As long as I can remember, my mom was teaching me how to cook. She was also teaching me to write speeches, speak French, touch type, and on and on. My earliest memories of her are of her gently pushing blocks toward me, or puzzle pieces, so I could assemble them into words and pictures.
She bought me my first cookbook when I was just a little kid. We started out with her letting me stir and add and measure things. When I got to the fourth grade, the training began in earnest. Fourth grade was when 4-H started. I am sure there are many of you out there who are unfamiliar with 4-H; it is now practiced in only the most rural areas, I think. It is a club that celebrates 4 H’s, and I don’t remember what the H’s all stand for anymore. I think there’s a Helping in there, and a Health, and I can’t remember what all else. It is a club basically for kids from fourth grade up through senior year in high school, where you choose a project to do every year or half year or something like that. It was at the most popular in rural areas where rural things such as raising cattle, riding horses, gardening, quilting and home cooking were done. It was, I felt by the time my mom pushed me into it, archaic at best, since we lived in a city of decent size and projects like raising cattle for sale were hardly available to most of us. Mom found plenty of projects for me to do though.
Two of the most popular projects for her were cooking and giving speeches. Activities throughout the year were assembled in a tyrannical green notebook with the familiar 4-H clover on the cover. She had been a 4-H leader at one time in her life, and it was natural for her to expect me to follow in her footsteps. We baked muffins, cookies and bread for competitions, which I frequently won. I learned all sorts of arcane things about cooking, such as the fact that if you overstir muffin batter, you get tunnels inside the muffin where bubbles expand to the surface while baking. The competition judges would take off points for tunnels. Along with the baked goods, I would have to make a God-awful poster as a display to go along with them. Mom would hover over me while I stuck down peel-and-stick letters, drew ruled lines to keep everything straight, and cut out pictures of gleaming baked goods to put on the poster. Then, the day of the competition, I had to go stand, beaming like an idiot, in front of my baked products and poster while the stern judges made their rounds and tasted all the goods.
I also had to give speeches about baking. This by far was my least favorite thing to do. Thanks to Mom, public speaking didn’t scare me, but I despised writing the speeches, despised practicing them, and despised giving them. There is something about standing in the living room and chanting, “Tuna casserole again? This must be the end of the month!”, which was part of a speech I had to give on savvy shopping. Since I was only about ten years old, I didn’t know dick about savvy shopping, but Mom soon had the speech whipped into shape for me. I had to talk about choosing egg sizes, comparing costs per unit ounce, and buying fresh meat. If I had been any more bored, I would have spontaneously mummified.
Then I had to gather all the evidence of me and my active year: photos of my baked goods and me standing in front of interminable posters, clippings from newspapers, and prize ribbons from various events throughout the year. I had to put them all in the hated green binder, in chronological order. I had a nemesis, a girl my own age who actually ENJOYED 4-H and did things like hydroponic vegetable growing (in the 1970′s!, and had green binders that looked like phone books. My mother was constantly holding her up to me as a shining example of how my 4-H experience should be. I hated her guts.
And the baking got more and more complicated as I got older. I was baking braided bread, making full three-course meals, and learning all the vagaries of placement of myriad spoons and forks and knives and cups on a sumptuous dining table. I have to admit, my mom made me into a hell of a cook. The sad thing is, I don’t even cook anymore, except for maybe Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. I think I enjoy cooking, and I know I’m good at it, but when you work ten to twelve hour days and come home from work when it is already dinner time, the cooking kind of falls by the wayside. My husband frequently does the cooking, and throws together mess hall food like he probably had in the Navy: Mexican casserole with canned chicken, tuna salad, and grilled meat. I miss my mom’s good cooking and every now and then will rouse myself to make a crock pot dish or a meal on the weekend. The thing is, my husband is one of the world’s truly finicky eaters, and he doesn’t like half of what I make when I do cook. So what is the point?
So here I have this rare gift, this talent that my mom has honed into me, and I don’t even make use of it. The funny thing is, my daughter is now seven and my mom has been cooking with her. I don’t think 4-H really exists anymore, except, as I said, in truly rural areas, but I’m sure mom would be knocking the door down making sure we signed my daughter up for it too. That is the last thing I want to do, shepherd my daughter into making posters and speeches, which I already have to do for her school and I despise. I don’t know how my mom put up with all the eyerolling and complaining; she must have been a saint. So if my daughter learns to cook, it will probably be my mother’s doing. We have one last-ditch opportunity for me to cook, though. I have taken a part time job as a travel doctor and I will work two weeks and be home two weeks. My husband and I have agreed, I will spend some of those two weeks off cooking for the family. So we’ll see if I can put something together. I may yet get to use all that knowledge that was pounded into me with blood and tears. And if it’s tuna casserole, it truly must be the end of the month.