I learned how to cook from my Dad and Gigi, my Mother’s Mother. Mom cooked but she was the less experienced more incidental chef, we often ate Cream of Wheat with an egg on the nights she was responsible for dinner. Dad and Gigi had a cache of recipes, tricks, and specialties that could make your mouth water, have you heaping your plate high, and coming back for more.
Dad was a legend on the grill. He was a butcher and would bring home all sorts of tasty cuts. He’d call me from work and give me a page of instructions on prepping dinner; how to season the meat, how to prep the vegetables, and (once he was sure I wasn’t going to light myself on fire) how to stack the grill and light it so it would be ready when he got home. There was something very primal about standing in the dusk beside Dad while he cooked our dinner over an open flame. I still dream about his grilled pork chops and I will forever think of him when I get a whiff of that charcoal tang.
Gigi was a wizard with casseroles, cold salads, and dessert. She was always clipping new recipes from magazines, I’d find them tucked into every cookbook, phone book, and half the novels spread over the house. Once I was old enough to push a grocery cart and see over the handle she’d send me in to the store with a list while she took my brother Jarred to ball practice. I’d have a list with ingredients from a recipe that she wanted “to try” and a handful of coupons, Gigi was adventurous in cooking but thrifty in mind. I felt so grown up shopping “by myself” but I was never really alone, remember my Dad was the local butcher so the cashiers would spot me coming in the door and give him a call to look out for his baby girl and her buggy. Once home Gigi would divide up the tasks, handing me the new recipe with the ingredients. I must have been pretty good at following directions because I can only remember messing up once…but it was a biggie.
One Saturday afternoon Gigi handed me a new recipe for a Mandarin Orange Cream Cake and told me she’d set the ingredients out for me on the counter. I got to work reading the directions and mixing and measuring, moving quickly and confidently through the list. I remember one phrase from the recipe directions very clearly, ” Add the rest of the ingredients….”, I followed those directions faithfully, mixed up the batter, poured it in a pan, and slid it in the oven. I reported back to Gigi on the status of the cake, she told me to go ahead and make the icing. I asked where the ingredients were, when she replied that they had been on the counter with the rest of the cake ingredients my stomach dropped. I went back into the kitchen, there were definitely no more ingredients on the counter. I read the directions again more carefully and found that I had indeed added ALL of the rest of the ingredients, including the icing, to the “cake” that was now in the oven. Gigi must have guessed that all was not well from the silence echoing from the kitchen and came in to inspect my progress. I confessed my blunder and offered to make it over, all the while knowing that I’d used every mandarin orange in the house. Gigi was not pleased but like the classy lady she was she told me it was fine, it was an honest mistake after all, and to just read the directions through completely next time before I got down to business. That poor Orange Cream Cake never did rise. We finally pulled it out of the oven 15 minutes past it’s done time, pronounced time of death, and left the sunken orange mush on the counter to cool.
A few hours later Dad got home from work and got started on supper, clinking and clanking around the kitchen. He came into the den where I was working on homework and Gigi was winning at Jeopardy with a small bowl in his hands that had a strong smell of oranges and cream, ” What’s this orange stuff on the counter Gigi? A custard? It’s pretty good!” Gigi and I looked at one another and began to cackle, out came the story of the ill fated Mandarin Orange Cream Cake along with two more bowls and spoons so Gigi and I could try my “custard”. I didn’t finish my homework that night and Gigi missed Double Jeopardy but we learned the valuable cooking life lesson that one woman’s failed cake is another man’s delicious custard.