The Back Page

CULINARY CONFESSIONS

Cooking is a gift, a ritualized, absorbing activity. My mother is gifted. I am not.

AMY CAMERON January 13 2003
The Back Page

CULINARY CONFESSIONS

Cooking is a gift, a ritualized, absorbing activity. My mother is gifted. I am not.

AMY CAMERON January 13 2003

CULINARY CONFESSIONS

The Back Page

Cooking is a gift, a ritualized, absorbing activity. My mother is gifted. I am not.

AMY CAMERON

MY FRIEND Kathy is hosting brunch for 11 people. She plans to make an egg casserole, a fruit salad and maybe some sausages. She also wants to have warm, homemade muffins waiting for people as they arrive. Kathy—a political columnist at an East Coast newspaper—is panicked. “I am 34 years old,” she cries over the phone. “I interview premiers, no problem. I’m trying to make muffins from scratch? Aw, hell, where’s a mix?” Four months pregnant and determined to exercise nurturing skills before the baby is born, Kathy won’t use a mix. She’ll dig out a dusty box of baking powder and recite positive affirmations (“I will cook wonderful muffins; I am a good cook”)—all for “real” food to feed her friends. But I’d wager it’ll be months before she cooks again.

Kathy and I share the same culinary guilt. It’s born of knowing how special homecooked meals are, and yet not having the time (or skill or equipment or recipe or...) to make them. The secret shame burns every time I cajole friends into meeting for supper at a restaurant. Or promise to bring to their dinner both wine and dessert—from the best bakery in town, mind you. I know, deep down, that ordering pizza for a party is no longer appropriate. Even Chinese takeout is wearing thin. I’ve outgrown easy food solutions but my kitchen skills haven’t caught up.

Twenty years ago, a woman in her 30s wouldn’t have thought twice about cooking brunch or dinner for friends and family. By the time she was 15 years old, this young woman would have already baked hundreds of pies, made jams and chutneys as gifts and cooked a turkey to perfection. Even if she were not naturally inclined to the culinary arts, this woman would know how to time different dishes so that all the food was hot when placed on the table. She would have, if not linen, clean cloth napkins—and would know that no matter how artful, folded paper towel is still folded paper towel. A man, on the other hand, was not so carefully trained. Perhaps this is why so many of my male friends are leaping to the challenge

with an enthusiasm and confidence that a number of my female friends lack.

My boyfriend, for one, is a fabulous cook. Like the best of them, he embraces the whole experience. He understands that cooking is not just about good food but is also about the wine, the candles, the centrepiece and the music playing in the background. One of his prized gifts for Christmas was from his parents—a beautiful majolica platter he’d coveted for months. He was like a child with a toy discovering the joys of a whisk. He wooed me with food and, in honour of his skill, I gave him his first copper pot—the ultimate food geek’s obsession.

I’m loath to admit that I’ve never cooked for him. My problem is that I am paralyzed by knowledge. I come from a family of cooking legend. My great-grandmother—whose father made a fortune in canning food—had a full-time staff, including a cook. Despite the cook’s ability, my perfectionist ancestor worked alongside her staff preparing meals, especially when entertaining guests. My mother, trained at the Cordon Bleu kitchen school in Paris and former Toronto

Star food editor, is renowned for her excellent table. She could, if stuck, make culinary magic with lentils, liver and broccoli.

I am not so blessed. Several years ago, I rashly invited colleagues over for supper, never having hosted a dinner party before. An hour before my guests arrived, my main dish—chili—didn’t look right. It looked, well, like baby poop. I called my mother. “Mum, it looks like baby poop. It’s awful! ” My mother calmly listed ingredients I might have missed. “Tomatoes?” Check. “Chili powder?” Check. “Beef?” Check. If I hold the phone over the pot and stir, do you think you’ll be able to tell what’s wrong? My mother, God bless her, agreed to try. I stirred. I waited. “Did you put the red kidney beans in?” No. My mother, it’s clear, is gifted.

And cooking is a gift, a ritualized, absorbing activity that gives as much to the chef as to the guests. For the person who has slaved away over a hot stove for hours, there is immense satisfaction in knowing a meal was beautifully designed. It appeals to the most basic instincts—to feed and nourish people you love. Mixed into each dish is emotion that might be hard to express in words but is crystal clear with the first taste of piping hot, creamy mashed potatoes and slivers of rare roast beef. The stories and laughter shared over an excellent meal create a special bond between people.

I know how food should look, taste and be presented. I know which fork goes where and that plates should be warmed beforehand. I can recite in my sleep the rules to making an excellent gravy, but I can’t ever make it as irresistible as my mother’s. And, unfortunately for those I love, I haven’t tried all that hard. I’ve been blessed, surrounded by wonderful cooks. (In fact, the full horror of my situation was revealed when my boyfriend e-mailed my mother a recipe for her New Year’s Eve party.) But, like Kathy, I’m fed up with muffin mixes and ordering in. I want the satisfaction that comes from feeding friends and family. I want the smell of freshly baked food drifting through my house. Performance anxiety is no longer an adequate excuse. I will cook wonderful muffins. I am a good cook, I will tell myself. And as I hang up from Kathy, leaving her to the seemingly simple task of making a fruit salad, I hear one final wail: “Why didn’t my mother teach me how to cut a mango?”

Amy Cameron is a Maclean’s assistant editor. response@macleans.ca