Behind Every Good Cook, Letter From the Publisher
Behind every good cook stands a mother, or a grandmother, or someone else who inspired them.
Lucky cooks (like Chef Claudio Urciuoli featured on page 16) have mothers who encouraged, nourished and often trained them in the culinary arts. They weave nostalgic stories of standing at mother’s knee in the kitchen, watching her create magic at the stove and cooking together from an early age. A lifelong love of food results from these profound early influences.
Other not-quite-so-lucky cooks have had the opposite experience—they’ve been driven to cook in self defense. Their culinarily challenged mothers made everything out of a can, jar or box, burnt the bacon, often served cereal for dinner and, in the case of Ruth Reichl as told in Comfort Me With Apples, came perilously close to poisoning the dinner guests. The negative influences of these terrible cooks were no less powerful for their horribleness. When, later in life, their sons or daughters discover that food really can be more than sustenance, they often take on the zeal of the converted and become extremely discriminating cooks.
My own maternal cooking experiences were a little more complicated.
My mother was a good, but basic, Midwestern cook. We always had quality ingredients with which to cook from scratch: vegetables from the garden, fish from local lakes, the occasional venison from a relative and jams, relishes and preserves from my grandparents’ root cellar. But Mom, like many of her generation, was not immune to the siren call of packaged foods, be it the latest casserole recipe from the back of a soup can, or special-occasion Jell-O salads with baby marshmallows, pineapple and other not-always-recognizable ingredients.
Herbs and spices were few and far between in Mom’s German-influenced cuisine. Salt and pepper were sufficient. And you’d think my mother was a vampire—such was her loathing for garlic. In later years when I’d cook a meal for her, Mom was always complimentary, but would often ask “Can’t you just make something plain?”
It was as a baker that my mother excelled. She turned out exquisite breads, cakes, cookies, pies and other sweet confections. A perfectionist, her ethereal piecrusts were never quite flaky enough for her, even though they elicited raves from her monthly card club. Christmas cookie baking started in November, and our freezer steadily filled with container upon container of both old favorites and new experiments. Mom even wanted a line in her obituary to read “She always had cookies in the freezer.”
It was not me, but my sister, in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies with Mom while I either roamed the neighborhood or curled up with a book. So I believe that I belong to a third category of good cooks influenced by their mothers. You often see this in ethnic households, where the food of the “old country” is cooked by a mother or grandmother. Or in a friend of mine whose mother was into healthy organic food way before its time. We’re the cooks who often don’t appreciate the food of our youth until we get older: And then we realize how much our mothers were influencing us all along.
So Mom, here’s to you: a perfectly cooked—but plain—meat and potato dinner with salt and pepper (no garlic) and a flaky-crust apple pie for dessert, all seasoned with love.
Lorna J. Silbaugh
Loving mother and amazing cook