I had a couple of friends coming over for dinner and I needed something interesting to do with Tilapia. I don’t really cook so much as heat things up, so it had to be simple and foolproof. I pulled some lemon-pepper marinade out of the fridge, put it down on the counter and went away to answer the phone. When I came back I picked up the bottle and shook it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. The only little thing I forgot was that I had loosened the cap when I got it out. A second later I was standing in the kitchen with marinade dripping down my face, through my hair, all over my clothes and down the cabinets. I took a few moments to let the shock wear off and survey the damage. It really was quite spectacular. It occurred to me, as I was standing there in lemon scented socks, that this is the reason I live alone, so no one is there to witness the train wreck. Just in case you think this was an unfortunate but atypical incident, last week my sister-in-law emailed an asparagus soup recipe to my mother and me. I replied that it tasted like dirt and thanks to my new hand-held blender that I have yet to master, it was now all over my kitchen wall. My mother’s response was, “That’s my girl.”
I have very vivid memories of my mother trying to teach me to cook. She can make anything without a recipe but I was the queen of banana bread. That is the only thing I remember making as a kid. When I get good at something I tend to stick with it. In my teen years I progressed to lemon bars, which was exciting for everybody. My mother was very smart about teaching me to cook, which sounds odd now that I have so graphically described her failure. She figured out that I am a stubborn piece of work and I don’t respond well to the now-I-am-going-to-teach-you-something approach. She didn’t put me in an apron and say, “And now we are going to cook.” When she was making dinner, she would casually mention tidbits like, “To get the core out of an iceberg lettuce, you slam it down on the counter and then the core twists right out.” Her cooking tips have stuck with me through the years because I didn’t realize I was being told what to do. The fact that I can’t keep my dinner off the kitchen walls has more to do with my unwillingness to practice than the quality of my education. My cooking skills did not develop beyond cookie baking and breaking up a lettuce because in my young adulthood I discovered that you can have pad thai and chicken tiki marsala delivered in thirty minutes for a fraction of the effort and cost.
The only place I get any experience is when I am helping out at my brother’s house. My niece Rose likes to get involved. She smashes egg shells into the omelets, loses count when she is measuring flour, and usually spills milk all over the floor. I don’t like cooking to start with, so I certainly don’t love cooking with a six-year-old tornado who insists on doing everything herself. But I am constantly reminded of the times my mother watched me burn this or put the wrong ingredients in that. People who have been afforded that kind of patience have a duty to pass it on, I guess. I don’t announce to Rose that I am cooking, but if she notices and pulls up a chair, I hand her the eggs. Then I get the spoon I will need to fish out all the eggshell.
What I can try to pass on is something that I did manage to learn from my mother: the art of entertaining. It has always amazed me that my mother can whip up a meal for twelve people with an hour’s notice and not freak out about it. In high school, my brother and I could easily sweet-talk her into letting our friends come over at the last minute. Something mysterious would come out of the freezer and turn into a fabulous dinner without any drama. We were so proud of her for that. Other mothers would carry on at the imposition or just let us fend for ourselves. The art of entertaining is a fabulous thing. Most people assume it’s about money and snobbery, but it’s actually about planning and presentation. You can order pizza and still present it to your guests like you care. Entertaining well is not about having a fancy home or owning the Crate and Barrel catalog. Money certainly helps provide the appearance of class, but in reality it is an attitude and a way of behaving. If you have ever turned on a television, you know that money does not produce class. So you don’t need money to learn how to treat guests in your own home.
When Rose grows up, I’m not the one she is going to call to ask how long you cook a turkey or what spices you use on a rack of lamb. But as an adult that she looks up to, I can teach a few things by example. When my nieces and nephews come to my house we are more likely to have a food fight with Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King than to sit at a nicely set table, but there are always opportunities to teach good manners and entertaining etiquette. When we have dinner parties, Rose sees me taking coats, offering our guests something to drink and making sure everyone is included in the conversation. Children absorb so much from the example that we set. Let’s just hope she doesn’t follow my example of the proper way to apply lemon-pepper marinade.