EL CAJON — My mother's legacy to me was a love of reading. It was not an appreciation for cooking, especially the fine art of timing that is necessary to produce a well-executed meal. It is hard to imagine how reading could be the direct antithesis of cooking, but in our family it was.
My mother never was a traditional mom. Widowed at 43 with four children to raise, ages 4 through 14, Mom worked a variety of jobs. And collected Social Security. In addition to this, she held silent vigil with the Quakers during the 1960s and at 73 is almost finished with her bachelor's degree. A curiosity about life and learning were the values passed on in our family. It's hard for me to imagine her with an apron on baking apple pies, or baking anything for that matter, except maybe Duncan Hines cake mixes.
In regard to cooking, my mother's method went as follows:
1. You put everything on to cook at once. It doesn't matter if the roast takes three hours, the potatoes one hour and the vegetable eight minutes.
2. You get out your favorite book, a glass of wine and cheese and crackers, and sit down for a leisurely evening. There is nothing in life more enjoyable than those early evening hours from 6 to 9, engrossed in a book while the dinner burns.
You see, the rule of thumb is, you eat when the food that takes the longest to cook is done, or overdone. You may get up occasionally to add water to the vegetables, if you remember the dinner is on the stove at all. Sometimes you forget because your book has become so addictive that the outside world has ceased to exist.
3. Backup plan: If the smell of scorched French-style green beans comes wafting from the kitchen, you tear yourself away from your book momentarily, run to the kitchen, fill the blackened pan with water, dump in some baking soda, get out another package of frozen vegetables, and start over. Now, back to the book.
4. At 9 p.m. you call the kids down from their rooms for dinner. You see, this is a great plan because all the homework is done, everyone is in his/her pajamas, and all they have to do is eat and go to bed.
5. Family in PJs sit down to eat. With a serrated knife, we cut through the potato skin to get to the shrunken potato inside. The vegetables are mush, but the meat isn't too bad, if you like it well-done. Unfortunately, as we take our first sip of milk, the lint that has coated the surface clings to our lips. Milk put on the table two hours before dinner is served does tend to collect dust.
No wonder I can't hear the words "Swiss chard" without thinking "Charred Chard," a joke we made up one Christmas when as adults we returned to Mom's for one of her famous Christmas dinners.
So, growing up in a household where the process of reading was valued and not the process of cooking, I was the rare bird in my small high school in Maine who thought the home-style cafeteria food was wonderful. I couldn't wait until lunchtime to get some of those "sloppy Joes" or some "bubble and squeak."
In fact, I crossed a picket line for the first and last time in 1963 when two other poor souls and I braved the protesting crowd of 200 to eat in the cafeteria. I'll never forget the long walk down the hallway lined with kids, backs to their lockers, taunting us as we forged ahead to get to those "whoppie pies."
We all learn from our parents' mistakes, don't we? After all, I've learned, first and foremost, to choose men who love to cook. My first husband was that kind of man. My live-in boyfriend after him was even an honest-to-goodness chef. And my second husband wouldn't be my husband if he hadn't proved his culinary abilities early.
Once in a while you have to cook for yourself, however, and it is then that the baking soda comes out and my husband comes home to blackened pans on the counter. But eggs are really my downfall. And Mom never had a problem with eggs.
There's nothing I love better than to put two eggs to boil on the stove at 9 p.m. for egg salad sandwiches for lunch the next day, then get into bed with my favorite book.
The eggs forgotten, I hear my husband yell, "Linda, you did it again!" A popping noise comes from the kitchen, the burned sulfur smell permeates the house. I jump out of bed and race to the kitchen, ashamed that I again forgot the eggs. I've even told myself, "Now it's 9 o'clock; you can read for 10 minutes and then go get the eggs," but somehow that book just became too engrossing.
Unconsciously secure in the fact that my husband is available, and will play his part in this ritual of marriage, I put the eggs on, I get in bed, and my husband always rescues the pan as the popping noise starts.
But one morning I completely lost my senses, I mean I really thought afterward I had been momentarily crazy! I put the eggs on to boil, got in my car and drove to the bank. I was standing in line when suddenly a wave of terror came over me. I wasn't in bed reading a book with my husband in the next room, I was downtown and the eggs were on the stove!
I rushed home, all the while imagining fire trucks in front of my house when I got there. But no, thank God, there were even bubbles left on the bottom of the pan. Gee, I could probably have cashed my check!
I'm not saying this close call cured me, however. Ask my husband and he'll tell you. There's nothing better than a good book when your eggs are burning on the stove.