Maybe I'm not a real cook. I can't really tell the difference between my mom's Oklahoma-born Hoppin' John and Deborah Madison's vegetarian Hoppin' John. I follow a recipe when I cook just about anything, but, in essence whichever recipe for Hoppin' John I follow, I'm dicing onions and peppers and cooking beans. I don't put ham or any meat in it. Not because I'm a vegetarian, just because I have never liked the flavor of cured pork that has cooked a long time. This year will be interesting because I forgot to buy peppers. I've got chili flakes, but there's usually sauteed bell pepper in there too. We'll see. And I bought kale instead of collards just because there was so much fabulous kale at the grocery store. I cook that without pork too. Same reason. I use Deborah Madison's trick of cooking it with brown butter. It's an excellent trick, make a note of it. There's probably another reason, apart from whether I am a real cook or not, that I can't tell the difference between my mom's Hoppin' John recipe and Deborah Madison's, even though my mom is just...my mom who cooks, and Deborah Madison is a renowned chef. My mom is a kick-ass cook. I mean, people hear you talk about "mom's cooking" and figure well, yeah, everyone loves their mom's cooking. No. Everyone loves MY mom's cooking. She's just really damned good at it. She learned from books. Joy of Cooking and James Beard, specifically. But of course there has to be more to it than that. She's got some certain knack that just makes everything she cooks taste exactly like it should. Even when she cooks something that turns out to be a disaster -- I'm remembering some chicken mole thing one Christmas about 40 years ago -- she manages to salvage it so that it's still good, just not what she intended. She can walk into a kitchen where there seems to be "nothing to eat" and next thing you know you're having a sundae of granola and chocolate sauce, or toast with garlicky tomato sauce. As I mentioned, she's from Oklahoma, there was no cuisine there beyond well-done steaks and Campbell's soup. Her mother was not an enthusiastic cook, my mom did not learn from Grandma. My mom came to San Francisco and noticed the people smelled different. Before long she realized it was garlic. Italian restaurants used lots of garlic and everyone ate Italian food. So she used garlic. Maybe garlic was her gateway flavor. After living in a boarding house and eating prepared meals for a year or so, she got pregnant, married, and was suddenly responsible for producing meals. She says the first time she and my dad went to a grocery store to stock their kitchen, a friend came with them. My dad said he was going to read magazines while she got the groceries. She looked at the friend and said, "What do I buy?" He was equally mystified. They wandered through the store, guessing at groceries. After that she knew she needed to know more. She went to a bookstore and found The Joy of Cooking. And she studied it.
Maybe another thing that contributed to her knack is her appetite. She's not greedy, she doesn't eat a lot, but when it's time to eat, she's going to eat. Delaying a meal is wrong in every way. It can be somewhat unpleasant to be with her in a restaurant if the service is delayed. She wants her food and she wants it now. Of course, 50, 30 years ago people didn't eat fast food or any restaurant food as readily as they do now. Even when she was a swinging single girl in San Francisco they ate most of their meals in the boarding house and went out to dinner occasionally. But once married, almost every meal was prepared and eaten at home. Maybe because she'd had that year between leaving her mom's home and starting her own, of having meals prepared for her, she'd gotten more into a rhythm of "proper" meals three times a day. No grabbing a bowl of cereal here, a cheese sandwich there. In any case, she became the cook she is today. Now when I talk to her on the phone, if she starts telling me what she made that day, or reminiscing about something she always likes to cook, I flip open my laptop and start typing. She's chatting about food and I'm typing as fast as I can saying, "uh-huh, uh-huh, go on...." so I can hand some of this skill, talent, and magic on to my daughters.
Here's one of her recipes just as I captured it during a phone call:
ground meat. 1/2 lb
green beans 1 lb
par-boil beans, crisp-tender.
brown onions and meat.
toss all together.
lots (3 Tbspns) of soy sauce
serve over rice.
And it works, just like that. It sounds absurdly simple, but it's also simply delicious.