Let me be clear. Cooking is not my passion. Nor is it my calling. There were times in my life when it was my nemesis. It may have started when I attempted to bake my first cake. I was ten. It was a cake from a Jiffy box. Something went terribly wrong. It didn’t rise and resembled a very large pancake. A few years later, my mother (a working mom) tried to find easy dinner solutions that we could get started before she got home. This was wonderfully timed with the introduction of “Hamburger Helper.” All you needed to do is brown the ground beef and follow the directions on the box. We were also lucky enough to experience the introduction of the cooking bag. My sister and I were even challenged at the simple task of preheating the oven. On our first attempt, we forgot to remove the broiler pan from the oven which had grease from another meal, and before we knew it we had flames leaping inside the oven. I can only imagine the panic our mom had when we called her at work to ask her what to do if the oven was on fire. We ended up dumping an entire 5 lb. bag of flour into the oven. It put out the fire, and I think extinguished our cooking careers as well.
When I was in high school there was a tradition for anyone dating a football player during the homecoming game. The day before the big game, you decorated their car, embroidered a pillowcase for their bedroom, and baked some wonderful treat. I decided to bake my boyfriend’s favorite – a blueberry pie. Young love karma must have been watching over me, because the pie was a masterpiece and I was the object of his affection for many days following. I learned that if you wanted to get a guy’s attention, bake a pie.
In my college years, I barely survived on jello and rice (I can still make a perfect pot of fluffy rice) as I was as broke as I ever would be. I worked multiple jobs and I finally got smart and became a waitress for one of them. That way I knew I would always have one meal during my shift. In my twenties, I took on baking bread, especially when I was depressed. I loved punching down the rising dough and loved how everything took on the smell of goodness no matter how much your real life sucked. In my thirties, I finally accepted that I would never be an improvisational cook, I needed to follow a recipe. I discovered some recipes are better than others. In other words, some recipes actually worked and were edible. In my forties, I accepted what I was good at: baking pies, making waffles, making simple foods that children would eat. I gave up trying to be anything but adequate.
Now I’m in my fifties and a strange thing has happened. I no longer fear coming to tears due to a kitchen disaster. Even this summer when our kitchen was gutted because of a water pipe break, I mastered the outdoor gas grill and I can char a mean piece of kale. These days when I am in the kitchen, my mind does a funny thing. It creates an alternate universe. Sometimes I pretend I am on a game show. “Contestant number three: You have only thirty minutes to make a masterpiece from whatever you can find in the refrigerator or cupboard. One, two, three, cook!” The goal is to make the most amazing fresh food, from limited resources. Sometimes on Sunday morning my mind plays out this scenario: You are stranded in a mountain cabin with your lover. It has stormed all night and you are snowed in. You wrestle through the cupboards to see what miraculously wonderful thing you can cook to keep the object of your affection satisfied and distracted from wanting to dig his way out. It almost makes cooking fun. Did I mention that I am easily bored?
So tonight, as I tackle the Thanksgiving pies, I will imagine that I am in a cinematic movie like “Babette’s Feast” or “Chocolat” and that every ingredient will have a magical effect when combined with care and love. For some may these pies bring joy, others decadence, and for still others forgiveness and thankfulness. This Thanksgiving will be a day where I make the pie and I’ll let the pie make me.