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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

What's Cooking?

A recent post on social media asked the question, who inspired you to learn to cook?  I learned two things from the comments in reply.  A lot of folks, and I mean a boatload were inspired by someone they saw on TV.  Many of the rest were inspired by a family member.


I fall into the latter category, for me it was my paternal grandmother, Josie.  Readers may recall that my own mother was not, shall we say, gifted in the culinary arts.  If there is a foodie equivalent to the black thumb some amateur gardeners possess, she had it in abundance.  Even today when family members gather and reminisce about holiday dinners, her undercooked fried chicken and incinerated pot roast can still invoke a form of gustatory PTSD.


In her defense, she never learned to cook as a young woman and was in fact forbidden to enter the kitchen.  Whether this was due to some premonition on her mother’s part or some other cause we’ll never know. As my father recounted the tale, he suffered through some perfectly dreadful meals early in the marriage which is why it became a custom in our household to eat dinner with his family on Sunday evenings. One good meal to get us through the week.


The moment you set foot in my Grandmother’s house you knew you had entered a sacred place.  The memory of the smells emanating from her kitchen to this day bring on instantaneous salivation.  There was nothing I loved more than to stand next to her in her kitchen and watch and taste and by some osmotic process a tiny particle of what she knew became a part of me.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am a decent enough cook, on rare occasions I can rise to slightly better than adequate –but sadly her genius was not genetic.


My father was a capable cook, though he limited his work to camping trips and other occasions when my mother was not present, not wishing to indict her skills by comparison. But even he could not replicate any dish Josie made. You might think that everyone looked forward to those Sunday gatherings, but here’s the thing, my Grandfather Adolph, was apparently immune to her cooking, even as the rest of the family ravenously devoured anything she put on the table.


My Grandfather was by any account brilliant and by the same accounts obsessively occupied with whatever was new, progressive and technologically advanced.  He was a serial inventor—a successful one but someone who cared little for material things and was much more interested in inventing the next thing.  Despite his success, one of the few luxuries he ever bought himself was an enormous freezer chest, which held pride of place in his finished basement. And what do you suppose he kept in there?  I promise I am not making this up, frozen TV dinners.  Yes, my Grandfather, the husband that Josie referred to in her thick European accent as “That Man” was fascinated by TV dinners, and his freezer chest was a veritable showcase for Swanson’s many experiments in barely edible frozen meals which he chose to eat on those Sunday evenings rather than partake of the feast Josie had labored over the entire day.


Is it any wonder then that my relationship with food and cooking in general is complex? It is not an overstatement to say that I love everything about food and drink, the tastes, the smells, the subtlety of cuisines from every corner of the world and I also love its preparation.  My favorite table in any restaurant would be in the kitchen, if they’d let me.  So, it is not a little disappointing that Josie’s legacy is lost forever. Her recipes, her skills and whatever arcane knowledge went with her.  Adolph outlived her, happily chowing down on a frozen meal du jour to the end of his days, never knowing what he had missed. I was too young and spent too little time at her side while she was alive to have fully imprinted so my skills are largely self-taught, but it is absolutely the truth that she was my inspiration. 


I like cooking shows on TV—but I cannot fully relate.  The smells and the tastes do not cross the ether.  The abstraction of cooking even with gorgeous photography and artful descriptions by the hosts just doesn’t inspire me the way my memories do.  I can follow recipes to a fare thee well and my favorite thing to do is to deconstruct a dish and try to suss out the spices and flavors I am tasting.  It’s the same way with wine, although I lay no claim to a sommelier’s palate.  Though I bear him no animus, my guess is that I inherited a little too much Adolph and not enough Josie.  My instincts aren’t there even if my taste buds are.


That’s my confession-it’s all out in the open for the world to read.   Now how about you, who taught you to cook?

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