Thursday, November 26, 2009


My mother taught me to cook by handing me a pound of ground beef, a can of Chef Boy-ar-dee sauce and a frying pan. It was a Saturday, and spaghetti was often on the menu for Saturday lunch. (It would be years before I realized I could actually serve it for supper.)  

Mama is a 'little bit of this and that' kind of cook, and a terrific one. I had watched her make said spaghetti many times, adding her 'lbotat' from the cabinet to the sauce, so that I thought reasonably equipped to do the same. I made the spaghetti, adding my own 'lbotat', and in my memory, everybody at the table ate it, and nobody — especially my mother — complained. In time, this became my Saturday duty (at least in my memory), and before long I had ditched the tired Chef Boy-ar-dee for my own concoction. 
Mama taught me how to make a lot of things that way, and today I'm a pretty good cook myself, though if you ask me what's in something, I find myself saying: A little bit of this and that. It's just too hard to measure.

When I was newly married, briefly worked at a job I hated, trying to make an IBM Selectric  typewriter format a simple newsletter for a company I couldn't name today if I tried. I had been working with computers for a couple of years, so a typewriter seemed ancient to me, and I could never get the hang of it. My ineptitude got me fired. FIRED! After only a couple of weeks. So I dragged myself back to our small apartment, wallowing in the fact that I would probably never, ever work again. But what would I do? And right away?

The one thing I knew I could do well was cook. But what? I'd read an article on making bread just that week in Redbook. I'd watched my mother make yeast rolls for years. It did not look that hard. So I went to the store, bought loaf pans, yeast, eggs, flour and milk, and set to work, actually following the recipe. No LBOTAT, because I did recall Mama saying that working with yeast could be a little tricky.
I don't remember anything about making the bread, just the outcome. When the timer buzzed, I opened the oven to find four perfectly golden — and perfectly flat — flour bricks. I will never forget that moment. 
What a failure I was. At everything.

I'm sure I cried, which of course is the first thing any respectable writer will do when faced with failure. The second thing is to stick the fanny in the chair and figure out a better way to write. So that's what I did. Who cared about bread? Rolls were the bread in my family. So wrote my mother — we couldn't afford call long distance in those ancient days of the 80s — for her recipe. 

Today I am somewhat famous for my rolls. I've been known to make as many as 30 dozen in one day, and even have tried to teach a few curious cooks just how I do it. My mother's recipe card  is now practically illegible, splattered with melted butter, milk, yeast and eggs — the makings of the perfect roll.
A couple of weeks ago, my NYC daughter asked me for some recipes. She and her husband stayed in the City for Thanksgiving, and she is hoping to recreate her favorite meal in their tiny Manhattan apartment.

Married 7 months ago, she is learning to cook. She has watched me make rolls on our kitchen counter since she was two. She wanted the roll recipe. But though she's watched me, she has never wanted to learn how.

So I sat down the other day, writing from memory my mother's recipe, careful to give her specific instructions about how long to scald the milk, how to tell if she has too much flour, how to add  a LBOTAT to make them sweet like mine. And a little bit about that tricky yeast.  I bought the bread flour and the right kind of yeast (enough for her to have three do-overs). And then I made some rolls, taking everything to her last weekend when they made a short trip to see the in-laws.

When she and The Husband called last night saying the couldn't find the Pepperidge Farm dressing mix on the salad dressing aisle, I was a little worried. But I do know, somehow, she will teach herself how to make my rolls. She is like that. Thought the first batch might not rise right, and the second might produce rolls that are a little too heavy, she'll do it. And one day when all seems wrong with the world, she'll pull out her measuring cups and her yeast and get busy, doing something all the girls in my family — from my grandmother, mother, sister, me  — and now her — have learned how to do right.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.