Life, Loss, and TV Dinners: How The Kid Of A Food Writer Finally Learned To Cook
“This thing I know my mother gave me, shows up so acutely in those moments”
There’s still a particular anecdote from my childhood that my dad likes to tell, even though I am now approaching my mid 30s. In this story, I’m about 10 years old, and it has been (gently) suggested to me that it might be time I learned to use the stove. Back then, we lived on West 20th Street in Manhattan and the stove in question was a big, brown, gas-powered behemoth that I only paid attention to if a batch of clay needed to bake or if Dad and I were making pancakes for breakfast. Other than that, I ignored it completely. So when this offer of instruction was given to me, I (apparently) gave my father quite a look over my big, plastic glasses and said “Dad,” (here’s where Dad gives his voice for young me an admonishing tone and then chuckles) “I don’t do fire.”
More than two decades later, that story still pretty much sums up my feelings on cooking. “Doing fire” came to me late, and most of the time I weasel out it as much as possible. I would much rather put some Trader Joe’s pot stickers on to boil or order a pizza than roll up my sleeves and make something from scratch. So much can go wrong. I don’t know what spices go with other spices. One dish needs to be timed to the next dish so everything can be served or eaten at once, and I can just never manage it. There’s also always the mess factor. So, while I wish it weren’t so, I do not like to cook (at all, really). And while most shrug indifferently upon hearing this, a certain subset will look at me with distinct surprise. “But,” they say, with some initial trepidation, “but, your mother … ”
But, my mother. My mother made fabulous food. She adored cooking perhaps more than her other favorite things, which were swearing and coffee. Her name was Laurie Colwin and she was a writer, best known to many for her column in the late, lamented bastion of foodie culture, Gourmet magazine. Laurie was regarded as a breath of fresh air during the ’80s and early ’90s era of haute cuisine. An early champion of organic food and down-to-earth meals, she was vehemently anti- additives and preservatives well ahead of her time. During an era when frozen Salisbury steak dinners and canned three-vegetable medley were becoming the norm, Laurie made flank steak and battered zucchini blossoms, poached eggs, and fresh bread. Produce came from the Union Square Greenmarket. Until my mother’s sudden death in 1992, our home was one big, delicious dinner party.
The loss of Laurie stunned us. Life had changed overnight and a heaping side of grief did not go well with the preparation of, or cleaning up after, meals like roasted chicken, tomato pie, and black bean soup. There were more pressing needs to be met, like making sure I got to school on time; seeing if there was enough clean underwear for the week; or remembering to eat anything nutritious at all. For me, things like learning to “do fire” took a backseat to watching reruns of Full House on a newly acquired TV (my first) or drawing comic strips. Distractions were key for my eight-year-old brain, which was already kicking off an anxiety spiral that would dog me into adulthood.
So began a new era of culinary discovery. Stage one was the arrival of a microwave. Our freezer soon filled with boxed meals, each containing a frozen puck of … something. If I fed the microwave a food puck, it would hum and ding and spin it into chicken with rice, lasagna, apple crisp—almost instantly. It was like magic until, well, it wasn’t. The food just didn’t taste right, not like homemade. Somehow I had expected it to be on par. Microwaved stuff seemed tired, like the journey from ice block to steaming meal had been an exhausting journey. Chicken surrendered its tenderness and came out as rubbery cubes, and anything resembling a vegetable wilted on contact. But it was a Hungry Man dinner—runny mashed potatoes, beef that wouldn’t heat evenly, and an iridescent cherry dessert, all on one tray—that broke the camel’s back. The insta-food thing had been such a good idea, and eight-year-old me was crushed that it just fundamentally wouldn’t work.
I would like to say that I learned to cook then, but I did not. This task fell to my father, who very quickly moved from unsteady stir-fries to beef teriyaki, seared tuna, and the best steamed salmon I’ve ever had in my life. He produced Brussels sprouts; long, tender string beans; and broccoli with a panko-butter sauce. Later, my stepmom would simmer homemade pasta sauce on the stovetop, mixing it into spaghetti and tortellini. She baked chicken, which was served with carefully sautéed asparagus and zucchini. Bread pudding became her specialty, along with other hearty autumnal desserts. We began to really eat again.
My mother is not me; I am not my mother. She may have attempted to fry her first egg at the age of three, but the first real meal I ever made for myself occurred sometime in my very young adulthood. It could have been during my senior year of college, when I lived in an abysmal walk-up with equally abysmal people. Or maybe it was in the tiny, blue-and-yellow-tile galley kitchen of my apartment in San Diego, on the electric stove with bent coils. Whichever it was, I can now “do fire” with passable results; I can—and do—feed myself, sometimes with surprising success. And every now and then, when I whisk up fluffy whipped cream for a friend’s party or turn out a perfect Latvian birthday cake on the first try or recreate a dish I haven’t had since Laurie died, I’ll have shifted into a different mode. Maybe it’s an instinct I picked up from those early years spent playing on the kitchen floor. I don’t know. How much can a person learn while preoccupied with running a plastic tiger up the edge of a mixing bowl? Anyway, this whatever-it-is, this feeling, knowledge, this thing I know my mother gave me, shows up so acutely in those moments. And, almost, in a funny sort of way, so does she.