As so often happens, a discussion of the domestic arts in the newsroom yesterday has led to some reminiscing about the skills we learned as kids, either in the classroom or from our parents.
I studied textiles from Grades 8 to 10, but have done very little sewing since. I did wear the tennis dress I made, but another dress was deemed an absolute failure. Either my teacher was lousy, or I was just inept with a needle and thread, probably the latter.
In terms of tangible skills, it was my mother who taught me how to darn a sock, because in her day and even when I was younger, socks were deemed worthy of saving and not simply to be turned into a dusting rag or tossed in the garbage bin. I still have the wooden darning egg my mom gave me, and I have used it many times to fix holes in sweaters. In this throw-away age of newer, shinier and better, it feels good to be able to keep something longer than five minutes.
In foods class, we learned how to make a Waldorf salad, which I haven’t made since, and a Greek salad, which was taught to us by our chemistry teacher, who happened to be Greek, and which I still make using his exact method.
But most of my cooking skills actually came from my mother: cream whips faster if you chill the bowl and beaters, the secret of folding egg whites, melting chocolate so it doesn’t burn and kneading bread dough so it rises perfectly.
One of my specialties was a fettucine dish with caviar and lots of cream, that the late, great food writer James Barber suggested should be preceded with a shot of iced, cold vodka. But the one thing that always remained Mom’s domain was the turkey dinner. I’m sure I must have helped peel potatoes or carrots or perhaps I set the table, fighting with my siblings as to whose turn it was.
I just don’t remember ever learning the intricacies involved in cooking a turkey. My earliest childhood memories are those of my mother on Christmas morning, leaving the gift-opening frenzy at some point to get the bird in the oven. It seems to me they used to go in at the crack of dawn. I’m not sure if turkeys have changed over the years, or we eat later in the day now, but my turkey doesn’t start cooking until at least lunch time.
I hosted many dinner parties when I first left home, and felt very sophisticated indeed, demonstrating my prowess in the kitchen with everything from escargots to a killer grilled cheese sandwich.
But it wasn’t until I cooked my first turkey dinner that I truly felt like a grown-up. Our parents were out of town and so my siblings and I decided we would host Thanksgiving. We neglected to ask about how long to cook the turkey, how to make stuffing and all of the other many details that go into a perfect dinner. And the gravy? It was a vile, pasty mess.
Since then, I’ve managed to learn, through trial and error, how to do what is essentially a very simple meal, albeit with an insane amount of prep work and clean-up.
Now it’s my dad who comes up with unusual methods of prepping the bird. We’ve yet to deep-fry it, but we’ve brined it, and this year we’re going to spatchcock it. And the Brussels sprouts that my mother loathed? I think she’d approve of some of the amazing methods of cooking the bitter little veggies that we’ve mastered: from separating the leaves and tossing with balsamic, to roasting with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, they are works of art to someone like me, who actually loves them, and tolerable to those who don’t.
These days, I hope my mom would be proud of how far I’ve come.