Saturday, May 23, 2009

In the beginning

Some folks ask me if I have always loved to cook. The answer is a resounding no. As a young girl, I once made a disastrous chocolate cake with my cousins, but other than the occasional banana salad, I was neither interested nor particularly welcome in my mother’s kitchen. I did set the table.

My mother cooked serviceable dinners, pretty much the same conventional fare every week. Well-cooked pork chops, hamburger patties, french fries and green beans from the freezer, a salad, and ice cream. She had some specialties, like Beef Stroganoff, which were reserved for company. And on Sundays after church we would occasionally have a wonderful pot roast with carrots and potatoes or chicken and dumplings, both of which I adored. But mostly it was plain and simple mid-western food. And I took no part in preparing it.

So what happened?

• A move to Berkeley, California in 1966. Newly married to a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I moved from northwestern Ohio to the Bay area just in time for the action. Which for me included food as well as anti-war and anti-establishment.

• The Shattuck Avenue Coop at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, where Andronico’s currently resides, was a place of wonder for this mid-western lass. Full of exotic fruits and vegetables and people, the store offered a dazzling assortment of food products and wines from around the world. I studiously picked up all the free printed recipes and bought the Coop Lowcost Cookbook, to supplement the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook I had received as a wedding present.

• Our friends Nick and Sarah were passionate and adventurous cooks and eaters. He was a Scot and cooked up “scurlly,” an oatmeal and onion combination, which we washed down with wine or Green Death, so called because of its green can and lethal effect.

• Cookbooks started showing up under the Christmas tree and in birthday boxes. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first and was quickly followed by Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook and New York Times Menus Cookbook.

• Gardening and food columns in the Good Times, an alternative East Bay newspaper in the 60s. Jeanie Darlington wrote about gardening in Grow Your Own. Marrakesh Lil, among others, wrote a great food column whose recipes I held onto for years. I lost them about 19 years ago but just recently my former husband found them and sent them to me.

• Occasional dinners out at places in San Francisco and Berkeley, such as The Pot Luck on San Pablo Avenue, opened my eyes to the amazing combinations of flavors and exotic ingredients you could put in your mouth. “Blew my mind” as we would say.

• A chance to grow and eat really fresh produce came about as an indirect result of the People’s Park controversy in 1969. The university turned a field at the corner of Buchanan and Jackson into garden plots and offered them to residents of Albany Village where we were living. We signed up. Oh my god, fresh green beans, basil for pesto, and tomatoes.

• I was cooking all the time. Nearly every day. Hard to imagine now, isn’t it? Learning so much. Gazpacho from Craig. Salmon cheeks and Finnan Haddie from Spengers Fish Store, chuck roasts from the Coop, and fresh crab for special occasions.

I was really lucky to have such a perfect coming together of supportive elements: cookbooks, friends and a husband who liked to cook and eat, a good grocery store, and time. I made a whole bunch of mistakes. The above photo from 1967 is an example: too much time butterflying shrimp for a dish that was bland and dull. Oh well, I said to myself, I never claimed to be perfect. And there are lots more dinners ahead of me. It's still the case.


Garrett said...

The picture is so dear I can hardly stand it. But what is banana salad?

Jelizpars said...

I remember the Coop cookbook so well - I would collect the recipes weekly and put them in the binder held together by those two pronged clips. in all my moves had to let it go, sadly. ALSO, in the early 70's my first husband (high school boyfriend from Minnesota) and I would go to the Pot Luck restaurant - so fun to remember all that!