“before Graham Kerr”
“You watch all those cooking shows, and you can’t cook? What kine dat?!”
My mother isn’t the only person in my life to make such a pithy, if annoying, observation to which I almost always succumb, explaining ad nauseum about the joy of just watching masters at work as one would watch an artist create beauty out of ink, charcoal, acrylics.
Some of the history, culture and practical tips have sunk in over the years. I’m lazy and suffer from short-term memory loss (IOW, I’m a parent), but I’m not a complete dolt. Bombard me with repetition enough times and I’ll figure out how to whisk eggs into a frothy consistency and simmer, not boil, slightly vinegared water for perfectly poached eggs.
It takes me a decade, sure, but...
My main problem with cooking—besides having to pry the remote off my hand, get up off the bed and wipe off the Chips Ahoy from the front of my bunny pjs—is, I forget I’m cooking and things have a tendency to boil over, burn, explode, melt, set off car alarms, etc.
I’ll turn on the frying pan to high (so as to lessen cooking time, can’t cut into my soap-viewing), put a pat of butter in, head to the bathroom to “see a man about a Wallaby” ($50 to the person who can reference the movie), sit on the can reading another lousy issue of “Maxim,” and forget within 15 minutes that I have a hot frying pan burning butter black until the smoke filters in from the hallway.
Pagliacci Pizza knows me well, they have MY number on speed-dial. “The usual, Ms. Weber? ... large, cheese? Try putting olive oil in with the butter, it helps.”
It’s not for lack of trying either, once the laziness is put aside. After first experiencing the wonders of Seattle Pike Place Market in 1993-94 on a series of visits from then-residence Hawaii, I imagined an idyllic French countryside, where I picked my own fruits, vegetables and herbs, chopped, diced and julienned, sautéed, broiled, roasted, and voila! I’m on PBS every Sunday, 1 p.m., right after Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.
In reality, I hardly went down there because it would involve me having to actually leave my warm apartment on 4th and Lenore, dress in layers and a butch-looking, size 42 Navy pea coat my roommate bought for cheap at an Army Surplus store on 2nd, bust out a frickin’ umbrella for the occasion and brave the crowds in the constant Northwest gloomy, cloudy rain (steeply) downhill, then back home (ridiculously steeply) uphill, risk the ankle tendon snapping off and several militant vagrant crackheads on 3rd and Pike, just to make stir-fry?
The last time that happened, I spent a half hour in the bathroom vomiting up carrots and bean sprouts, because I mistook baking soda for cornstarch. They put cornstarch to thicken up stir-fry in Chinese kitchens, right? Or was that arrowroot?
The pathetic truth of the matter is, everybody BUT me can cook rings around Emeril Lagasse, up to and including my worthless, chain-smoking, San Francisco-embracing, jobless, mooching militant vagrant failure of a younger brother.
Growing up, he’d teach me how to proper make rice, with just the right amount of feel, using his finger to determine water-to-rice ratio, and every time, it would come out perfectly. My mother, who’s been cooking for her family for much longer and isn’t a slouch herself, can’t even manage that, usually overdoing the water and leaving us with jook (Chinese rice porridge), and me? Have you ever tried to eat crispy rice pancakes—without cracking a molar?
James, my brother James, could also fry up a mean batch of Korean bulgogi—slices of rib eye marinated in soy, sugar, garlic, ginger, green onions, water, some other shit—as if he’d been grilling on the Hibachi outdoors, in the heart of DeRussy beach, and (in my eyes) invented the American cheese-and-mayo-on-Wonder-bread and the fried-SPAM-with-scrambled-eggs sandwich. He was the first to show me the wonders of carrots, the horrors of Chinese manapua (perhaps his telling me the sweetened filling was cat meat, to avoid having to share, had something to do with my revulsion) and the creative innovations of theatre snacks like white chocolate and Rolos.
He must’ve picked up his cooking prowess from our parents, both of whom provided a varied, interesting mix of Pan-Euro-Asian—one of the few benefits of living in the riotous, dysfunctional Banks household, next to a deep and abiding appreciation for music.
In fact, watching either of my parents in the kitchen became the precursor to my devout, almost religious following of TV cooking shows, spearheaded by Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet” and Julia Child’s “The French Chef.”
A surefire ice-breaker before or after a nasty confrontation—trademarked by my insanely insensitive, belligerent, conceited parental units—is for me to pronounce in perfect Japanese Shirley Temple voice, “Yay! It’s mommy’s (daddy’s) cooking show!” and clap like a freakin’ circus animal. Then, I’d sit on a chair at the entrance, mesmerized until the meal was safely tucked into the oven or bubbling on the stove.
They never asked me to help. I never wanted to. We were all in silent agreement that inevitably I’d botch a job, slice a finger off, pour sugar for salt, set them on fire and possibly blow up the kitchen.
So I sat and watched mom whip up some childhood favorites, many concocted out of desperation, others inspired from kind neighbors and co-workers who took pity on a recent immigrant from Korea left behind by an Army sergeant off in Viet Nam and left with two small children, no job, no home, no credit (thanks, dad) and no working knowledge of English: stuffed cabbage, macaroni and canned tomatoes (add butter, it’s great with fish sticks), pan-fried steak with pan-fried sliced potatoes, pan-fried, thin pork chops with sautéed onions, Korean sushi (stuffed with a chopped-up, plain omelet, pickles and ham), and her usual Korean repertoire, of which bulgogi was only a small part (kim chee gigee with broiled Corvina fish, mochi soup, squash noodles).
Dad—after the messy divorce where he lured us away from Hawaii and onto the Mainland as his fitting punishment for my mom who never loved him—made the best Manhattan clam chowder in his crock pot all day, along with beef stew and spaghetti with meat sauce (both mom and dad swore by Hunt’s tomato sauce and paste, and Schilling spaghetti packets), and heck, just about anything else he put his mind to, except “The Rock” (pot roast), “The Brick” (baked ham) and “The Piece of Shit” known as scrambled eggs.
Of course I can’t recreate any of the above for you. Remember, I like to watch.
I did learn, however, other not-as-wonderful cooking and eating edicts from them: Never put ketchup and Tabasco sauce on those disgustingly bland and boring eggs except pepper “or I’m gonna kick your ass!” Clean that overloaded plate, think of the starving children in Africa, “I don’t give a damn if he just threw up! That kid’s gonna eat every goddamn (canned) pea!” Eat three ridiculously large meals a day, plus super-sized snacks in between, and when in doubt, eat some more, unless you’re already quite obese; in that case, try to figure out the difference between, “You’re eating too much” and “You gotta eat something, honey!”
My mom used to, wait a minute, she still does, constantly give me conflicting, contradictory orders. Hence, my yo-yo dieting past and my failed battle of the bulge to this day.
“Ai! That’s too much butter.”
“That all you eating? Have another helping.”
“Eh, starving yourself all day no good.”
“You not goin’ eat this? Just try it.”
“Your son shouldn’t drink so much apple juice.”
“You son should drink more chocolate milk.”
“You should make your son eat vegetables, ai you.”
“All he eating is the bread. He should eat something else.”
“Why you go let him eat animal crackers standing around in front of the TV like that? He should be in the high chair and eat real food. When you guys was young, we fed you all kinds food and you ate, no problem. Oh, he won’t sit in the high chair? Oh, I see, he screaming and crying, won’t go in. How come you let him eat in front of the TV in the first place? When you guys was kids...”
Yesterday, I wanted to use up the leftover buttermilk. Seems every time we buy a carton for, say, a (dry, gritty) birthday chocolate cake that called for a quarter of a cup, we have a lot unused that gets thrown away. So I made two big batches of buttermilk pancakes. The second batch with a sliced, sautéed Fuji apple seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon and butter.
I forgot to skin the apple.
Anybody want 20 cold pancakes in a Ziploc bag?
Mom’s got Hawaii-style shrimp curry in the freezer, too.
Tonight, my husband Eddie’s making dinner, homemade Steak Diane. Right after I watch the latest episode of the Food Network’s “30-Minute Meals” with Rachael Ray.
Maybe she can show me what to do with animal crackers and buttermilk.
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