In 1978, when I was ten years old, my parents took me and my two younger sisters on our first vacation to the ocean. We loaded into our Chevy Nova; my father laid a sheet of pegboard over the back seat which allowed the three of us to have a larger platform to sleep on and created another storage area beneath us for luggage. Because nobody placed much importance on seatbelts back then, my youngest sister would occasionally lay down in the rear window.
We left Massillon, Ohio around 5:30 am, just as dawn was breaking. My mother packed plenty of food, our only stops would be fuel or bathroom related. I still remember that she cooked fried chicken the night before, and while she wasn’t a memorable cook, this bird had been fried to crispy perfection. I snuck bits of the crunchy skin off every piece, in spite of orders to leave it for the rest of the family. I had my personal food reserves hidden in a tote bag, too. My love of penny candy was insatiable then, and I often shopped the Local Ben Franklin Five and Dime with a dollar or two and left with a brown lunch bag full of sweets. I knew the car would be scorching, so I avoided any chocolate bars (they were budget busters, anyway at a quarter a piece) and loaded up on Pixie Sticks, Bazooka bubblegum, Volcano Rocks, Tart n Tinys, and one of my dad’s favorite, BB Bats. I loved the way sugar candy dissolved on my tongue, I was patient and knew how to make my stash last for the entire trip down. I was sure I would need to replenish stock before the return trip but was confident I could find a local supplier at our destination.
This vacation was our first as a family at an actual hotel. The Holiday Inn seemed so luxurious to me. We ate our breakfast and lunch there almost every day, with occasional stops at a newly discovered fast food place, Hardee’s.
Our last night in Wilmington, my parents decided that at 10, I was old enough to join them at a “fancy restaurant.” My younger sisters would likely have been jealous, but neither of them like seafood, so they weren’t too disappointed to have room service hamburgers delivered. This memory is so significant; I can vividly recall how my sunburned skin felt tight and warm on my shoulders and face. I hoped for a bumper crop of freckles once the redness faded. My mom braided my thick, wet hair behind each ear. I loved the cool weight of the braids on my hot skin. I wore an aqua blue knit tank top with eyelet trim.
The Bridge Tender sits above the Intercoastal Waterway. We had a window seat, and as I looked into the water below us, I could see transparent jellyfish swimming below. Our menus were delivered, and I tentatively asked if I could order from the adult menu. My diet the entire week was dominated by steak biscuits and hamburgers from the hotel and Hardee’s, so I craved something different. My parents advised me that I would be expected to eat everything I ordered since this was a rare and expensive privilege.
I reviewed the large menu and decided on flounder stuffed with crab meat. It sounded so exotic and sophisticated; I couldn’t imagine not liking it. I’d never had crab before, but fish was a favorite of mine, and when my relatives told me it was brain food, I wanted it even more. Smarter to me meant more books and more knowledge and I could never get enough of either. My parents nursed pre-dinner whiskey sours, while I enjoyed a Shirley Temple.
The waiter brought my dinner platter, and I never knew such luxury. Parsley garnished the plate, and the fish was dusted with paprika, and redolent of drawn butter. I knew from the first whiff of deviled crab that my parents need not have worried about my finishing this meal. The flounder was light and flaky, and the crab was rich and seasoned with bits of onion and celery, fragrant with Old Bay seasoning, mustard, and Worcestershire.
My parents weren’t surprised when I announced I would like dessert. I knew what I wanted- chocolate mousse. I had read about this delicacy somewhere, and couldn’t wait to try it. The dessert was piped into a champagne flute and topped with white chocolate curls. After the first spoonful, I felt like I was tasting chocolate for the first time.
Something changed for me after that meal. I knew that food wasn’t just nourishment and sustenance, there was a pleasure in cooking that I’d never known before, and likely couldn’t have appreciated at a younger age. Even the pageantry of the food service resonated with me. My mother prepared dinner each night, but nothing she ever served had gripped me like this. The spices she used came from red and white McCormick tins that were likely as old as I was. The fish I enjoyed that night was vibrant and fresh. In all probability, the flounder and crab were harvested within a day of preparation.
I was in 4H the next year, and our club focused on home economics skills-cooking and sewing. I found I had a knack for cooking and tweaking recipes to make them better. I was a perfectionist from an early age, a personality trait that served me well in food prep. I worked in a couple of restaurants during my high school and college years, picking up techniques and tips. My first year of college I worked at a gourmet kitchen shop that sold tools and a few high-end groceries. I began to hone my skills under the tutelage of my boss, the shop owner. I read cookbooks instead of novels; I used my meager paychecks to purchase tools- a garlic press, lemon zester, and a pasta maker. I put my new knowledge to work in the tiny kitchen in my off-campus house. When I returned home for the occasional weekend visit, I showed off my new knowledge and talents to rave reviews and found I couldn’t get enough of that attention.
There’s nothing I love more than cooking for friends and family. I can’t think of a better way to show them my how much I love and care for them. I designed our kitchen so that I could talk to everyone while I prepare and cook meals. My kids know their way around a kitchen, and all show a natural curiosity and talent for cooking. Now a new generation sits at the table. As soon as my granddaughter could walk, she wanted to be near me as I cooked. I love that she asks about each task I perform and wants to taste everything that I produce. When I cook with fresh thyme, I give her the stems, and she uses her little fingers to pluck the tiny leaves from them. She and her twin brother love to help me make cookies and cupcakes. Recently, I bought each of them aprons they could wear while assisting me-their first rite of passage.
After being let go from my job last year, I took my mind off the hurt with cooking. A dear friend had lost her sister to a lengthy illness, so I prepared and delivered an entire vegetarian meal to her and her family to eat after their private memorial service. Their gratitude comforted me as much as my food soothed them. I made a pot of chicken soup and pan of brownies for another friend’s father who had been diagnosed with cancer. I made pumpkin pies for several people’s Thanksgiving tables, including a former coworker who had delivered her twins twelve weeks early. I made pie crusts for the young mailman who services my husband’s office. The selfless act of cooking kept me from dwelling on resentment and bitterness, and reminded me that my problems were small and temporary.
I’ll leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies which, no surprise, is about food. My goal when feeding loved ones is for them to have the same look as the character’s face when he bites into the ratatouille.