There are a number of women who have played an important role in my life by guiding and illustrating to me the value of preparing good food. You either like to cook or you don't and I happen to be one of the former. Early on, I needed some help. I would not call my mother the kind of cook one would aspire to be and I'll get to her later, so when I encountered great cooks in my early years, I watched them like a hawk and tried to emulate their ways. I admire each of them, not only as cooks, but wonderful women who have contributed to my values and supported me in more ways than I can count. Happy Mother's Day to all of them who are still with us and sweet remembrance to those who have gone to their reward. They are my Mount Rushmore.
Sylvia - We were newly weds when Sylvia and her family moved in next door shortly after we bought our first house. They where remodeling their kitchen when a snow storm left them short on food so I invited them over for breakfast - I could cook pancakes and bacon. Once their kitchen was ready Sylvia's Cuban heritage shined. She had already mastered things I hadn't even thought of yet. I was clueless and she never seemed to mind my silly questions; she could do anything. Our first invitation to dinner was paella. I was wowed! Her baking is perfection and she gave me the cookie dough recipe I have used for thousands of decorated cookies. It's really her Christmas coffee ring that we've received every year that means so much to me. She never fails to remember my family in a most delicious way. I'd call her "The Natural" of cooking.
Mary Helen - She is my best friend's mother and I'm not sure I can put into words an adequate description of her or what she has meant to me. Charming, beautiful and talented barely scratch the surface. She has a gift and flair for everything. She is the total package! She entertained frequently with ease and made most of the food herself. Some time during my high school years, she was preparing for a party and created a fruit presentation made out of a pineapple and a crook neck squash fashioned to look like a peacock. I was drifting through their house and was stunned to see this creation much less one made by my friend's mother. Could a mother do such things, well this lovely lady could do anything. I tried, once, to think of something she couldn't do well and gave up. I asked how she knew how to make the pineapple peacock (this was way before Martha Stewart) and she just shrugged her shoulders and said, "Oh, I just do". She showed me how to really look at things and see them differently. I would have seen just a squash and a pineapple, she saw a peacock.
Anne and Mary Lou - Two women who functioned as one in the kitchen. Anne was another friend's mother and Mary Lou was their domestic. Both were fabulous cooks and a formidable team. Anne ran the tightest ship I've ever seen with the help of the jolly Mary Lou. Any and every meal was a feast and prepared to the highest standard. Both where masters of traditional Southern fare but Anne never hesitated to take on anything from Baklava to Newburg. I was wide eyed at the scope and range of meals put on their table. Nothing like that was ever attempted at my house. My friend and I where allowed and encouraged to learn cooking in her home. The food was so good at their house I even sampled some liver and onions once, and liked it. I began to understand, when something is done really well, you can change your mind about it and anyththing worth doing should be done well. Both are gone now but left a fabulous legacy to anyone who sat at their table.
Jan - She's fed her husband, five children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and countless others. She does numbers well. She organizes big meals routinely. My husband is a friend of one of the son's and we went to a party at their home on our first date. Their house was always where the action was. The house was a wreck and I thought to myself, trouble, big trouble, but Jan always took things in stride and moved on. I remember thinking if I ever had a family I wanted to be like her. I've fallen way short, I must admit. If the church needed 300 pieces of fried chicken for a dinner she volunteered and fried it all herself. They have a home on a lake where my husband and I visited while dating. He told me he wanted a home there too someday and that came to pass 25 years later. We've shared a lot of family life with Jan and her family. She attracts people with her warmth and caring and has always been willing to share generously of herself and what she has. She reminds me of the feeding of the 5000 in the Bible, there is always room for you at her table and plenty of food.
Callie - When it comes to giants, I'm looking straight up at this lady. My husband's parents died an untimely death and he and his brothers went to live with his uncle and his wife, Callie. They where already grandparents by the time three orphaned nephews arrived on their doorstep. Callie had a degree in and had taught home economics . She knew the science behind the recipe and all sorts of stuff. As her nephew's fiancee' she deemed it her duty to marched me into her kitchen and say "Young lady, do you know how to fry chicken?" I gulped and muttered something, I was still awestruck by the kitchen itself. This was way before the day of "gourmet kitchens", Callie had a restaurant grade kitchen in their home! Steel counter tops, a massive stove and cook top, large double door refrigerator and a crushed ice machine. Not one of those little under the counter deals, this was the big commercial kind with I-C-E painted down the side. She imparted from vast knowledge, cooking secrets and kitchen wisdom I have found invaluable. In addition, she was way ahead of her time when it came to health food. She would grind a mixture of whole grains in an old fashion hand coffee grinder then cook them for her breakfast cereal. She inspired me to study and learn about food not just follow a recipe. She probably would have given me a C+.
Jeanne - Another of my husband's aunts. She left the South behind and headed North living in one of those classy commuter towns outside New York. She adapted herself to a more sophisticated and urban environment. Her cooking adapted also. French cooking was her signature for a while, then she went to Asian before Asian was fashionable or whatever struck her fancy but she explored cooking of other genres. She picked up the trends early. She insisted on reading the Sunday New York Times no matter where she was, in particular the food section. Life handed Jeanne a boat load of lemons and she did her best to make lemonade with them. I would call her long distance and discuss food or anything with her and she was full of great wisdom and advice. As in laws go, I loved her. When she called to tell me the doctors said it was terminal, she handled it with her usual chipper attitude, I was the one crying. She didn't have much left at that point but she wanted me to have certain things, in particular, what she held valuable. The thing I cherished the most was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first edition.by Julian Child. Encouragement is priceless.
Debbie - When I use a caterer, she's my girl. A great friend and a fabulous cook. She has a photograph of herself and Julia Child framed in her kitchen. Talk about inspiration, she never holds back, goes for it with out a second thought. She is the best at seasoning I've ever known and I could not duplicate her seasoning mixes. She labels them beef massage, poultry potion, and pork rub. She's got salad dressings, brines, delivered meals, on line pick-up, gift bags, stocking suffers, nut mixes just to mention a few in her repertoire. She has smoked turkey, Cornish hens, pulled pork, tenderloin and, I have in my freezer, right now, of the most sinful little bite of something that tastes like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. I've never set foot in her house that she hasn't beckoned me to sit a spell with a glass of wine and a crisp linen cocktail napkin and something to nibble. A charming, smart and great cook who puts her talents on the market. Why can't I do that?
Mother - For someone who owns hundreds of cookbooks and subscribed to numerous cooking periodicals, she confounded me with her inability to follow a recipe. Most of our daily meals where dull, overcooked offerings and we ate out a lot. Then Christmas would come along and it was an explosion of foods and epic feasts that set her apart and left her exhausted for some time. Once she set her mind to a task, she was obsessive. It had to be incomparable and a standard no one else in her sphere could achieve. Consider the biscuit. I've seen numerous recipes claiming to be the "ultimate", the "classic", the "perfect" and so on --HA!! My mother hunted down a biscuit that is unequalled. The cook's name was Myrtle Mask in Bryson City, North Carolina. After years of begging, nagging and persistence, she rose well before dawn several mornings in a row to learn the secrets. These where biscuits that stood tall, light, browned to perfection and could make a grown man cry. My brother-in-law held a record for most consumed at a single sitting. There where only 4 ingredients but they were local products. I attended college in a neighboring state where they could be bought. Every time, I came home, I was instructed to bring home a bag of the flour and a particular brand of pure lard or don't come home at all. Mother picked her marks carefully and then hit the bulls eye. Her standards where and still are very, very high.
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