Spice of Life by
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Prompted By Learning To Cook

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I learned about cooking mostly from hanging around the kitchen and getting occasional pointers from my mother.  This is how you cut up a chicken, this is how I do ham for pea soup, could you get out the frozen peas for me?  I set and cleared the table, did the dishes, and trailed along in the grocery store. My mother adhered to the meat, starch, vegetable and dessert theory of dinner—good nutrition–but cooking wasn’t her love.  On special occasions she made Chinese or Indian food, a big production.  Most of the time I think it was easier for her to do it herself.  Breakfast was OJ and cereal, lunch was soup and sandwiches, and it wasn’t hard to learn to do this on my own.

Big error:  I hadn’t actually checked the recipe before the day of the meal.

There were a few things I made when I was a teen, that she wouldn’t have bothered with.  Mostly Jello and cakes from mixes, with homemade butter and confectioner sugar frosting.  I ate most of the product, with a little help from my sisters.

The first time I tried to make a real meal was my second year in college, when I moved into the one of the co-op dorms.  There were maybe twenty people in each dorm, and we all took turns cooking dinners on weekday nights.  The kitchen was large and well-equipped with a good variety of staples, and there must have been a budget for the meals. Some people seemed to relish the idea of showing off their skills and got kudos from the always-hungry dorm-mates.  I felt I was out of my depth, but still had the responsibility to rise to the occasion on the appointed day.

How I settled on my menu who knows, but probably it had something to do with cost and simplicity.  I recall sausages boiled in water, with mustard and sauerkraut (did I know enough to cook it or just serve it straight from the jar?). Hot dog buns.  Maybe salad for more vegetable?  For dessert, I inexplicably decided on custard, which I had never cooked and rarely ate. Maybe it seemed exotic and I was trying to compete at least a little. But why not the cake from a box—or even the rubbery Jello–which I actually knew how to make?

In any case, it turned out that making custard from the recipe I located (from scratch—not a mix) was far more complicated than I anticipated.  Big error:  I hadn’t actually checked the recipe before the day of the meal.  Soon I was stirring eggs over a double boiler and putting the product in small ramekins, which had to be placed in a water bath in the oven to cook.  What was I thinking?  Somewhat anxious about getting everything done in time to be served (hungry students are not always patient), I sprinkled the garnish of nutmeg over the top of the custard—and then realized it looked a little funny.  Uh oh, it was turmeric!

In a mild panic, I grabbed a spoon and scraped off the tops of all the custards, threw on the nutmeg, and hoped for the best.

When the meal was finally and belatedly placed on the table, I would say the reception to my cooking effort was, well, not cruel.  But I don’t think anyone looked forward to my next meal.  As it turned out, I left school after that semester and lived with a roommate in Berkeley, inventing food out of the weekly Food Conspiracy box of vegetables (heavy on the potatoes) and becoming adept at stir fry.  And never made custard again.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: funny, right on!


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Khati, reading your custard adventure, I felt like I was watching an episode of the Great British Bake Show. You certainly were daring! I give you loads of credit for that! My senior year, I deliberately did NOT move with my friends to the new dorms on campus that were apartments with no meal plan and they did their own cooking because I did not know how. I was student teaching first semester and, as a theater major, was always in the theater second semester, with weird, unreliable hours. And I was just plain afraid. Stir fry sounds like a great solution!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Stir fry was certainly my go-to for years! Over time, I have learned a lot but have never become an avid cook—although I have always enjoyed eating! Fortunately I ended up with a great cook and I am good at the dishes.

  2. Funny Khati, reminds me the time I mistook paprika for cinnamon making something like pecan pie!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Your custard adventure sounds only slightly better than my choco-cherry cake one, and at least yours was salvageable and edible. And I’ve always loved stir fry except for two little things: getting splattered with very hot oil and the lingering smell for days and days. I used to work a lot with a law firm in a big office building that had a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor and, until they were finally able to fix the ventilation system, the smells from the woks in its open kitchen used to waft up to their offices. I loved it; they (who had to deal with it daily) hated it.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    So true—at least the custard didn’t explode! Like you, I have always likely spicy and aromatic foods, but I can imagine that being above a restaurant could be a mixed blessing.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Yours mother’s cooking habits sound like the ones I grew up with. Great story about your efforts to make custard. Have you ever seen the cooking show Nailed It? I don’t watch those shows but that one is funny.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I haven’t watched the cooking shows, but it does sound like my efforts would fit right in.
      Also sounds like many of our mothers had a similar approach to the kitchen and other things too—we are definitely of a cohort!

  6. Suzy says:

    Wow, learning how to cook by making dinner for everyone in the co-op. You were brave even to agree to live there. Great job of salvaging the custard by scraping off the turmeric and throwing on some nutmeg. As I remember those days, probably most of the residents were too stoned to distinguish turmeric from nutmeg anyway!

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