I learned to cook mostly by observation and experimentation. Somehow when food was being prepared, I found myself in the kitchen. At a young age, I would sit on a stool and watch my mom make desserts with the hope I’d get to lick the spoon or beaters. I saw how easily both my grandmothers just seem to grab this and add that to several pots and pans all sizzling or gurgling on the stove.
Going to Mamaw Lambdon’s in the summer time was always a treat. First, my cousins and I would be given baskets and told to go gather the fruits and vegetables from the very large garden my grandfather kept. Then off to the hen house to fetch the eggs.
In the kitchen my Mom and her sisters would shell peas, shuck corn, peel potatoes, all the while engaged in animated conversation. If you have ever seen movies like Tortilla Soup, or Like Water for Chocolate, you’ll have a sense of family engaged in a ritual of preparing a wonderful meal.
My Dad’s mother, Mamie Haines, was more of the “loner cook” type. She would always chase us out of the kitchen while she cooked. It might have been that she and my grandfather lived in a small apartment down the street from us and the tiny kitchen wasn’t built for crowds. I think that’s where I got my “kitchen is a haven from the stress of the day” attitude from. Mamie was a creature of habit with a cycle of meals that seemed to repeat with regimented regularity. Usually she made the meal just for my grandfather, Papaw Jack, and herself unless my sister or I joined them when our parents were out for an evening. One ritual I remember was Mamie setting out a stick of butter in a bowl on Friday evenings to soften over night. Each Saturday morning she would bake a week’s worth of cookies.
My Dad was the quintessential experimenter—especially with milk shakes. This seemed to be a weekend tradition. In the summer after a morning of yard work, Dad and I would meet in the kitchen around the blender (Dad’s favorite cooking utensil). He would scoop in the ice cream, usually vanilla. Then the fun started: “How about a banana today? Get me the malt! We gotta have some chocolate!” Then the universal ingredient—some kind of protein powder. Some days it was fresh fruit. Sometimes we’d add an egg. And sometimes we’d take one sip and pour it all out! Once the shake was finished, he’d pour it into glasses and we’d carry them to the back porch to sit and sip while we admired our morning’s yard work.
In high school I did a lot of camping with the Boy Scouts and with friends. When we took off for a weekend hike along the Appalachian Trail, we carried all our food with us. We’d divide the meals among us so no one had to cook all the time or carry all the food. Meals were simple. One of our favorites was something we called Girl Scout stew. I don’t know how it got the name. Before we hit the trail I’d brown some ground beef in a skillet and put it in one of those old fashioned steel coffee cans. Add a couple of cans of vegetable soup and tape the lid securely on the can. If I put it in the freezer overnight and then wrapped it in my towel, it would keep for supper the second night on the trail. All I had to do was punch a hole in the lid, put the can in the fire pit surrounded by coals for a while, and voila, it became a meal fit for hungry hikers.
We made other simple foods on the trail, too. Bread on a stick—simple biscuit dough rolled into a long “rope” and serpentined around a stick. The opposite end of the stick was anchored in the ground so the bread hung over the fire. Turn the stick every now and then until the bread was golden; then pull hunks off the stick and enjoy.
Now some 50 years later the urge to go camping has long since evaporated, but the pleasure of cooking and sharing food remains. Now I have a combination of my youthful food experiences tempered by age. From Mamie the routine of “Monday night is pasta night.” From my Dad, “Let’s see what’s in the pantry and fridge to make the sauce.” From Mamaw, my Mom and her sisters: “Gather and fix all the fresh vegetables, add some herbs and spices.” And from my experience, “Now and again it’s good to add a little wine.”