Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How I learned to cook

In a past life, I lived in North Dakota. Married at 19. Baby at 21. Attended college and wrote for a local paper for extra nessesary cash.

The Valley Journal was the local weekly newpaper. I was the writer. Not one of the writers, THE writer. So to fill pages I was given a lot of freedom. Sports (high school), human interest (quilters, social gatherings, garage-shop toy makers), buisness (success of new sandwich at the local cafe), woman-about-town question and answer column (Look out for Lindsey), etc. One of my favorite articles to write was my weekly slice of life column where I commented on Midwestern culture as observed by an outsider (I was born Alaskan).

My parents were so proud. One story that my mom brings up often is "Dinner for Mom and Dad" (a real headturner of a headline in Halstad, MN).

I pulled it up the other day and laughed. Maybe you will too. Sorry I don't have the recipe. Still, I don't think I'd give it to you even if I had it! My cooking has come a long way since then. Nevertheless, it's always humbling to go back to one's roots!

Dinner for Mom and Dad
By Lindsey Evenson
(originally published in The Valley Journal, Halstad, MN, June, 2004)
“What do you want for dinner?” I asked. Rarely are these words uttered in my house. Normally, I fix up whatever I have the ingredients for. Sometimes this is a little challenging when all I have in the kitchen are dried beans, tuna, and canned mandarin oranges. However, fishy bean casserole with mandarins is not something I would ever serve to houseguests, much less my mom and dad.

“I’ll cook,” my mom offered. But I assured her that I could do it. This was my chance to show my mom that I wasn’t a kid anymore. In my house, I was the wife and mom. I could make dinner and take care of my family. Beside, my pantry was sparse and I didn’t want Mom to see my lack of ingredients and throw up her hands in despair.

“What do you have?” my dad yelled back from the TV room. He had been trained to ask this question because if he said “steak” or “hamburgers” he knew that the likelihood of getting an actual steak was quite unlikely. At home, my mom probably would have responded to a steak request with a meatloaf made from what ever she had on hand mixed with a little A1 steak sauce. And it would have tasted wonderful.

You see, my mom has much the same type of pantry as I do – picked over and sparse. This type of pantry requires creativity. It is a good thing Mom is the most creative person I know. Along with the ability to create a meal out of nothing, Mom can make a meal in no time flat. This talent of her’s is something I always admired growing up.

She never needed a cookbook, the right ingredients, or much time to serve up a gourmet meal. I would sit on a kitchen stool and watch her chop and stir and flip with all burners on high like a mad scientist. Then with a wipe of her hands on the kitchen towel and dusting of pepper, Mom would serve up the most beautiful, delicious meal with ease. I wanted to be just like her.

Knowing I did not have much to work with, I tried to buy myself some time. I began to “talk it out” just like a contestant on the TV game show Millionaire.

“Well, we have oranges, cheddar cheese, milk, canned tomatoes…” I went on listing when the light finally flipped on in my head. “How about chili?” I asked.

That sounded good to everyone.

“I’ll help!” my mom offered, “What can I do?” I could see the restraint in her face. She wanted so badly to take over and throw together a genius pot of chili.

Mom was struggling not to take over as mom.

I took advantage and assigned her to the dishes just like she had done to me when I was growing up. Also, this gave me time to pull together some ingredients.

First came the easy ones – hamburger, beans, onions, and tomatoes. Then I had to figure out how to make it into actual chili.

With only one can of tomatoes, I need a substitute with a tomato flavor. How about spaghetti sauce? I put it on the counter. Then came the seasonings. I had little else but garlic and pepper.

I began to think, “If I were chili, what would I want in my pot? Hmmm… Barbeque sauce!” I reached into my fridge and pulled out the barbeque sauce, knocking over the spicy mustard. “Oh, that could go in there too!” I kept pulling out bottles of this and cans of that until I was satisfied.

My mom dried the last dish and looked at my assortment of canned good and condiments. She started to laugh. “Is this for the chili?” she asked in disbelief. There were a lot of miss-matched flavors but I just smiled and said, “Of course!”

Not sure where to start, I offered to let her brown the meat while I started dumping my assortment into the chili pot. Still, Mom’s look of doubt did not melt away and I could tell she was dying to take over.

“It’ll be fine Mom. Trust me!” I said sounding a lot more confident that I actually was.

“Oh I do trust you,” she said unconvincingly, “I’ve just never made chili like that before.” We simultaneously cranked our burners to high. This was the first time I had stood side by side with someone at the stove since I cooked with my husband just after we were married. Our very first fight was over burner temperature. We haven’t cooked together since.

“At least I cook on high. You taught me that Mom.! This will be ready as soon as you get that meat browned.” So Mom browned, and I dumped and stirred just as fast I could.

In a whirlwind Mom grated the cheese. I pulled out the bowls. Mom poured the milk, and I dished the chili. We wiped our hands on a dishtowel.

I gave a final dusting of pepper. We both called everyone to the table. “Dinner’s ready!” we declared with smiles. Underneath our grins we were both afraid of what would happen next.

Everyone sat down in front of a steaming bowl. Mom and I watch closely with beads of sweat forming on our brows. We both stared at Dad, an impartial judge who had eaten Mom’s food and would now try mine.

“Did I do it? Did I pull it off?” I thought, nervous about whether I would pass the test. Had I learned to throw together a first class meal with no ingredients and no time? I could see my mom’s wheels turning too as my Dad lifted the spoon to his lips.

“Did I do it? Did I pull it off?” she was thinking. What kind of role model had she been as a mother and wife? Had she taught me how to be a homemaker or had her habit of hodge-podge cooking damaged her daughter forever?

Dad closed he mouth around the bowl of the spoon. Mom and I held our breath. He chewed, swallowed, took another bite, then opened his mouth to speak. Mom and I leaned forward ready to burst with anticipation.

But before he could say anything I got a whiff of something burning. I rushed to the stove. The pot from the chili and the pan from browning the meat were both smoking.

“What was it?” mom asked.

“You forgot to turn off the burner!” I said.

“Typical.” Dad replied.

“I’m sorry Lindsey!” apologized Mom with a look of surprise and failure.

“That’s okay,” I assured her, “My burner was on too!” We laughed as Dad repeated sarcastically, “Typical! You taught her well!”

Mom and I looked at each other and smiled. Then we heard it – “Good job Lindsey,” Dad praised. “This chili is fabulous. What’s in it?”

I simply replied, “It’s the barbeque sauce.”

He didn’t need to know the particulars of what he was eating. Dad knew better than to ask. Mom never gave him too many details either. But the real compliment came when Dad turned to Mom and said, “This tastes just like something you’d make.”

Can you belive they published this LONG story? I also was a pretty good advertising sales rep. so that might have been part of it!

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