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the first foods I ever cooked

June 16, 2010

(Inspired by this lovely post from The Gluten-Free Girl)

When I was growing up, we never ever ate out. Never. I have a feeling this was mostly due to economic circumstances, but of course as a kid, all I knew was that we made everything at home, ourselves. We had:

  • Beef from my grandfather’s ranch, which we helped butcher and package ourselves (I learned early that “Grandpa’s steaks” were the best and would request a T-bone for my birthday each year)
  • Venison which my father hunted and butchered (we helped with this butchering as well)
  • Salmon which my father fished for, cleaned, and froze (a lot of this)
  • Corn, tomatoes, potatoes, berries, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, peas, etc. from our very large garden (unhappily weeded and harvested by us)
  • Non-homogenized milk from a small family dairy. We skimmed off the cream ourselves, and made homemade butter and ice cream (we used a blender, not a butter churn, thank god)
  • Homemade bread (I remember our first loaf of pre-sliced bread when I was older, maybe 8 or 9? I thought it was a miracle)
  • Homemade apple cider (apples from our tree, ground-up, pressed, and canned at home)
  • Eggs from our backyard chickens

We did have cookies, plenty of them, usually whole-wheat chocolate chip (no carob! whew. although whole-wheat cookies are oddly bouncy). We had fresh strawberry or raspberry ice cream. Lots of popcorn. Yogurt and applesauce (homemade, of course). We were not deprived. All this makes it sound as if we were a hippie 1970s family, but we really weren’t. My mom worked in an office and my dad did odd jobs and kept up our house and his rental house. We were pretty normal, except for the food part. Well, and my dad’s other eccentricities, but that’s another story.

Anyway, because of all this homemade stuff, I really can’t remember the first thing I cooked. I was helping with all of this from as far back as I can remember. Helping to wrap up meat. Helping to bake bread. Helping to shell peas and collect eggs and peel potatoes and make the salad. I think probably the first thing I made on my own was chocolate-chip cookies (besides toast and eggs and salad and easy things like that).

I do remember making something from a kid’s cookbook pretty early on. It was some sort of bizarre milkshake which required milk, sugar, a pinch of salt, an egg, mint flavoring, and who knows what else. Bizarre. Anyway, I do remember making this and accidentally putting in a teaspoon rather than a pinch of the salt (or something like that). I proudly carried my milkshake concoctions down to my parents who were in the ‘barn’ at the end of our yard (a very small barn, used only to store the lawnmower and rototiller and stuff like that, and also held my dad’s little hangout area, where we would listen to the radio and pick walnuts out of their shells). They dutifully took a sip and then spluttered. My mom said something like, “Um, did you taste this before you served it?” Well, no! I wanted them to have every last glorious drop. Sigh.

I also remember I made a rhubarb-strawberry pie for this annual small-town pie contest we went to every year. I made my own filling and my own (whole-wheat) crust. However, at one point I accidentally put in some powdered sugar instead of flour. I have no idea how I made this mistake but since we got all of our dry goods in bulk, I assume I just didn’t know the difference between flour and powdered sugar yet. They all look the same in clear plastic bags, right? So anyway, my crust was oddly sweet and sort of delicate as a result. Since my filling was kind of un-sweet (with under-ripe rhubarb and probably not enough sugar), the two balanced each other out and I won a prize at the contest. I won a pie server and an oven mitt. I was so proud.

And then there was the blueberry jam I made for the fair, which was rather cement-like and practically inedible. And the chewy sugar cookies I made for the fair, which I overbaked but remedied by retyping the recipe card and naming them “crispy sugar cookies.” Creative!

I don’t remember the first full meal I made for my family but it was probably something like lasagna (made with cottage cheese instead of ricotta, and hamburger instead of sausage), or maybe spaghetti (but probably not, since we made our own sauce and this was a little complicated and required advanced planning). I think mostly I learned to cook peripheral items: how to steam veggies, how to cut things for the salad, how to bake, how to can, all that sort of thing. I was also in 4-H and did a lot of cooking through that, and for the fair (with my mom’s help).

As a result, when I finally left home for good and moved here to California, I had a very good set of skills but zero experience in actual menu planning beyond the very basics. Most of our evening meals at home were prepared by my dad (since my mom worked and my dad was usually home), so our meals were (choose one from each category): 1. venison, salmon, or (rarely) beef 2. peas, corn, potato 3. salad with homemade french dressing. I could cook a hamburger or a steak, but by that time I was mostly vegetarian. I could cook any plain vegetable but had no idea how to use herbs, spices, or create a sauce. I didn’t know anything about salads beyond just your basic green garden salad. So I’ve spent the last 12+ years learning how to actually cook pleasing meals, how to use spices and herbs, how to create things that taste “just like you’d get in a restaurant.” I literally had no idea what to make for dinners beyond your basic meat + veggie + salad, so it’s been a long process of figuring out what exactly I do like to eat.

While I don’t eat meat any more, I do love fresh veggies and I am so grateful for knowing how to prepare nutritious, simple meals. It’s something I totally take for granted and I forget that some people truly think dinner comes from a box or the store or the restaurant take-out. I just can’t eat that way. Spending time in the kitchen is essential to me, even if it’s just making a salad or steaming some peas and potatoes.

That said, I also completely appreciate that I have the resources to occasionally go down the street and get some decent Chinese take-out when I’ve had it up to here with cooking at home. This is a luxury my mother did not have, and one that I am grateful for.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 7:38 am

    I’m really happy you have wonderful memories. I had totally forgotten the salty milkshake.

  2. June 16, 2010 8:19 am

    this is so interesting. your childhood sounds wonderful. and im wondering if you still make your powdered sugar pie crust.

    my childhood was the exact opposite of yours. growing up in SW florida there really were no farms or anything like that (the town i grew up in only last year finally got a farmers market.) plus my mom hated cooking and never tried to make anything from scratch. chicken was always covered in shake and bake, her pastas were hamburger helpers, even her ‘homemade’ soup was made with that weird Soup Starter stuff that comes in a big canister. so everything she made tasted oddly salty and processed. when we didnt eat at home, we went out for mcdonalds. ugh.

    now im somewhere in the middle. we make most of our meals at home and dont go out too often. i try to avoid pre packaged foods but have no hard and fast rules about it. especially when it comes to breakfast foods. im not a morning person so i have no qualms about throwing the children a pop tart in the morning.

    ive tried to buy hamburger helper a few times though and am always very very grossed out.

  3. June 16, 2010 8:38 am

    Mom: I still remember the taste (vaguely). Gross. I don’t know what I did wrong…

    Tammie: My childhood was pretty great. We had zero money but lots of healthy food. Which seemed like a drag at the time (the healthy foods part) but now I totally appreciate it. I think the sum of the processed food at my house goes something like this: a box of Nestle Quik, a box or two of Jell-O, maybe a box of cornflakes or shredded wheat (we rarely at cereal), and then on camping trips we got potato chips and things like that.

    Now we eat mostly cooked-from-scratch with a few boxes of cereal, dried pasta, and the occasional jar of pasta sauce thrown in (usually I made my own super-simple sauce). But Terri’s tummy is picky so lately we’ve been eating very simply. But I can’t even open a can of soup — canned soup tastes so disgusting any more, which is a drag because sometimes all I feel like doing is opening a can of soup.

  4. June 16, 2010 7:47 pm

    We hardly ever went out either when I was growing up. My kids go to a school with an open campus lunch policy and they end up going out to lunch every day. EVERY DAY. Me — I eat my packed lunch at my desk at work. So much is wrong with this picture.

  5. June 17, 2010 5:42 pm

    We never ate out either; we didn’t live on a farm (or anywhere near one) but ate VERY simple. My husband, however, grew up with the whole growing everything – I just asked him if he remembered his first store-bought bread but he doesn’t. 😦 Anyway, we now continue to eat as fresh as possible but I still haven’t attempted bread. Honestly, I don’t like my MIL’s homemade bread but now she uses her bread machine.
    Rhubarb-strawberry is one of my favorite pies. Fun post!

  6. June 18, 2010 10:47 am

    Jodi: I agree. That is just not right!

    Care: Bread is easy once you get the hang of it. It’s worth it to make it if you eat it often (we don’t, so I rarely make it anymore) But rhubarb-strawberry pie is so yummy!!

  7. June 18, 2010 2:49 pm

    I love this post.

    I left a really long comment yesterday…typed out on my phone. I don’t think it went through.

    I’ll summarize: I can relate to so many things you mention. My grandparents raised some cows and would send 1-2 to “the locker” (what they called the place where they process said cow) and we would share the meat. They had a huge vegetable garden so we were always stocked with tomatoes, squash, black eyed peas, and okra. Dessert was covered with fresh strawberries, grapes, watermelon, and some peaches.

    I take those food lessons to heart and carry them on today. I cook almost every night, the kids take a lunch to school…one that doesn’t contain a bunch of pre-packaged foods or have Lunchable written across it, and choose to make things from scratch whenever possible.

    Again, love this.

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