.

My mother is a good cook, but she wasn’t until she had to be.

When I was growing up, Mom–a single mom–worked two jobs. When I wasn’t in school, I stayed with my Aunt Rose, who preferred that my cousin Ronnie and I went out and got fresh air and sunshine instead of bickering in the kitchen. She did teach me how to make her oyster stew, which I loathed, by the way: Drain a can of oysters. Cook them in a saucepan with a big hunk of butter, stir in a little flour, add milk and salt and pepper and call it oyster stew.

Mom shared space and expenses with another single mom with a little girl about my age. This other mom was a dynamite cook, and so was her mother, who stayed with us sometime. My grandparents lived down the street at some point, and Gramma was also a terrific cook. We had lots of friends who cooked, so I knew what good fresh cooking tasted like–Convenience food was very expensive then, and nobody we knew could afford NOT to cook fresh.

The time came when I went into junior high school and we moved out on our own. I would come home from school (latchkey kid) and do homework. Mom would come home and put frozen dinners in the oven and we would eat. We had to eat convenience food, because Mom was too tired to cook when she got home from work, and she didn’t like cooking anyway.

We both missed real food, so I suggested I go with her to the store, we would buy some groceries and I would learn how to cook. We had a two-volume cookbook, META GIVEN’S MODERN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKING, copyright 1955, which gave me plenty to work with. There were recipes on the backs of packages–flour, oats, rice, dried beans, spaghetti–and recipes attached to ads for food above the windows of the public buses, as well as in the newspaper and magazines. I collected them and tried them.

Not every try was a success. Once, when I had a friend over for supper (you know who you are, Beth), I made mashed potatoes that were runny and gravy the consistency of cranberry jelly. Without batting an eye, my friend plopped a glob of gravy on her plate, made a crater in the top, and poured the potatoes over it.

There was also the time I made a recipe for stuffed hamburgers, which instructed me to make two thin patties, put a spoonful of sauerkraut on one, top with the other one, pinch the edges together and cook. KIDS, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Mom said, “This is really good, honey. … But let’s not ever have it again, okay?”

We loved fried chicken, but I saw that a whole chicken was cheaper than the same chicken cut into pieces. So we got a whole chicken and I cut it up and fried it. Including the back. Mom eyed that piece doubtfully, and said, “People do sometimes cook the back–nothing wrong with that–but they usually cut the tail off.” Okay, so the next time I made fried chicken, I thought she’d hurt herself laughing when she looked at the plate. “When I said they usually cut the tail off, I meant they usually throw it away, not that they usually cut it off and bread it and fry it.” I have since learned that they did so too bread it and fry it, and called it The Parson’s Nose. So there.

Anyway, that’s how I learned how to cook–by collecting recipes, trying things, learning what worked and what didn’t, and learning from good cooks after I had cooked enough to know what they were saying and what I was seeing.

Go thou and do likewise.

MA

writing prompt: Have a character who doesn’t usually cook make a special dinner for an important occasion.

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