Nothin' Says Lovin'
Like Somethin' From the Oven
By Rhonda Reeves

In my childhood we ate, my father remarked, 'as if there were no God.'

-Katherine Anne Porter

Growing up poor had its culinary advantages, as I observed when I arrived at college (a school populated largely by rich kids).

Sure, we had no money, but I'm almost certain I was the only freshman there who'd never tasted a Kraft Mac 'n Cheese 'dinner' (using the term loosely).

America does not spell cheese K.R.A.F.T.

I'd had macaroni and cheese as a child of course-the kind that's baked in the oven in what I would now call a bechamel sauce (butter, flour, milk, and cheese)-though I'm fairly sure that's not a word that was in my grandmother's vocabulary.

That's why I was able to so easily scorn the 99 cent blue and yellow packages that frequently dominated our 3rd floor dorm hall, which I later learned came filled with a mysterious orange powder and a handful of cheap noodles. (I don't know what's in the boxes now, nor do I want to.)

I knew it had very little to do with what I knew as "macaroni," and even less to do with "cheese."

I was often hospitably invited to partake by my dorm-mates, but I didn't have to see the rows of the ubiquitous "soup for one"plug-in teapots lining the sink ledges of our bathroom with caked-on orange Tang-like residue to know that this was a dish I wanted no part of.

We may have had no money, but we had plenty of taste, and I knew no good could come of a slippery culinary slope such as this. I was raised better than that.

I can always string me some beansThose experiences gave me a verbal palette to work with that has hues other people don't have.

-Dwight Yoakam, to Ronni Lundy (in From Butterbeans to Blackberries)

A few Saturdays ago, my Dad's friend Harvey and his wife brought a cabbage casserole down to us at Farmers' Market. (I would pause here to give Harvey more credit, but I was so hungry, and ate so fast, that I can only tell you the main ingredients were cabbage, bacon, and cheese, and that it was good.)

The crowds were slow that day, so I took a break to sit on the tailgate and listen to my father talk cooking with Harvey and the missus.

Dad's first pet peeve was with little blue haired old women he'd seen go into a diner and order soup beans and corn bread. When he eats out, he wants to try something new or exotic or different-something he can maybe try to replicate later at home (a pasttime that he and my mother enjoyed throughout my childhood and which resulted in notebooks full of recipes that would top any four-star restaurant).

Dad's point was, "when I get so old and broke down that I can't make me a kettle of soup beans, it's time to pull the plug."

I arched an eyebrow inquisitively in his direction, and he explained to Harvey the longtime familial agreement about his DNR (do-not-resuscitate) orders that are in his living will. He has schooled all of us in it for so long, and so well, that, as he explained to Harvey, "Hell, I can't hardly sneeze in front of my daughter without her reachin' for a needle to put me outta my misery."

He went on to talk about the pleasure he gets from taking the beans out the night before, "lookin' 'em" for rocks, pebbles, grit, or sand, then soaking them overnight. He gets up the next morning and rinses them, before putting them on the stove with something large and porcine (preferably a leftover ham); seasoning them with pepper and bay and anything else that strikes him; and then letting them simmer all day.

Sometime around supper, he'll serve them up with everything from diced onions, to chow-chow, to corn relish, to kosher dill pickles.

He pointed out to Harvey that he could probably order soup beans and cornbread almost anywhere, for a few bucks-but that if he did that, he would've missed the routine of getting them ready. He would've missed, "watching the snow fly out the kitchen window, and the way that ham smells every time the door opens and closes all day."

Personally, I don't like soup beans, and I never have. But I love to hear my dad, lost in his own world, as he talks about making them.

He probably went on for another half hour about the buffalo roast that he'd spent six hours cooking the Sunday before, and how tender and juicy and perfect it was when he got done, and how everyone nearly starved to death waiting for it to cook.

The dishes are different, but the impulses that motivate him are the same ones that motivate me to make tomato sauce from scratch every single weekend in the summer for as long as the tomato crop holds.

I start layering the flavors on a Saturday. That's when I slow roast the garlic in the oven, so that the bulbs just slip right out of their skins, like butter. Those creamy cloves go into the pot where I sweat the onions (crying my eyes out along the way, which is probably as cathartic as the cooking-burning a candle nearby helps, but I have yet to find the remedy that eliminates the crying that goes with the onions).

Every variety of tomato I have on hand is added in after that, stirred, and slow-cooked until Sunday. By Sunday morning it's ready for the basil and oregano I've picked right outside my kitchen window.

Sure, I could buy some Ragu. Or Progresso. Or whatever's on sale. But I would miss the aroma of that garlic and basil.

I would miss the decision of how finely or coarsely I should puree it as the process winds down?

Do I want sauce? Or soup? Or bisque? Or all three? Would this batch go better with pasta, or should I make polenta?

There's nothing I can buy in a jar that's going to make me as happy as I am in my kitchen. Not at any price.

The Joy of Cooking

I don't buy the fact that people eat poorly because they're busy, or because their kids are finicky eaters, or whatever the latest rationalization is.

My parents opted early on NOT to raise picky eaters. And what precious little money we had was almost never wasted on fast food (which I would again argue, is neither).

They cooked whatever suited their adult palates. Italian. Irish. Chinese. Russian. Polish. Often Cajun and Creole (since we spent a lot of time with family in New Orleans). Sometimes it looked a little odd (figuring what part of the crawfish to eat, and what part not to took a little time, but my brother and I were usually game).

There were only two rules at our house (none of them having anything to do with the "clean plate club" that some of my other childhood friends lived by).

First: we had to taste anything and everything that was put before us.

No exceptions. Once in a great while we might invoke the "what if I throw up?" clause, and the answer was always the same, "then you don't have to eat it."

No one was ever allowed to get by with "I don't like it," unless that was a carefully informed opinion, borne of experience (even if that experience had to be accompanied by dry heaves-which were occasionally employed by me or my brother to great dramatic effect and were usually a bid for attention as opposed to any actual review of the cuisine).

Second: there were no alternate meals prepared at our house for anyone. If we didn't like what was served, the option was either A. starvation, or B. a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I am extremely proud of my parents for having held to this philosophy because neither my brother nor I grew up to be picky eaters (which is behavior I consider to be enormously affected and annoying; it's also a guaranteed ban from my dinner table). He's now a chef in Austin, and the only things I won't eat are: soup beans, beets, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The other thing I've noticed about families today is how rarely they all sit down together for a meal.

I can probably count on one hand the number of nightly suppers I did NOT have with my family when I was growing up.

(Sundays were reserved for monumental dinners, cooked by my grandmother, and consumed by the extended family.)

My mother was big on the idea of togetherness, so this practice quickly became law (regardless of the complaints it drew, which I think was considerable, on occasion).

Since my Dad had jobs with odd hours (factory work, farming, coal mining...), supper hit the table right before he left for work. It could've been three in the afternoon. It could've been one in the morning. The point was, meals were to be shared with the family.

This took precedence over homework, television, the phone, social lives, soccer, or anything else that might've intruded or interrupted.

Don't get me wrong: it wasn't Masterpiece Theatre by any means. But we were obligated to civilized discourse for the length of time the meal took.

After we finished, the leftovers were loaded into my dad's thermos (the kind that's built to withstand a D-9 bulldozer running over it-which, we can testify, it did).

His buddies opened their lunchboxes every night to baloney sandwiches, while they eyed my dad's bag with longing.

"What's for dinner Russ?" they'd say enviously, as he poured himself a steaming bowl of chili, or pot roast and potatoes, or maybe just sausages and sauerkraut.

Maybe he shared. Maybe he didn't. I don't know.

I do think he probably caused a lot of marital discord among his coworkers who came in with baloney sandwiches, and then went home to them too.

Whoever Cooks

I count myself fortunate that I'm the product of a two-cook family. I count myself blessed to be part of a family that expresses love with food. Maybe that's resulted in hang-ups and eating disorders for a certain percentage of the population, but there again, I consider myself lucky not to have been part of that.

There's no fake or imitation food in my house. No reduced calorie margarine. No Velveeta. No "lo-fat" or "lite" anything.

There is a bourbon sweet potato souffle on the second shelf of my fridge that admittedly didn't turn out as planned-but that's what dogs are for. They're happy to eat failed culinary experiments, and they're extremely non-judgmental. Mine has come in exceptionally handy since the disposal broke.

I have dinner guests who are much too polite to have said anything about failed experiments (I usually average at least one a week), because my table is always populated by the most well-mannered guests in town, in that (without ever being asked) they always observe the cardinal unwritten rule of any successful kitchen: whoever cooks, does NOT have to clean up.

If that isn't an incentive for you to break out an apron, I don't know what would be.

l Nothin' Says Lovin'
.Like Somethin' From the Oven
By Rhonda Reeves


Some people are probably born good cooks, but most are made. That means if you're hungry-or subsisting on Big Macs-you probably only have yourself to blame.

There are a few basics that will get you started.

First, unless you are truly destitute, you are not allowed to complain about the cost of ingredients. Ever. If you start cooking with perfect food, the odds are very high that the end product will at least taste great (perfection may take a little time). If you want meat, you go to a good butcher, or you order the organic kind at Farmers' Market. If you want eggs, make sure they are cruelty-free. The poultry industry is infamous for the misery it generates, and ingesting any part of that (whether or not you believe in karma) can't be good for anybody. And if a recipe calls for fresh mozzarella, NO, you may not substitute the Kraft shredded variety.

Sometimes these items are more expensive than what's at the grocery, but if you're willing to spend good hard-earned money on your car, clothes, shoes, kids, spouse, sporting events, or other high-dollar items, you can afford to invest in good food.

Second, cookbooks are not a sign of weakness. I have a handful that I use very regularly: Ronni Lundy's Butterbeans to Blackberries; Martha Stewart (insert obligatory joke here about plagiarizing and insider trading if you must); and the annual compilations put out by Gourmet Magazine (those may be discontinued now, but I found mine in used bookstores). Church cookbooks can be hit or miss. Some are great (particularly in the Deep South) while others call for an inordinate amount of "Velveeta processed cheese food product" (which is definitely not cheese and may or may not be food). I also collect Junior League cookbooks, which almost always contain the best recipes any southern city has to offer. You don't have to be a member to know that you can't beat their dressed eggs.

Third, find some hobbies that incorporate a passion for food. Travel to exotic places, and if you can't, try the internet. Pick up one or two good cooking shows. Most are terrible (like that wretched Rachel Ray who makes 30-minute meals and always annoyingly refers to Extra Virgin Olive Oil as E.V.O.O.), but Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) will never steer you wrong. And I like the fact that she looks like a woman who's enjoyed an occasional carb.

Fourth, if you can afford it, it's nice to invest in great cooking tools. But if you can't, don't sweat it. Having never been married, I've never registered for Calphalon and All-Clad, and I get by just fine with a few good pots and skillets. The decor in my kitchen is also circa 1972 (with appliances and flooring in atrocious shades of burnt sienna)-if I waited till I could afford my fantasy kitchen, with Viking Stove and stainless steel subZ, I'd be hungry for the next 20 years.

Which brings me to Five: don't let a quest for perfection stop you from creating hospitality in your home. I went through a phase (of several years) where I wouldn't cook for my friends because the kitchen was ugly and none of my chairs match and I don't have any good china and a thousand other excuses. I'm over it. I know that the people who love me will love that I am cooking for them, and that if they have to eat off paper plates because the dishwasher is broken, they're not likely to complain (not if they want to be invited back).

So stop rationalizing. I don't know how to spell Man-ja (without it looking like mange, which is something that afflicts dogs), and I'm not Italian, but I think it correctly conveys the passion that ought to accompany the way you feel about food. So do it.


The Good Life

Bacon tastes goooood. Pork chops taste gooooood.

-John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction

In a recent interview with Bravo, John Travolta talked about being a poor young actor in New York in his early 20s.

He explained that living the good life is far more about choices than it is about money.

When he was poor, with a few bucks to his name, he chose to eat breakfast every morning at a tiny French bakery in Manhattan.

He'd get a croissant, and an espresso, and the New York Times.

Every day, he'd see a guy across the street with an Egg McMuffin and an orange juice.

Travolta pointed out that they were each probably spending the same amount of money-a couple bucks-but that he'd chosen to make breakfast a rich experience with his two dollars, and the other guy had opted for a different choice.

Now that he can afford to eat what he wants, he does. When his waistline expands to the point where he can't get work, he trains, to keep the weight off.

But he also points out that even when he had no money, he never treated himself, or his diet, or his life, cheaply.