My grandmother was typically a pretty poor cook. But then she’d knock out a Thanksgiving feast of such perfection that it might have gotten the European invaders to agree not to rip off the Natives. (No, I mean REALLY agree. And keep it.) WTF??? My mom, on the other hand, was usually a great cook. Not so much in the lean years. Actually I remember a lot of Spam in those years. (No, not the unwanted mail; the mystery meat.) Fried Spam. Baked Spam. Sandwich-Spam. I will never again eat Spam.
But when I was in high school, things were a little less lean, and her repertoire expanded. She cooked Southern, from her years growing up on a farm: fried chicken, butterbeans, biscuits and gravy. She cooked Mexican, from her years living in Southern California: burritos, rice and beans, guacamole. These were not typical fare in the rural Pennsylvania town we had moved to. But even her typical food was atypical compared to the somewhat bland style of the area – her sauces spicier, her roasts more tender and flavorful.
There was only one problem. She made dinner like we still worked that farm.
Every dinner had a meat and a sauce. Salad smothered in creamy dressing. A starch covered with butter. A vegetable dripping with butter. Bread slathered in butter. Sweet tea. And of course, a sugary dessert. If I count correctly, that’s 6-7 servings of saturated fat, plus 4-5 servings of white sugar/flour. In one meal. It’s a wonder I could drag myself to my bedroom afterward to pour over my fashion magazines – er, I mean geometry book.
I didn’t start cooking till after college when I lived on my own in Philly. OK, at first there were a lot of baby carrots and canned soup. But in the box of pans and utensils that my mom put together was a cookbook, so I started experimenting with recipes. I recall successes with turkey rice soup, corn pudding, bay shrimp salad, and tuna noodle casserole (some wouldn’t call that last one a success.)
After I moved to LA in my mid-20’s, I stopped using recipes. I made chili, which came to be my ‘signature dish.’ It’s not exactly a boeuf bourguinon, but hey! People ask for it! All the time! And just like my mom’s dishes, my chili is a little different from most others. With the exciting ethnic restaurants in LA, one of my favorite things became to sample dishes and then try to recreate them at home with my own twist. And that’s how I came to be known among friends and family as a “good cook.”
What I didn’t expect was that one day I would end up in a nature writing workshop, in which the teacher, author Susan Tweit, would give us an assignment to write a book proposal. WHAATT????? I thought we’d walk around a botanical garden and write a few essays about trees. But Susan’s concept of nature is generous. I started thinking about the bodies that we live and love in, and nourish from the earth…the more I thought about it, the more an idea began to grow.
So, in Licking the Spoon, my book in progress about food, sex and relationship, you might find an Ethiopian doro wot, Native American posole, a Cuban black bean pasta, Puerto Rican gandules, a Spanish paella, or my mother’s guacamole. But of course, the key ingredient, which I coyly decline to reveal here, is the delicate combination of herbs and spices.
Plus, that special something that my mom put into her food. No, not the fat. Maybe the love…
55 thoughts on “Secret Ingredients”
“Love”, Lynda… yes… it is all about “love”!!! That is the special ingredient that makes the difference… it makes our dishes unique!!! Please, continue cooking and writting for us!!! We are hungry for it!!!
That’s what I’m hoping to do, Naluce! Now if you could only take over my day job for me, LOL! I’d miss my students, but it sure is difficult to find time to write.
I really liked this entry – it’s always nice to reminisce about your families cooking. Everyone in my family cooks unique and different.
I also couldn’t agree more with your statement about the diversity of food here in Los Angeles. I love how we are so close to so many great places to eat. If you’re into healthy vegetarian, there is a little place called Tribal Cafe in Echo Park. A little nice place with dim lighting, a bookshelf, and even open mic nights!
Once again, great entry Professor Hoggan!
– Daniel T.
That’s a great recommendation! Thanks for reading and commenting, Daniel!
I really like this article. It remind me of my grandmother too. She is not greatest cook in the world, but that special taste is the best to me. Every cook has their own special taste on their food. I do love my grandmother’s cook. 🙂
I hope your grandmother is still around to cook for you – and so you can tell her how much you love it.
oh my gosh. SPAM. Ugh, I loathe spam as well because I had it way too much during my childhood. This post did remind me of how different my cooking is compared to my mother’s. She has too much flavor and I have too little flavor in the food…You’d think by now we somehow would’ve collaborated to make the perfect meal. One day!
I love food! (Drooled a little reading this post). But its always great to hear about family recipes and their family culture. Hands down, my grandmother is the best cook I know, but I think everybody feels the same way about their grandmother. Though, unfortunately, her cooking skills have not rubbed off on me, I will stick to coupons and apples. I disagree a little, I will always love spam- no matter how disgusting!
I guess there have to be spam lovers out there, or they wouldn’t keep making it!
That’s awesome that you cook and discover different ethnic cuisines in your book. My family is from Ethiopia, so I am very familiar with foods that are rich in spice and have complex flavor profiles, including doro wot! There are really good Ethiopian restaurants in “Little Ethiopia” on Fairfax ave. in Los Angeles that you should check out if you haven’t already 🙂
Oh, I go there often Naomi! I love the veggies, doro wat, injera and honey wine! 🙂
I remember my mom used to make me eat Spam also. Now, I despise it as well
Spam. I have this love and hate relationship with it. I, too, also used to eat it throughout my childhood because it was easy to prepare since it was already in a can. I just cannot give it up yet because of those great spam musubis. Nevertheless, I am very jealous that your mother was a cook! My mom has only cooked once after the twenty years I have been living!
Your mom only cooked once?! Oh my gosh, what do you eat? I did like my mom’s cooking, but I’ve got to admit my relationship with Spam now is just all hate. 🙂
The biggest surprise of this article is that you’re not originally from California! I think of open, awesome people like you whenever I think of Los Angeles.
Thank you! Luckily, there are open, awesome people everywhere, I think!
I can’t wait to read your book, to be honest. And it’s funny that you mention spam because about 3 weeks ago, that was all my boyfriend and I had to eat, since we hadn’t gotten paid yet, so we surviving on very little to eat. LOL. And you’re right, you can cook spam in EVERYWAY. Goodness, I got so tired of it. Hahaha.
Not only that, but there are healthier things to eat on a budget! Like rice and beans (not refried, though.)
Cooking I think is a great way to bring loved ones together.
I would like to see what Recipe’s you post :9
My mother did not and does not cook too many home cooked meals as described above….. Hopefully when I move out, I will find my niche in cooking, because I don’t cook either….. This gave me a little bit of inspiration though!
It’s either learn by practice or go to culinary school lol!
Reading this post definitely makes me hungry! I also come from a similar family. My grandmother cooks everything with her own twist and makes it even better. My mom is also a great cook but doesn’t cook too much anymore. What a shame. I really enjoy a good homemade cook, and i’ll be needing your chili recipe.
Wow, I’m glad it made you hungry! It’s nice to have a good cook in the family – maybe you should take over that role! I can make my chili recipe available.
Reading this made very hungry! haha very good read!!
I do believe that a good home meal really brings loved ones togther
I couldn’t agree more about the shared meal.
I like spam well when its wrapped in seaweed and rice, its delicious! Though I guess its better to not eat it, I’ve been trying to eat healthy but…. being a lazy college student, its hard.
To me nothing makes Spam good! I just had too much of it. And then, thinking about what it’s made of… 🙁
I’ve never tried spam and don’t think I ever will lol. People make it sound like it’s not that great. I wish I was a good cook so maybe I should start experimenting like you. 🙂
I wasn’t good when I started, but with experimenting, you learn (both in food and sex LOL!)
I can’t say this article directly reminds me of anything in particular, but grandma’s meals sure does remind me of the dilemma I once had. I got so bored of the food that my mother cooked up because the taste was generally the same. Don’t get me wrong though, the food tasted good; it was just a bit monotonous.
Maybe you can learn to cook foods that taste very different! All it takes is experimenting.
my mom is the same way! she’s a really great cook one day out of the year!! And she grew up on that southern diet, too; It’s so yummy…but I don’t know how one could handle eating so much food every night!
Well, I think it gave me the slowest metabolism on the planet!
I don’t know if it is because I’m hungry, or that I also love to cook, the excitement for the cookbook just a grew a bit more.
Well, I hope it gets published so you get to check it out!
I have a pretty obvious distaste for spam as well! I love cooking, especially different cultural foods. Your book sounds amazing, taking these two subjects and merging them seamlessly together. Beautifully done. (:
Thank you, and I hope I find a publisher because a LOT of people love these two subjects together!
Your book is becoming more appealing to me, and I really want to read it now. As for the cooking, I too had a great mother who cooked, and a father as well. As for me, I am still learning but hopefully I will get better.
In my home, my mother is such a great cook. As for me… I’ve been told I make great sandwiches! Lol. I think when I finally move out, I will definitely be relying on recipe books. Like you mentioned, we should take care of our bodies, and I wouldn’t want to become another college stereotype, where “everyone gets fat after college.” Enjoyed this post very much; it’s sweet and reminds me of my mothers yummy posole that I shouldn’t take for granted.
I love posole! And I make a good one if I do say so myself. 🙂 I’d recommend you get your mom’s recipes while you can. And yes, take care of your body – it’s the only one you’ve got!
So funny to hear about your moms cooking and how you perceived it. I have three kids and they are not to keen on my cooking. Their afraid of my chicken and pick at their food when I make meals. I cant imagine what they will say when they get older about my cooking. I love how your mom cooked for you with so much love. All the fatty foods she made you were just because she wanted you to enjoy it. I do agree with making better more healthier choices.
Growing up absolutely loved my mom’s cooking, but it wasn’t until I moved out on my own and started cooking my own meals that I really understood how good a cook my mom was. She was so talented in recreating any dish she tried and putting her own spin on it. Hopefully one day I’ll be as good as my mother is at cooking.
Wow, that’s so cool that you can appreciate your mother’s artistry!
I adored my grandmother’s cooking, it wasn’t until she passed away I started to learn how to make my own platers, many can relate to your story and I appreciate posting your personal stories
Thank you, and I enjoy sharing them! Glad you’re finding your own way in the kitchen.
First, I have to say what a great and clever title for this post. Everyone style of cooking is different and reading about how your mom cooked dinner reminded me of my dad. Till this day, every dinner that my dad cooks includes red meat either pork or steak. I have worked hard to remind my dad to stay off red meat due to its high concentration of saturated fat. I have hope that one day he will. Nevertheless my dad loves to cook for us/family and I believe that is his special ingredient.
Great Post Professor Hoggan!
-Omar Mercado Soto
Thank you! Fortunately for your dad, there are so many awesome vegetarian recipes available on the internet now, if only he will try them.
I love to watch hallmart movies on the weekends and in one of the movies a young cheff has a cook off to win money and open a restaurant. she ends up winning and they asked her what was her special ingredient and she answered with “Love”. that’s awesome that you cook with love and us it in your ingredient’s.
To me it’s the only way to cook! I probably won’t win any prizes, though. 😉 (Oops, just forgot I once won 2nd place in a chili cook-off!)
“Love” is the most important ingredient when you’re cooking. what a wonderful story! it remind me of my mother. Her dishes were my favorite! but sadly she can’t cook for me right now because she is not here in the US with me.
I’m sorry, Walt! You must really miss your mom and her great cooking. 🙁
It’s good that you enjoy cooking. Unfortunately, I do not know how to cook. The cook in my family is my dad. He doesn’t follow recipe; he just added some spices to taste. My mom would cook ethnic food like Pho sometimes. At least I get to eat home-cooked meal.
Well, at least you get the home cooked food! I am in favor of men (everyone!) learning to take care of themselves, including basic cooking. 😉
I come from a family of people that LOVE to eat! I myself enjoy eating big delicious meals. When it came my turn to taken care of the home, just like my mother, I made sure to cook big delicious meals. I relate to this post because my own grandmother was also not a good cook, as she was more of a working person. However, my mom became know as the cook of the family, and although she isn’t able to teach me her recopies, i got her most import touch, love for whom I’m making it for.
I think you understand what I’m talking about. Glad you like cooking with love!
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