The Truth of the Matter

by jill on March 16, 2012


Sometimes we find a nugget of our true selves tucked away in an unlikely place.  Something so small – insignificant on the surface, really – that au fond reveals Who We Are.  Regardless of where we try to stuff ourselves – into whatever box, whatever role, or with whatever expectation – the truth of us always slips out somewhere.

I used work as an actuary, a long time ago.  If you don’t know what that is, look it up.  It’s in the dictionary right next to the definition of math geek, which I am. They say that an actuary makes an accountant look like they have a sense of humor.  No offense to either profession – before I was an actuary, I took accounting classes.  But I think I can be rather funny on some occasions, even ones that don’t include alcohol.

But I have cooked longer than I’ve been a math geek, starting at age thirteen in my mother’s catering business.  Why I didn’t make food my job and my business when I loved it so much….well, I was raised in New England, I’m an oldest daughter, and you’re supposed to find a sensible job, with regular hours, that justifies the fortune you (or your parents) just spent on that small new England college.  This was the 1980s after all.  Cooking wasn’t that job.  It’s not that I rejected it, nor did my parents deny me the opportunity, it just never occurred to me that it could be work – it was just too satisfying.  Ironic, since Food is now a cool job, and very It.

I saw that personal truth peeking out the other day when I came across a notebook that I had used for an actuarial exam class.  I flipped through the pages, chuckling at equations that I could never solve now, and then I turned to the back page.  It was always my habit to dutifully record notes on a class topic, but then use the back pages for what was really going on my head.  It’s where to find all the good stuff.  It’s where to see Me peeking out.

So this is what I was supposed to be studying in class.

And this delight.

And what was on the back page? What really engaged my brain?  Dinner party guest list ideas, musings on roasting tomatillos for a salsa, numerous recipes I wanted to try, two grocery lists, an address for an Indian grocer, a cookbook title on my wish list, and a note to try a curry soup recipe with both zucchini and summer squash to taste the difference.   And that was on only the top third of the page.  The rest of the page continued in the same vein.  You can’t help who you are.

So when you flip past the pages of YOUR shoulds, what do your back pages say?


Mom’s Turkey Stuffing

by jill on November 26, 2011

Apples do not, actually, fall that far from the tree.

My mother was a cookbook and recipe person too, and she actually taught me to cook using them. She kept hundreds of her favorite recipes written in her firm and rounded handwriting on 3×5 cards. Her small notebooks brimmed with both cutout recipes and handwritten ones.  These she used less often. Then there was the accordion file stuffed with clippings she had yet to try – we all have some version of that chaos.  She would always generously share them with anyone who asked.

So after college when I found myself living 3000 miles away and needing to cook my own Thanksgiving dinner, it was only natural to call and ask her for the stuffing recipe.  I was floored when she said, “I don’t really have one, I just use the same ingredients.”  “But you make it every year,” I whined, “and it always tastes the same.  Besides, you have a recipe for everything!” So to placate me she described some vague culinary directions involving those “same ingredients” and called it a stuffing recipe.  But really, it was just habit that made me ask for something written – I had watched her make it so many times I could have done it without help.

So I wrote up her description and used it last week when a friend and I gave a cooking demonstration to 16 international women living in Paris on how to make Thanksgiving dinner.  In three hours, we made roast turkey, mashed potatoes, Mom’s stuffing, real gravy, cranberry sauce, baked sweet potatoes and apples, steamed green beans, and apple, pumpkin and pecan pies.  We stuffed ourselves in the fourth hour.

As I demonstrated my mom’s stuffing recipe, I chopped and tossed and chatted while the women followed closely along with the packet of recipes we had typed up for them. All of sudden someone said,  “Wait, wait, you just put in three eggs.  Your recipe says two!” “Oh, well, it looked a little dry, and the eggs were small,” I started to explain, then stopped.  I realized just then that one of the few recipes that my mom made by feel, I, too, continued to cook by feel.  It wasn’t someone else’s recipe – it was hers.

My mom died five years ago Wednesday.  I’m not normally preoccupied with the day of her death, rather it’s her birthday and Mother’s Day that moves me.  But she died on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and this is the first time Nov 23rd has fallen on a Wednesday since then.

The women loved the Thanksgiving meal, each of them vowing to go home and make some of the recipes for their own Christmas meals and dinner parties.  I love the idea of a piece of my mom’s culinary legacy being dispersed out into the world, back to ten different countries.  How fitting that the recipe of hers they’ll take was one of her truly original ones.

Turkey Stuffing

4 TBL butter

6 stalks of celery with leaves, chopped

2 large onions, chopped

2-3 loaves white sandwich bread

3 TBL poultry seasoning

2 TBL chopped fresh sage (optional)

2 tsp. fresh thyme (optional)

1-2 TBL salt

2 eggs, beaten

Evaporated milk (or milk or cream or broth)


Preheat oven to 350ºF.  (175ºC)

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the celery (with leaves) and onion.  Cook until softened, about 7-8 minutes.  Take off heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, break up or cut the bread into 1-inch pieces and add the poultry seasoning, salt, and fresh herbs if using.  Add in the celery/onion mixture.  Then add the 2 beaten eggs and sprinkle enough evaporated milk over the bread to make the mixture wet but not soggy.  Mix thoroughly and put into a casserole dish.  Bake 45-60 minutes.

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Left brain cooking

November 4, 2011

I never was a go-to-the-market-and-see-what-looks-good kind of cook.  I admire those people, but I am not Them. I’m a recipe geek.  I love cookbooks.  When I plan a meal, I choose a few recipes and march to the store with a specific list of ingredients.  At my worst, I might buy said ingredients, even out […]

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