Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Labor of Love

Fresh plums mix with cinnamon and other ingredients in
this tasty summer pie
I suppose it is natural that my love of gardening in the spring turns to a love of cooking once the harvest begins.  But truthfully, I loved to cook long before I ever learned to turn a spade.  I owe my affinity for all things gourmet to my mother, Ruth, long deceased but no less a presence in my life than if she was still alive right now in northern California, some 3000 miles from where I make my home in Baltimore County, Maryland.  

I learned to cook at my mother’s knee, but not because she let me help.  No.  In my mother’s world, planning and then creating a gourmet meal for family or company was something of an art form, the equivalent of a doctoral thesis to this 1950s housewife.  Permitted only to stand at the edge of the linoleum to watch her create her masterpieces, I was in constant awe of her command of all things gastronomic.

As a 12-year-old Girl Scout
in 1968, I attempted to earn
my cooking badge with
disastrous results

 My mother didn’t ever “do” anything with her talent.  The furthest she ever broadcast her epicurean abilities was during a term as vice president of United Presbyterian Women, a church group to which she belonged in the 1970s, during which she planned and executed a series of elaborately themed ladies’ luncheons in our church’s Fellowship Hall, to significant acclaim, as I recall.  I look back on that time in my youth with great fondness now.  My mother did not make a paid profession out of her considerable talents in the kitchen.  For her, it was enough to be a dutiful wife and stay-at-home mother.  That (and writing beautiful poetry) gave her life meaning and fulfillment. Mom took her role as keeper of the home seriously.  And not the housekeeping part of it, either.  It was for her love of cooking and giving dinner parties that my mother’s fire burned most brightly.

As I turned 16 in 1972, my
mother prepared an elaborate
birthday dinner for me. We dined
in our formal dining room and used
the "good china" that evening
And so I watched from a safe distance as Ruth worked her magic in the kitchen.  Until I was a teen and occasionally scrambled the family’s eggs for Saturday breakfast, only once was I permitted to cook something myself.  I was supposed to bake a cake in order to earn my cooking badge as a Girl Scout in the late 1960s.  The experience was a total disaster.  We had a double oven in the wall of that suburban California kitchen.  My mom rarely used both ovens, so the lower oven did duty as a pantry, stuffed with bags of grains and other staples.  I preheated the wrong oven, and we opened the smoking door to find plastic bags of marshmallows and other goods melted all over the heating element.  The cake itself was a disaster, too, as I recall.  I forgot to add the leavening agent, making the dense confection almost impossible for my parents and younger brother to chew. Maybe that’s why I am not much of a baker to this day.

On my first day as a bride in 1980,
I stuffed Cornish game hens for my
new husband, Mike, in our apartment
In any event, as I watched my mother prepare her culinary works, I developed a love for the art of cooking, and when I bought my first California home in 1980, I, too, planned and carried out elaborate dinner parties for friends and family.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.  I’m on the east coast now, with no husband, but lots of friends and a two-acre plot on which I cultivate a small garden of herbs and vegetables.  Neighbors provide me with fresh eggs from their chickens.  I relish the opportunity to try new recipes on a regular basis.

Shortly after I bought my first tiny home at the age of 23, I
began hosting elaborate parties, like this fancy
engagement dinner I threw for my brother, Dave, and his
fiancee, Loretta, in 1981.  The entree was a sirloin tip roast 
Here, then, is what I cooked up for dear friends last weekend.  None of these works are of my own creation, but rather are recipes gleaned from newspapers, magazines and friends; formulas which met my personal low-calorie, delicious-sounding criteria.

I invited my good friends, Robert, Jan and Jesse, for dinner over the Labor Day weekend.  Never mind that I had just had them to dinner the previous weekend.  I had another recipe I wanted to try and my good-hearted Guinea pigs were only too happy to serve as taste-testers once again.  This time, having leftover jumbo lump crab meat from a delightful crab salad recipe I’d made the night before, I decided to make crab cakes, a dish for which Maryland is well-known.  But these were not any ordinary crab cakes. 

In one of the most tender expressions
of friendship I've ever experienced,
my dear friends, Beverly, center, and
Gil, showed me how to make Bev's
wonderful crab cakes for my birthday
Not long after I moved to Maryland in 2001, my then-husband, Jesse, and I, met another couple at a “wine dinner” hosted by a local restaurant and catering company.  We hit it off right away with Bev, a retired Baltimore high school principal and educational consultant, and Gil, a Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer.  Over the next several years we spent many fun evenings dining in each other’s homes and enjoying their extensive vinyl record and movie collections. 

One evening Bev served homemade crab cakes at their house, and I was smitten.  They were the most delicious crab cakes I’d ever tasted.  I asked her for the recipe.  A few days later, around the time of my birthday, Bev and Gill knocked on my door, their arms laden with ingredients.  Not only was Bev going to give me her treasured family recipe, but she was going to prepare them for me in my own kitchen, knowing, as she did, that I was largely unfamiliar with the nuances of east coast seafood cooking.  
I recreated Bev's delicious crab cakes
for my dinner guests last Sunday

As Jesse and Gil listened to their favorite 1970s rock and roll hits in another room, I took studious notes while Bev whipped up her delectable crab cakes with my utensils.  It was one of the best birthday gifts anyone has ever given me, not just handing me a cherished recipe but actually going to the trouble to show me how to make it.  I have never forgotten Bev’s touching gesture of friendship and kindness.  And man, those crab cakes were good!

Those memories came flooding back to me on Sunday as I gently mixed meaty lumps of blue crab with pimiento, bell pepper and other ingredients, forming the components into moist, tennis ball-sized orbs.  Boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into inch-sized cubes sat marinating in a cumin-yogurt bath while coals heated on the grill outside.  I tossed a green salad with roasted red peppers and slivered almonds while putting the finishing touches on my mother’s classic cheddar soufflĂ©, a dish that never fails to impress.
I employed a pair of straw bales as a
low table on which to serve drinks
and appetizers on my patio.  The
tablecloth was hand-tatted by my
grandmother in the 1930s

As my guests arrived, I poured cool glasses of peach sangria, a summer staple I keep going in my fridge at all times, like sourdough starter.  The weather was warm, so we dined on my patio while a box fan set at a discreet distance kept bugs away.  The mood was relaxed and jovial as we washed down our meal with tasty wines provided by my dinner guests.

Robert, left, and Jan relax with their
adorable poodle, Chanel, before dinner
We moved inside for dessert when a few errant raindrops tried to crash my party.  I had baked a pie with plums I had purchased and then forgotten what I’d bought them for, a vestige of my advancing age, no doubt.  When this scrumptious-sounding recipe popped up in a magazine recently, I jumped at a chance to try my hand at baking once again.  We finished the evening, and the summer's hiatus, with a delightful aperitif brought by Robert and Jan.

Fresh plum pie was a big hit with
my guests
Expressing myself in the kitchen is as fulfilling for me as expressing myself with the written word in my blog.  I put on my favorite music, don my apron and am instantly transported to a place of contentment and joy as I measure ingredients and, like an alchemist, begin to combine elements that will ultimately become greater than their parts.  

Julia Child once said: “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone’s who’s close to you is about as nice a valentine as you can give.  Exactly.

1 comment:

  1. It is nice to share your love in a way of giving your best to make them smile. Simple work can be a good factor of giving them smile.