I realize that cooking represents very few people’s idea of a vacation.
For dinner a few nights ago, I made the dish pictured above — a chicken breast, seasoned simply with salt (because… that’s all I had) and sautéed in a few drops of the grease from the bacon I’d fried for breakfast. *
I threw in “blanco” mushrooms till they had released their juices then added a few splashes of pinot noir to create a finishing sauce. Served with some of the beans mentioned here, and a glass of that very same pinot noir (Redwood Creek, California, 2014.)
* Okay, maybe seven or eight drops of bacon grease… gimme a break.
One of the reasons I’m sold on Airbnb is because I can locate a house or apartment — anywhere in the world — with a kitchen and pots and pans.
I started cooking when I was about eleven years old. The first thing I made was raisin-oatmeal cookies. I remember my Uncle Herman reaching to get another one and saying to my mom: “Lola? These are the best I’ve ever eat.” **
And then mom said, “But I didn’t make those cookies, Bart did.”
** In southeast Texas where I grew up, it’s common to hear the word “eat” used in the past tense: “That gumbo last night was so good every last drop was eat.”
The second thing I made was an angel food cake… from scratch.
It was a disaster.
I didn’t know the egg whites needed to be whipped to such a degree, so the cake came out meager and rather… heartbreaking in its lack of oomph.
But I still remember coming into the kitchen that very night and finding my mother with the lid off the container. She was eating a bite of my terrible cake. She had peeled off the burned parts on the outside (the oven was too high) and removed the uncooked interior bits. She pointed to the slim layer of edible cake in the middle and said: “Son? Really. This part is very good.”
Who would we be without our mothers? How could we ever maneuver the world without their constant and unflagging support?
At some point thereafter I started learning how to cook a steak. I softened green onions in oil, then put in my steak. By the time the steak was done, my onions were black. I ate it anyway. A few days later I tried again.
And then again.
Over the next few weeks (months?) I kept trying to make a good steak. That dish — steak with onions — showed me the necessity for repetition that good cooking requires. I wanted to get it right.
My eleven-year old brain couldn’t figure out why something so simple could be so hard. And maybe this trial-and-error is one reason I’m devoted to the kitchen.
Even now — in my mid-50s and a lifetime of cooking under my belt — I make mistakes all the time. Cooking keeps my interest because it’s impossible to say “I know how to do this.” Preparing food well is an ongoing process of learning and perfecting, from the simplest (like mashed potatoes ***) to the complex: using my taste-and-texture memory to recreate a restaurant dish I enjoyed.
I remember my Uncle Herman telling me that one of the reasons he loved to grow vegetables was because no matter what was bothering him, he could put on his boots **** and dig in his garden, where “all my cares go away for a while.”
I get that. Everyone needs something that serves as a refuge, an activity that gives them a break from their worries. I’m lucky that “getting away” is as close as the kitchen.
And just because I’m traveling doesn’t mean I don’t also need to “get away.”
*** I could make the argument that making excellent mashed potatoes is difficult.
**** Uncle Herman would put his socked feet in plastic grocery bags, then into his boots.