Saturday, June 17, 2006

How I Discovered The Kitchen

The following is the foreward to "Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen" (see my post directly below on this WIP). I will probably put up a couple of more chapters, however this may give you an idea of how, where and what of the book "Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen".

How I Discovered The Kitchen

One would think that quickly approaching my half-century birthday, I would have better things to do than to sit and write a book of recipes. A few months ago if a friend had dared prophesize that I would soon be involved in such a project, he would have been met with cynical laughter and walked away with a black eye for insulting my male ego. Me? A recipe book? Dream on my friend, because you are out to lunch! Double entendre and cliché totally intended.

I was in the midst of juggling work schedules and preparations for my daughter's wedding when Aviad, my ten year old son, marched into my bedroom, jumped on the bed and proceeded to stare at me with his finely-tuned "lets give my father the guilt trip look". Over the years he has developed that look into an art form. Then, with all the temerity allowed to know-it-all children, he put his right hand on his stomach for emphasis and questioned (or demanded, depends on how you look at it):

"Abba what's for supper? I am starving!"

"Abba" in Hebrew is the equivalent of "Daddy" or "Pop". In this case it was being used as a challenge. Aviad's eyes and cynical smirk said, "Yeah right. Like he is going to boil some spaghetti in a pot and throw it at me. Or better yet, he is going to pick up the phone, whip out the good old credit card, and order some delicious junk food."

Cooking spaghetti can be a baffling, mysterious and frustrating experience even assuming you have:
1. Spaghetti somewhere in the house
2. At least one pot to cook the stuff in
3. An oven or stove top with (preferably) gas flames
4. Know how to turn on the flame
5. Know when the water is boiling
6. Know that once you throw the spaghetti in the water you have to take it out BEFORE all the water boils out of the pot
7. Have at least one fairly clean dish to serve it on
8. You will probably want a strainer to get rid of the water as well. Unless you just dump the whole thing in a soup bowl and say: "Here kid, eat this."
9. Have some rudimentary eating utensils to give to the disrespectful child to stuff the meal down his/her mouth.

I bet you never realized how complicated making spaghetti is, and we did not even discuss the toppings, sauce, or salt. When I first got divorced, I had absolutely no clue how to make spaghetti. (I did know how to boil water, so wipe that snicker off your face.)

For the uninitiated, who never had reason to know or never cared to understand just how the food you are eating ended up on the plate placed before your eyes, the idea of cooking anything, can truly be daunting. Burned pots, a sink full of dirty dishes with food strewn all over the kitchen-top are not exactly an idea of a fun project. Yet it does not have to end up that way. You do not have to order out all the time and pretend to your children or your date that the food somehow magically appeared on the table. With the right attitude, (positive - always think positive even when your child is staring you down and laughing in your face), and just a little bit of help you too can begin to cook and enjoy those family meals that help make for some great experiences and wonderful memories.

It is true that for many of us, myself included and at the top of the list, cooking is not exactly what we want to do. Sure, I would rather be throwing darts at the board (preferably overlaid with a picture of my last disastrous relationship), playing ping-pong, or swimming at the club. To be brutally honest, many of us would rather have root canal without anesthetic than be forced to cook something in the kitchen. If you are one of those people, then I hope this book takes you a bit closer to experiencing the enjoyment of cooking for yourself and family.

Of course, there are innumerable ways for any dedicated parent to bind the family together. Do not be fooled by your status of being "single". If you have children - then you have a family. For whatever reasons, good or bad, that family has suffered a setback. However, it still is a family - one that demands time, patience, constant nurturing, and endless love. Cooking for the children is just one of those ways that we are able to show our desire to keep the family unit together.

At every formal or holiday meal that I have ever attended, there is always a discussion of the meals and smells and memories of some long gone event. We associate some wonderful memories with family meals, and not necessarily holiday or festive ones. I can still smell Mom's sponge cake urging me to sneak out of the room in the middle of the night, wake up Pop, and raid the cake pan. Who cared that the next morning Mom would be screaming at us on the top of her lungs on how we had the nerve to destroy her work of art? She secretly enjoyed the knowledge that when she was done and the cake was cooling down, we would sneak a piece, or two, or three. (Once, when my sister joined us in our midnight foray we did eat the whole cake minus one lonely piece which I remember seemed to be begging me to gobble it up. Do you have any idea how scary it is to see your own mother reduced to tears of rage? "The cake was too good to pass up," did not exactly placate her. Pop paid in full for that one!)

Not a Purim goes by when I do not remind my children and my sister of my mother's 'Noent', (I have no clue how to spell it or where the name comes from.) It was a mixture of honey and walnuts, and was sticky and delicious. Last year when we went to a hotel for Passover, there was a gigantic sculpture of 'Noent' for the arriving guests to nibble on before the traditional Seder. I tasted a bit, declared that Mom's was better, and basked for a moment in my normal atmospheric ponderings, remembering years gone by. Of course, I told my children about Grandma's 'Noent'. And of course, they heard me out and said:

"Abba, that is the hundredth time we heard all about Grandma's 'Noent'.

You are probably familiar with the "lets make our parents look senile" scene. Don't you just love it when they roll their eyes and give each other the knowing look that says:

"Our father has to be locked up. He is too embarrassing to take out for his daily walk anymore."

We can all recall such memories and tell them to our kids a hundred times. They make up our secret smiles, our hidden tears, and our closely guarded joys. They keep us hopeful, for we know that no matter what, those memories are part of us and who we are. In light of that, it does not sound so "off-the-wall" to say that cooking should become an integral part of your life. You can make those memories for your children, and one day many years from now they will be sitting around a table, grown up with kids of their own, and one will laugh and say:

"Hey you remember the time Pop made that chicken and it was all burned and tasted horrible, but we sat there and told him how delicious it was? And because we complimented him, he made it again. And again. And again, until we told him the truth!"


"When Mom started cooking you could smell the spices a mile away. I would give anything for a meal like that today."

Cooking is not only about food or eating. It is about memories; love; caring. It is about families and people - burned chicken and salty soup notwithstanding. In the end result, that is how I discovered the kitchen. I use the kitchen and all its mystery for the uninitiated, not only as a place to make good food, but to create wonderful memories for the kids and myself.

So one rainy winter day my phone rings and I find myself on the line with the wife of a good friend of mine while she is kind of stuttering for words.

"Here we go again," I think to myself. "She is going to try to set me up with her best friend or sister or even worse, her mother."

My brain goes into overdrive trying to find in that oft-used database just which excuse I can use now to get off the hook with a bit of finesse.

"Well, I was just wondering," she says, "a lot of the ladies in synagogue would appreciate it if you could give me your chicken recipe and cholent recipe for the food you made last Saturday?"

I will freely admit to the fact that it is not easy to shut me up. To cause all words to flee from my brain and mouth is a feat that deserves serious note. Yet there I was mouth open, and totally, completely speechless.

I have six kids; been a reserve soldier for over twenty years, where most recently our unit faced the worst sort of hell in the battle in Jenin; worked as a Chief Technological Officer in high-tech for many years and was instrumental in taking a start-up company to the stock market - and now I just joined the Ladies Recipe Club! I allowed myself an embarrassed chuckle. Then slowly it dawned upon me that I just crossed a line that few males get to cross. What the hell, I said to myself. Go for it! This is an adventure which could be fun.

By the way Aviad did not give up. He stood on the bed, staring me down, waiting impatiently for his due. I was sorely tempted to give in and whip out the credit card so I could get his stomach filled with greasy fries and junk burgers. However, who can resist a challenge? Preparations for the wedding and work could wait. I made us steaks, which the kid took for granted, but he did appreciate the time I took out of work to season and cook it for him, while we babbled away together. And that dear reader is the true, ultimate joy of making food.

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