You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cook.
Well, no, not really. You can tell how a person cooks by the way they cook. But I STILL think the differences in cooking styles is interesting enough to warrant a short blog.
For instance, my friend Hilary grew up in a very proper family. Whenever I had an etiquette question, I always asked Jane (Hilary’s mom). For instance, when do you bring a gift to a party and when do you need to write a thank you card and what can you get away with wearing to a funeral. These are all things that Hilary’s mother can answer, because she is very socially savvy as well as proper. Hilary’s family in general, is very by-the-book when it comes to cooking. They measure flour and sugar, like the rest of us. But I will never forget learning that some people actually measure out things like peanut butter for cookies or soft butter. I always figured everyone thought it was too much hassle to get the gooey stuff into the measuring cup, let alone back out again and just eye-balled it.
My family was big on eye-balling things. We would have had particular difficulty getting the peanut butter back out of the measuring cup (assuming it ever crossed our minds to put it into the cup in the first place) since we never owned a spatula. We called pancake flippers – spatulas. (We also called twist ties “tie bags” and juice boxes “boxed drinks”). I thought everyone measured salt by pouring it into the palm of their hand then tossing it into the bowl. And I thought the only way to tell how much water needed to go into the rice cooker, was to sink my palm flat to the bottom and pour water in until it was mid-way up the back of my hand. That’s the measurement used for measuring rice water. “Fill it to here”. I can see how it would be confusing for some people. How could we be so imprecise?
Well, it has it’s pros and cons.
One pro is that some of my mom’s cooking is phenomenal because it has continued to evolve, similar to a living thing, over the years. She learned to bake pie from my grandma, yet somehow her pie has now become THE PIE to have at a holiday. It’s all about Alice’s apple pie.
Here’s the con though…. it’s hard to replicate her genius. For instance, she has no idea WHY her pie has become so delicious.
Once she tried to teach Hilary’s mom a recipe. It was a disaster that still dumbfounds Jane to this day. And I finally got a taste of what it’s like when I asked my mother for her famous wonton recipe.
My mother makes crazy wonderful wontons. My father, who hasn’t lived with my mother in ten years, still craves them sometimes. And one day, I decided I should learn how to make them. So my mother and I set aside a day of wonton-making (it takes a whole day – my mother is a very go-big-or-go-home kind of a gal). We cut up the cha-sew (Chinese barbecue pork) and cooked chicken and shrimp. We shredded ginger and julienned green onions. We soaked dried shitake mushrooms. But all of the volumes seemed arbitrary. Whatever size package the ingredient came in, that’s what was added. And when it came time for the sauces, well she moved so quickly that I couldn’t see how much of each thing she added…two shakes of oyster sauce….a quick dash of soy sauce….teaspoon of sugar….maybe one more shake of oyster sauce….some corn starch….and a mention about how tapioca starch could be used too….and I’m completed muddled. I would not want to venture on this journey alone, I very quickly decided.
So my mother is something of a culinary genius.
And I make a sorry-ass apple pie from a frozen pastry and mediocre wontons from a recipe I learned from my cousin.