By Virginia Kelley
In our airy kitchen in southern Illinois, with only a few basic cooking tools, Mom turned simple garden provisions into feasts. Dad’s reward at the end of each workday was a hearty, home-cooked “meat and potatoes” supper.
Macaroni or rice made weekly appearances, as well as the occasional casserole. One especially aromatic, golden brown pot pie was presented, but dispatched to a neighbor when we set out to fill our plates with what had been one of the pet chickens. Old Mr. Newell next door rejoiced at the windfall. We coaxed back our appetites with canned soup and crackers.
Mom’s baking was unparalleled. She met an uncle’s request for gooseberry pie by substituting what she had on hand, green grapes. He hailed her a genius. Her everyday cakes were light and airy and the cookie jar never emptied. As a passionate animal lover, it was especially cruel that her baking got temporarily derailed by a cat. On that occasion, as usual, she preheated the stove but, one of my sisters had fashioned a playhouse for kitty inside the oven. When the door opened, the cat hit the wall, shot under the back porch and was never to be seen again.
After college, venturing out on my own, I cooked from necessity, but with an eye to unexpected guests; weighty lasagnas, chili con carne, soups and stews. It was an era of letting it all hang out, karma to spare and laid-back communal meals. Why serve plain rice when a few strands of saffron, the most expensive herb on the planet, could tint a pan of Spanish paella a warm golden color?
During a two-year stint in England, I entertained new friends with shish kebabs cooked over an open fire. I gathered twigs for fuel for the Hibachi I’d placed inside one of the many cavernous, if decrepit, fireplaces. I sat my guests hearthside at a makeshift dining table. It was a typical dreary English evening after a full day of misty rain and the twigs wouldn’t ignite. When they finally did, the old chimney took a deep breath and the meat was consumed by a roaring, if short-lived, fire.
Cooking began to unravel gradually, when the people I loved to feed went their separate ways and the hard fact that eating unlimited calories made for tight waistbands. Favorite foods became off limits through excess cholesterol, saturated fat or empty calories.
Recently, I hit rock bottom – rather, my pie crust did. This low-calorie, pumpkin Armageddon with a gluten-free crust ransacked my wallet and exhausted my patience. This one-crust recipe required heavy cream, an egg and three yolks, a cup of artificial sugar, xanthan-laced, wheat-free flour, sour cream, and butter. It was a rude awakening to blithely pulling recipes off the internet and new respect for well-established, manufacturers’ websites with kitchen-tested recipes.
Recently, I invented a munchie for a party out of a few things I had on hand: honeycomb rice cereal, crushed pretzels, dry roasted peanuts and mini-marshmallows suspended in melted white chocolate, rather like spackle.
I started by making tiny pats of this sticky mixture, but time was wasting, so I poured it onto a sheet pan, mashed it down and stuck it in the refrigerator to set. After I’d removed it to the counter, my husband came upon it and shot me a strange look. Later, he admitted that he thought it was a piece of drywall. At the party, every time someone dipped into the jug for a hunk of my particle board, hubby caught my eye and gave me a triumphant, knowing look, the equivalent of a contractor’s thumbs up. It was a huge hit.
Virginia Kelley, of North Tonawanda, is determined to master the culinary arts.