Cooking for One

From a young age I quickly realized that most things in life are rarely about “the one thing.” When compiling a list of things to write about, I try to focus on one concept. The longer I sit with that concept the more it begins to fracture, and I’m left wondering why I’d attached myself to the original idea in the first place.

Take for example this post.

It came out of a conversation with Sean Cooke, a St. Paul restaurateur, about families who cook at home and how my mother was so bad at it that my father despaired of ever having a decent home-cooked meal again. Sean laughed at this; I felt a twinge of guilt besmirching my dearly departed mother’s memory.

Mom never upped her culinary skills, probably because she basically wasn’t curious to see what she could do with it. Dad, on the other hand, being ravenous, negotiated his way past the Army-issue “shit on a shingle” to learning mise en place and homemade Asian stir fry. My brother Brian and I had our chance to fill in for Mom, too, especially once we were college-age young adults. Brian managed a Pizza Hut for a while, which I think commenced his fascination with all things culinary. For my part, I moved past Mom’s Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-Roni (photo at top right of Mom on a late 1960s apple-picking family outing in Maryland) and my own demands for butterscotch pudding or Jello 1-2-3, to the kind of fare I could serve my friends that said, “Hey! This guy knows his way around a kitchen!”

To be honest, the more I thought about this topic, the less interesting it became to me, at least in becoming a complete rundown of my every failed cooking experiment (and I had my share of those). What did become interesting is something I recalled from the mid-1990s, when I was dating M. I’d nearly forgotten about it until I started drafting this post. To the best of my memory, it went something like this: M. said something to me after I announced what I was planning to do—by which I mean it wasn’t something I proposed we do as a couple. Instead of saying, “I’ll probably get the car’s oil change this weekend,” I said, “We’ll probably…” and she interjected, “Who’s this we?” At the time I was taken aback—at least that’s how I remember it—probably a little confused about what she’d meant.

It stuck with me for years—why indeed did I use “we” instead of “me”?

I now have an answer, one that has become more sharply defined as the people I’d grown up with have died or left my life entirely: It was the conversational equivalent of “creating my own family.” It also originated with how my late father administrated our family. He used “we” all the time. As I’ve written since this blog’s start, Pop was the lead project manager of the experiment I call “The Family Project,” which meant he used every opportunity to seal the deal forever. I was doing that with myself, since I struggled with relationships and had to best learn how to “parent myself”—especially after 2008, when both Mom and Dad died.

But back to the food concept. Rather than wield food as an emotional weapon, or use it as a centerpiece for egotism and excess, how do you create a family for yourself through meal preparation? Well, here’s what I’ve learned.

Know thy taste buds. Eating is memory and memory is happiness. My early food memories revolve around apples (baked by Mom with cinnamon and spices), blueberries, bacon and eggs, chicken, sage, garlic bread, tomato sauce, French toast, cheese, and, sure … butterscotch pudding. After our family moved to the East Coast, seafood became a favorite: crab, lobster, shrimp, fish of all kinds, oysters. Family meals at holidays were predictable: Easter ham, Thanksgiving turkey, midweek meatloaf dinners, spaghetti with Parmesan cheese (yeah the Kraft stuff in a can), lasagna, chili, and chicken noodle soup. Once on my own, in the 1980s, I imagined “Linguine and clam sauce” was sufficiently elegant enough to prepare and serve on a date night. Of course the clams came out of a can and the pasta was store-bought and the cheapest I could find. I made it the other day the way I thought I remembered cooking it and, well, it was disgusting. I guess my taste buds have evolved.

Be curious about other cuisines. This is something I still do by visiting restaurants first and asking about the dishes and ingredients. In recent years I’ve made more chef friends than in all my life previously, and I love these people no end and never stop learning from them or their guests. I always check out food blogs, magazines, and newspaper articles on dishes that strike me as worth experimenting in my own kitchen.

Lastly, share meals with other people. I hope to do more of this in the months ahead as I move to a new apartment and kitchen (I’ve already bought a new chef’s knife). I’ll have the space to entertain once again (photo at left from a mid-1980s luau party I hosted at my first apartment—there are probably sweet and sour meatballs in that crock pot). In the past I’ve cooked for girlfriends, usually finding out what they like and tracking down a recipe to match. My last success was a Middle Eastern lamb pilaf that thrilled my girlfriend at the time. I recall I prepared it without being distracted, tasting along the way, and letting it come together gradually, without worrying and being in the moment as I was cooking. Once you’ve finished the cooking and set the dish before your friend? Give your attention to them. That’s the added gift you bring to the experience.

In the end, I guess we are all families of one. We carry the history of those who came before us and those who will follow after we’ve gone.

And who is this “we”? Me and you, my friends.

You and me.

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~ by completelyinthedark on May 31, 2019.

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