Cooking Lessons by
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Prompted By Learning To Cook

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As the only daughter, I grew up learning domestic chores as my mother’s helper. Among these were learning to cook. While her meals were predictable, I served as sous chef, preparing parts of the meal. Making a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a vinaigrette dressing or preparing cooked chocolate pudding for dessert (remember the delicious “skin” on top?) — these were typical assignments.

My childhood cookbook was filled with images of perky girls wearing aprons (whatever happened to my aprons?) serving food to guys in sport coats and crew cuts.

There were also rules for maintaining an orderly kitchen she taught me.

  1. When cooking or baking, clean up as you go. When you are finished, there should be no dirty bowls or measuring spoons or spatulas to clean.
  2. Wear an apron in the kitchen to keep your clothes clean.
  3. Never leave dishes in the sink. Wash and dry them right after use, and put them away where they belong.

Mostly, Mom taught me how to bake. She was an excellent baker and, while I don’t make her recipes that required working with yeast doughs, I still bake her mandel bread and chocolate cake. I have many recipe cards like this one in her handwriting that are precious to me, even if I rarely make these things anymore.

Several years ago, when clearing out a kitchen cabinet to prepare for a small kitchen remodel, I found the cookbook in the featured image that my mother gave me to practice my culinary skills: Baking Fun and Facts for Teens. It featured chapters entitled …

  • Baking days are fun
  • The whole crowd loves cookies
  • Pies to make you proud

Published in the 1950s by Wesson Oil, this was apparently my bible for domesticity as a pre-teen. The cookbook promises: “… The knack of making good things makes you somebody special … Remember, practice makes perfect — and helps you win showers of praise.”

My childhood cookbook was filled with images of perky girls wearing aprons (whatever happened to my aprons?) serving food to guys in sport coats and crew cuts.

Well, this explains a lot. Even in my radical college days, protesting the war in Viet Nam went hand-in-hand with baking my husband-to-be German Chocolate cakes from scratch. Despite living through the bra-burning days of feminism and reading Ms. Magazine faithfully, a recipe for domestic bliss had been drilled into my head when learning to cook with my mother. It went something like this:

  1. Combine marriage with having children at young age. Stir until brain is thoroughly blended.
  2. Mix well with changing all diapers and washing clothes frequently.
  3. Heat oven to 350 degrees to prepare and serve a family dinner every evening.
  4. Continue to whip all responsibility for management of household and children, even when working outside the home, until you are well beaten.
  5. Never sift through these ingredients, as it may cause recipe to boil over.

My grandchildren find it exotic that their parents ate dinner as a family most nights at 6:30. When they eat together as a family, it’s usually in a restaurant or at my house. They also think it’s strange that dinner used to be the same for everyone, and that I cooked it. I explain that the microwave didn’t enter our lives until their parents were pre-teens. And it was an appliance mainly used for reheating leftovers. So yes, there was one menu and PB&J for anyone who didn’t like it.

Back to my kitchen remodel, the cause of finding the cookbook. I was opening my kitchen wall to the dining room and installing an island with seating for 2-3 people. This is what everyone wants these days, right? An open concept. But maybe it’s also a metaphor for another change in domestic life. After all, I’m swapping my kitchen table for an island. Islands conjure up images of isolation. They are totally conducive to what my friends and I call the “short order cook” approach to feeding our grandkids. They each get something they like at whatever time their schedules permit it. There is not much time for cooking lessons these days.

Back in 1624, John Donne (sorry, old English teachers like me think everything relates to an old poem) wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Of course, he was writing about the interconnectedness of mankind, not kitchen islands. But I can’t help but wonder if I had an island with three stools, a microwave, and a freezer full of Trader Joe’s convenience food back in the 1980s, would cooking lessons and family dinners have been the casualty?

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful story of learning to cook and the changes that have transpired to family dinners over the generations. I particularly love the lessons you learned from your mother about cleaning as you go, wearing an apron, etc. I confess, I still do those things (even though I rarely cook). And your 5 points for domestic bliss, learned from your mother, even while you read Ms. Magazine are so typical of that era.

    I also love your John Donne metaphor, Laurie. Everyone leads hectic lives; we come and go, no one likes the same food, or sits down at the same time and all too often, the TV is on in the background. We no longer sit as a family and talk about our day. I agree that something has been lost, when we sit at an island.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Betsy, for getting my points about how meal time has changed since when we grew up. It’s a lot easier to prepare meals now with all of the conveniences available to us. When I have my kids/grandkids over, however, we usually order in because they all like/expect different things. Makes my life easier but also makes me sad about something that has been lost.

  2. As always Laurie, your stories are thought-provoking and right on!

    My mother was as much a feminist as one of her generation could be, she had a career, albeit teaching (the safe woman’s career!) but also was involved in political causes, was out-spoken, and never played second-fiddle to my father.

    But she always had dinner on the table, and of course we all ate together , and she once did tell me that the smell of frying onions would keep my husband happy while waiting for dinner to be ready.

    And she never cooked dinner on weekends, that was the time she made reservations!

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    I too loved your five steps—ones I did not follow but remember well. Your cookbook description reminded me that I also had a simple learn-to-cook book, full of pretty awful stuff. And the apron advice—needed now more than ever—works as a bib as well ha ha. And clean as you go—my mother’s mantra too. The change in mealtime habits seems sad. We still actually set the table and eat together (all two of us).

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Laurie. I particularly resonate to your collection of lists. I don’t necessarily agree ot the items on them — and I am sure you don’t weither, at least now — but the idea of lists is also ingrained in me, for better or worse.

    And I loved your reflections about having had that island (and I, too, immediately thought of kitchen islands) back in the 80’s, and whether that would have change the course of your personal and culinary history. I think by asking that question you’ve probably answered it.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are so right, John. Having to sit together around a kitchen table, once we came up with an seating arrangement that prevented the kids from kicking or poking each other, led to great conversations and connections.

  5. Suzy says:

    Wonderful, thorough story about cooking experiences then and now. Particularly love your tongue-in-cheek rules for domestic bliss, and that protesting the war went hand in hand with baking cakes from scratch for your future husband.

    Interesting thoughts about having an island in the kitchen. We have one (it was there when we bought the house), but it is just for cooking, not a place to eat. It’s right by the kitchen table. Now you’ve made me glad that it’s not for eating. Since I don’t have grandchildren, I don’t know how I would deal with expectations of “short order cook” behavior. I think I would still go with “eat what we’ve made, or make your own.” But who knows?!

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    Old cookbooks remind me of old recipe booklets, which seemed to be given out EVERYWHERE back in the 60s. Every pot, pan, appliance ingredient or bottle of booze seemed to come with a little glossy book of sometimes (to me, now) insane to the point of distasteful recipes.

    The accompanying pictures were often ghastly:
    http://lileks.com/institute/gallery/index.html

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