My father was of the generation of WASP men for whom cooking was decidedly a woman’s task. He could make a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich and could even make you believe it was a feast, but beyond that he never learned to prepare any food at all.
Being my father’s son, I left home at the age of 18 without the foggiest idea of how to put a meal together. In the summer of 1980 my parents returned to their work in Brazil, leaving me temporarily living with my grandparents in Seattle and working as a laborer for a local construction company. But I quickly tired of living with Grandma & Grandpa, of hearing them talk about me from their bedroom as I tried to get to sleep at night and having them scrutinize everything I did and said, so I soon set out for the college dorms in Corvallis, Oregon. I figured it would give me a jump on available jobs too if I was there ahead of the thousands of Oregon State students arriving in September.
So there I was. Alone in my student apartment with a suitcase full of clothes and a few boxes of household supplies. And I soon learned that, unless one is defectively addicted to fast food, hamburgers and fries are an awfully boring diet. I had to learn to cook.
My mother had seen this coming, of course, and in my box of assorted kitchen utensils I found a beaten-up hardback copy of “The Jungle Camp Cookbook” – a kind of back-to-basics survival cookbook intended for missionaries in primitive conditions. It was the perfect guide for someone who didn’t know anything at all about food storage or preparation.
And so my education began. I put together a menu of what I wanted to have for dinner, read up on the necessary ingredients and how to prepare them, and then headed off to the Kroger’s supermarket at the corner of King and Circle to make my purchases. Not having anything in the house to begin with it seemed I was spending a vast amount of money on an endless variety of items I had never before given any thought to: salt, pepper, spices, baking soda, flour, oil, etc. etc. etc.
Getting my horde home, I spent all afternoon carefully following the instructions, step by step, amazed at how much work went into creating a single meal. If I remember correctly I was having cornbread and roast chicken with vegetables, and a chocolate cake for dessert, but if that isn’t right then it was something along those lines.
At last, early in the evening I set the table and spread out before me the work of my hands! What an accomplishment! What a feast!
And then I cried. I balled my eyes out. I cried so hard and so long I couldn’t eat. Every bite got stuck in my throat, choking me, until finally I just gave up and went to bed.
All my life I had grown up with a family around the dinner table, with happy conversation, with people who loved me and with whom I could share my day. And all of a sudden I was in a big empty house, food aplenty but with no one to share the meal, no one to share my life.
I had discovered the most important ingredient of a truly good meal: people.