CONFESSIONS OF A FOODIE WANNABE
Not long ago, my husband, Dave, came home to find me standing at the kitchen table with my chef’s knife in hand, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking open beside me. The soundtrack from Chocolat was cranking on the stereo. I might even have been wearing an apron. Dave surveyed the scene and said, “You’re in the zone, aren’t you?”
I am married to a natural cook whose culinary philosophy is “keep it simple, and cook it with love.” Well, what about those of us who aren’t naturals—those who can’t remember whether we just added salt or sugar, let alone a smidgen of love?
For years, I pretended it didn’t matter: I’m too busy to cook! I have a career! I have a life! It was all so much bluster. The truth is, every time I stepped into the kitchen back then, I was haunted by the spirits of all the great cooks in my Southern family. You know—the from-scratch cooks, the if-you-can-shoot-it-I-can-baste-it cooks. As if my insecurities needed still more fuel, I eventually got myself a job at a magazine that is legendary for its food. There, I met my first serious foodies, people who spent their vacations taking pasta lessons in Italy or pastry classes in France. And then there was me without a garlic press.
In fairness, I can’t blame my bumpy ride down Culinary Road entirely on others. Early on, I did the worst thing you can do—attempted to cook without knowing anything whatsoever about the basics. My mother had tried, in vain, to corral me in the kitchen, but I was too impatient. What little I had picked up at home was long since forgotten. So my fried chicken never got crispy, and my cornbread was hard as a brick. All my mishaps added up to a “you can’t do it” message that played on a constant loop in my brain every time I set foot in a kitchen. I hadn’t yet grasped the most important cooking lesson of all: We learn by doing. We learn by making mistakes and trying again. We learn by confessing to our mothers that our first pan of lasagna had crunchy noodles (and taking it gracefully when she points out that maybe we should’ve boiled them first).
The turning point, for me, came when I was in my thirties. Still single, I had grown weary of attending bridal shower after bridal shower, buying other women fine china and quality bakeware while I was still eating frozen pizza off the same plates I had in college. I marched myself to the mall, picked out a china pattern and some every-day, and informed my family that they no longer had to wonder what to get me for Christmas and birthdays.
A strange thing happens when you acquire that first decent set of tableware. Suddenly, you want to entertain. In most circles, that requires food. At first, I relied on easy appetizers and barbecue joints that delivered, slowly discovering how special it was to bring people together around my very own table. Over time, though, it became more and more important to me to make something for friends and family, and once Dave and I got engaged, that desire grew even stronger. I registered for cookbooks and cutlery and baking pans. I started quizzing the women in my family for tips and kitchen secrets. When Dave and I hosted the family Thanksgiving for the first time, I spent an afternoon making cornbread dressing with Aunt Grace (who makes the best there is, and that’s a fact).
A couple of years ago, when I left the corporate world to freelance, I told my mother I wanted to enroll in “Mama University”— to spend some serious time with her in the kitchen and see if I couldn’t master all those dishes I love. Right off the bat, we recruited my cousin Jenny to photograph cooking steps while I took notes. Then we decided to branch out from food and invited my aunt, a terrific floral arranger, to give us a lesson in holiday centerpieces. We’re busy right now rifling through Christmas books and magazines, figuring out what new projects and recipes we want to try together.
The moral of this story is that food brings people together in more ways than one. All the women in my family are flattered when I ask for their cooking advice—and I’m very grateful to get it. So we’ve bonded in a whole new way. Granted, I still can’t fry chicken worth a flip, and I have yet to bake a layer cake. But my cornbread dressing is not bad. Ditto my spaghetti sauce and sweet potato casserole. I know I have much to learn, but with the help of my kitchen-savvy sisterhood, I’ll get there—one stick of butter at a time.
Valerie’s go-to appetizer for the holidays and year round is Mary Allen Perry’s Pimiento Cheese.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is guest post by Valerie Fraser Luesse.
Valerie is an award-winning magazine writer, best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living. She writes about unique pockets of Southern culture—those places where the people and their landscape are intricately intertwined, and has published major pieces on the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana’s Acadian Prairie, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her editorial section on the recovering Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina won the 2009 Travel Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society. Read more at www.goindowntomamas.com.