I am a writer and a teacher, but if I ever dream of another life, another career, it would be in the culinary arts. I wouldn’t want to work in or own a restaurant—I no longer have the stamina to keep up with the long hours. Maybe catering though, or better still, I would own and run a gourmet market. There a few places on earth I love better than those dusty little cheese and condiment shops with their shelves and shelves of loganberry jams, walnut oils, bars of bittersweet chocolate, jars of salt-cured anchovies and briny cornichons. I can spend hours in the local cheese shop in my university town, chatting with the young women (they could be my students) who work there. On slow afternoons, they indulge my tastes with the many varieties of cheese in their cooler and resting in huge, pungent wheels on the back counter. One afternoon: Drunken Goat. Another: ashy French Morbier. Last week: Ricotta Salata crumbly and tart with a sliver of Prosciutto di Parma melting happily in my very happy mouth. I have neither the ability nor the desire to resist such things, and even in graduate school when my wallet was not full, my cupboard always was.
I am also a reader and collector of cookbooks. Though I love the freedom of just messing around with fresh, delicious ingredients and excellent new cooking equipment, I also firmly believe in following recipes. When I do, I think of the person (likely, a woman) who first created it: testing it step by step in her hot kitchen back in 1973 or 1952 or 1890. I feel, as I always do when I cook, like I’m talking with someone I really like.
When I was a child, my mother taught me how to cook out of her dog-eared and already yellowed American Home Cookbook. My first dish: scrambled eggs. I remember the crack of eggshell against the metal mixing bowl and how she taught me to add salt, a little black pepper, a splash of milk, and her secret ingredient, grated Parmesan, before scrambling. I made moist, tender eggs first because that is the way I was taught. Later, I would go through a stage where I disliked any kind of runniness in my eggs—no glistening curds in the pan and don’t come near me with anything Sunny-side-up—and would purposefully over-cook them until the edges browned nicely, or the yolk hardened to a thin, yellow line. I loved these eggs just as I had loved the first plate because they had been my creation. I never felt they were wrong or bad, just inventive. That inventiveness led always to a soaring sense of joy; a new understanding of myself and my world. And after all, wasn’t that what cooking and learning was all about?
My father spent his fair share of time with the American Home Cookbook as well. He would sit with its denim-blue binding broken open on his lap in the family room and cruise through the recipes while watching T.V. He didn’t cook much himself with the exception of the occasional weekend omelet or canned corned beef hash heated in a frying pan. Instead, he circled or starred recipes he thought looked inviting and passed them on to my mother who would then dutifully work to recreate them for him. King to royal chef. But my mother was the hand that fed my growing up, and she was, and still is, a good, generous cook. I could have bathed in her white clam sauce, and her crepe-style pancakes are still my favorite weekend breakfast.
Strange, then, that I should connect so many of my food memories to my father. Or maybe not strange since his scribbles and notes adorn my mother’s cookbook far more than her own hand appears. He liked to be in control in this way and disliked being disappointed at table.
Brown food disappointed my father. I don’t mean he disliked walnuts or turkey gravy. I’m thinking now about a dinner we shared in our Connecticut home—these were the last years of my parents’ marriage—with a friend of theirs, a young woman who had married one of my father’s long-time friends. She had, by that strange mathematics that occurs when couples couple, become one of my mother’s best friends as well. Liz was younger than my mother by almost 15 years and childless at that point. She was fierce and a little snotty and I loved having her around because our usual rule of silence at the dinner table was waived when she joined us.
In this memory, my mother has worked to prepare something she believes my father will enjoy—rosemary-rubbed lamb chops, maybe, or it could have been chicken Marsala, slippery with mushrooms and wine-sweet sauce. She brings it to the table with, I imagine, a combination of both pride (she knows she’s a good cook), and anxiety (she knows she can never please him), and we prepare to eat. Side dishes: rice pilaf and buttered niblet corn.
My father stares at his plate, fork poised, aggravated. Two words. I see my mother deflate, her shoulders slump, her eyes lose focus. She’s gone without a fight.
“Corn’s not brown, it’s yellow,” my sister counters. She is also fierce and a little snotty. “Mom, this is really good.”
“It’s all brown,” He repeats. He’s looking at her now, a look I remember as half smirk, half frown. I feel nervous and sick—why does he always have to make her feel bad?—and scan the faces at the table one after the next trying to figure out what I can say to save this meal, to make my mother feel valued again.
“Brown, huh?” Liz gets up from the table and goes straight to my mother’s baking cupboard. She knows her way around this kitchen.
“You want color? Here. Here’s color. Knock yourself out.” She hands my father the green food coloring we use at Easter and at Christmas to color the egg wash on our cookies—the ones he eats by the plateful every year.
My father didn’t say another word that night. No one did, but this time, the silence was different; this time it was full to bursting.
My husband asked me recently, “What do you like about cooking?” We have, for the last four months or so, been inviting a crowd of about 10 people to our home for “Sunday Supper.” This tradition was born for me not out of my own upbringing, but out of the meals I shared with friends at the homes of their mothers and grandmothers. For every stage of my life, it seemed I was involved in some way with a loud, quintessentially Italian-American family who gather each weekend to eat “macaroni and gravy.” Sunday Suppers, I realize, do not just exist in Italian homes; roasts of all kinds are carved every week after Mass and before football. This was not, however, something my family took regular part in, so I enjoyed the commotion where I could with the Napolitanos, the DeRosas and the Romanos.
I love the idea of a simple meal: pasta, gravy, meatballs, bread and salad. A little wine. A little coffee. Maybe something chocolate or lemon for dessert. Add to that a mix of personalities and ages, some crayons and paper for the 6-year-old artist among you, and you have my idea of a perfect Sunday. The thing that makes it more perfect still is that I get to cook it as well.
So when I approached my husband about the idea, he was game if a little hesitant. Ten people? Every Sunday? Won’t that get exhausting?
No. Because the answer to his question—what do you love about cooking?—is everything. I could sit for hours (and do) with my cookbooks choosing recipes. I love the tedium of list making and the companion project of inventorying my fridge and freezer to see if I still have chicken thighs, pork shoulder, and anchovy paste. I love wheeling my cart up and down the aisles at Wegman’s grocery store, picking out tomatoes for salad and peppers for roasting.
And oh how I love the cooking itself. Growing up, somehow I never learned to make a decent batch of tomato sauce. Let me be clear here and say that this is not my mother’s fault—she herself makes wonderful sauce; I just never paid close attention to the steps. When I tried in my younger years, I always burned the tomato paste. I never got the seasoning right: too little oregano; too much salt. No depth of flavor. No complexity. So this year, for my own Sunday Suppers, I resolved to use my friends as taste-testers: I was going to nail the sauce once and for all.
And I did. Week after week I browned my meats slowly and caramelized my aromatic vegetables-- celery, onion, garlic, and carrots for sweetness--then deglazed with good, drinkable table wine. I chopped parsley and basil and cooked my tomato paste just until rusty. Then I braised and braised and simmered and salted and tasted. Finally, I served it over my favorite pasta, perciatelli—long straw-like strands (“little garden hoses,” one of my cookbooks calls them) through which you can slurp ribbons of sauce.
I have friends who say they have no appetite for their own cooking, that by the time the dish is finished and ready to be enjoyed, they’ve lost their taste for it. I am not that person. I am, instead, the person who takes a bite of her own food, and if it’s good, proclaims, enraptured, “Oh my god!”
In my early twenties, when I was getting married for the first time, my mother tried to find me a copy of her American Home Cookbook only to learn it had gone out of print. Her own copy was both too worn and too valuable to her to part with. But two Christmases ago, she put up a search of online, antiquarian booksellers, and was able to find me a copy identical—but for my father’s scribbles—to hers. I think of him now, my father, and see his swooping, insistent hand, the uneaten brown meal, his stingy, disappointed expression and his inflated expectations hovering there like a half-spent balloon above the table.
Just beyond him, though, I see my mother at the counter mixing dough for popovers—I know the way it will feel when I tear off the crisp brown top and let it dissolve, hot, against my tongue. On the stovetop she is sautéing celery in butter for stuffing; it must be a holiday. It’s the best smell in the world, warm and sweet and green and generous, a suffusing smell that reaches me here, years later, while I flip through the pages and plan my next shared meal.
Sheila Squillante's essays and poems have appeared in places like Brevity, Waccamaw, Literary Mama, Phoebe, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, and MiPOesias, among many others. Her work has been nominated for Best American Essays, Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology, and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her family.