Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Joy of Cooking

It all started with a crock pot.

Back in 1988, after only two years of marriage, George grew bored with my limited repertoire of recipes so, in a desperate effort to broaden our dietary options, he bought a crock pot.

Do you know how infinitely weird it is to see your otherwise testosterone-driven, USAF second-lieutenant “I wanna fly in fighters” husband dancing with glee over a $20 crock pot he bought at the BX? Trust me. It’s weird.

He comes by his innate passion for cooking honestly. His mother is half Italian, which gives her a genetic imperative to cook. She enjoys putting good, rich, plentiful food on her family table, and both her children inherited that joy.

I’m not feeling quite the same level of joy myself. But then, there are no Italians in my family tree, either. My mother taught me to cook, for which I am grateful. Because of her, I can follow a recipe and feel pretty competent in the kitchen. I can pull together a complete Thanksgiving feast without feeling intimidated by anything except the gravy.

Why does the thought of having to make gravy give me anxious hives? I mean, why gravy? It doesn't make sense because gravy isn't terribly difficult or persnickity. Lots of other things are harder to make. Pie crust, for instance. Most people break out in anxious hives over pie crust and run to their grocer's freezer to buy them ready-made. Not me. All through my childhood, my mother would make dozens of apple pies every fall to freeze and give as Christmas gifts. Her apple pies are legendary, and she taught me her secrets so well that my apple pie won a blue ribbon at our church festival.

Of course, I won because I waited until the last minute to bake the pie, and it was still warm when the judges tasted it. (I didn’t strategize this, by the way, I just procrastinated.) No matter how wonderful other desserts are, they simply cannot compete with warm, cinnamon-rich, buttery apple pie. I felt like I was cheating.

I live in America, folks, the land of baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Of those three things, the only one every single man, woman, and child in the country cares about is apple pie. If you want to win a baking contest in America every single blessed time, submit a warm apple pie.

But am I passionate about cooking? Not really. It’s okay, but I’m more of a short-order cook and baker than a true chef. I don’t make up recipes or contemplate the mysteries of yeast while stuck in traffic. Cooking is mostly a chore for me, so I look for ways to make it go fast.

To my great good fortune, my apathetically monotonous menu activated George’s passion for cooking. Even in the early days, he created surprisingly few disasters. Only two have seared themselves into my memory. In case you didn’t know, pinto beans cooked to mush in Italian spices are not delicious. Also, if a recipe calls for two ancho chiles in adobo sauce, don’t use two CANS of ancho chiles in adobo sauce.

Please trust me on that one.

Mostly, however, George succeeds in his culinary adventures, which have increased in both daring and cost over the years. I cannot let him go to our local upscale market unsupervised anymore. Did you know it’s entirely possible to spend $100 on a single meal? Okay, it wasn’t just a single meal because there were enough leftovers to last a week. George is one-quarter Italian, remember. He cooks BIG.

To curb the expense, we started playing our version of Iron Chef. I buy a fairly random selection of ingredients that don’t cost $100, and George has to invent something edible with those ingredients using only whatever else we have to hand. He’s invented some lovely dishes with these challenges, and he has fun pretending to be Bobby Flay.

A dude who makes Julia Child’s French bread and fearlessly tosses a cup of water into his hot oven makes a great husband, but he comes at a price. Whenever I make dinner—let’s say a pot of chili—George will eat it and then tell me what he would have done differently. “Oh, I would have added a hint of Penzey’s ancho chili powder; it would add a more complex, smoky flavor.”

WHAT!? Are you saying my chili doesn’t have enough flavor?!?! You make the freakin’ chili next time, Mr. Flavor Expert!

Of course, he doesn’t mean it like that. He’s a foodie, and he just wants to talk about food. A lot. Like anyone with an obsessive interest, he derives great pleasure from discussing the process, the ingredients, a recipe’s good points and bad points and how he’ll change it next time. He contemplates the complexities of spices while sitting in boring meetings, invents recipes in the shower, plans menus while riding his bike. Sometimes, he even dreams about food.

To fuel these thoughts, he collects books and magazines about cooking. Consider this picture of his cookbook shelves:

Methinks we need bigger shelves.

For a while, George fantasized about going to a cooking school to become a professional chef, but after reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, he decided that wasn’t a lifestyle he wanted. Instead, he kept buying cookbooks and magazines until he so overflowed with ideas and enthusiasm that he craved a larger audience than little ol’ me. He started his own cooking blog, and posts his inventions and ideas for the world to see.

George uses his blog (Eat, Drink, and Be Merry with Spot) to spread the joy of cooking. I encourage you to check it out, even if you didn’t inherit powerful cooking genes, because finding joy in an everyday necessity really is good for the soul.

This Thanksgiving, George is making the gravy, but I'm making the apple pie. What a great way to share the joy.


  1. Your posts are always great Susan!!! My big quandary is whether or not to trust the pop up timer. I haven't decided not over the years. LOL!

  2. My mother was the first member of her Italian family born in America and didn't learn English until she went to school. Her kitchen was a sacred space that none of us were worthy of sharing. She liked to be its one and only occupant, and so I never learned to cook the Italian way.

    I am a second generation Italian without a passion for food or cooking. I love sitting down around a table but I seldom get any pleasure from the process of planning or preparing food.

    Early in our marriage I baked all our bread, experimented with recipes, and had friends over for dinner frequently (as in at least once a week). I hosted parties and made things like a braided egg bread stuffed with a sweet onion filling.

    Now the only thing I hate more than cooking is cooking for other people. A recent road trip took my children to their Italian relatives who cooked the Italian way and all I've heard since then is how inadequate my cooking is. Predictably, this does not inspire me to become a better or more enthusiastic cook. Instead, it makes me wonder if my Aunt Ange would like boarders.

  3. V-Grrl,

    Your mom sounds like my grandmother. My poor mom couldn't boil water when she left home and had to teach herself. She promised me and my sister she wouldn't let that happen to us.

    Why not make the Boy and Girl and Man start cooking? Take the stand that if they're gonna complain, they're gonna do the work. That would give you more time for art and blogging, you know, all the fun stuff. *wink*

  4. I can vouch for George's great food and have even cooked a few meals for him myself. I have only done so with explicit instruction to not criticize or state how said food could have been made better. He has graciously held back. I would like to say that is a rule in my house but my dear husband has never complained about a meal I have prepared for him and my daughter only eats pizza bites or pasta and son only eats Hebrew National hot dogs (cooked in microwave and can only be the skinny beef jumbo for him) and apple sauce. I can't say I enjoy cooking most of the time...even for my appreciative husband.

  5. Susan, I'm an appreciative reader of your blog ... every time! I've read the Julie & Julia book and now am on Julia Child's memoir ~ and loved the cooking post. Thanks for including George's blog.

    p.s. now I'm hungry ;)


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!