My family isn’t really a big food family. Sure, we eat together, and like all families, we have made good memories and had meaningful conversations over meals. And we have our share of good cooks. But in my mind, no one person wins the prize as “best cook” in our family.
For sheer variety and taste, my wife, Carla, is without a doubt the best. Whether she fixes a Southern staple or an Asian delicacy, she knows how to efficiently prepare meals that are nutritional and flavorful. She has good instincts, not always needing a recipe to come up with a tasty combination of what she has on hand. Her meals always satisfy, and on the rare occasion a new dish misses the mark, she diagnoses the mistake or missing ingredient and improves it the next time. She has good taste in food herself and researches ways to give her meals extra pop.
If you ask her mother, Cynthia, she would say she is amazed at Carla’s kitchen prowess. She’s not surprised Carla is a good cook; she just doesn’t remember Carla showing much interest in cooking while growing up. I think she underestimates how much she taught Carla through osmosis. Much of Carla’s expertise in the kitchen stems from Cynthia’s instinctive abilities with dishes she knows by heart. Cynthia is an excellent cook in her own right, and she can make cubed steak and gravy in the crock pot better than anyone. It’s always delicious, never bland, and is tender, not chewy, like an undercooked or flash-cooked cubed steak. She is also a natural with traditional breakfast staples, making the best soft scrambled eggs and crisp bacon. When Carla and I first started dating, and we visited her parents for meals, I always ate too much because there was so much goodness set before me. Her pressure-cooked butter beans were my favorite, and I always appreciated the quantity and variety of vegetables she offered. Her creamed corn, broccoli or squash casserole and field peas complemented every feast.
My own mother was a master of stretching the quantity of food to fill three growing boys and accommodate sudden additions to our Sunday lunch table. I witnessed multiple occasions in which she would re-enact on a smaller scale the miracle of the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Whether it was stretching the instant potatoes by mixing in more milk, adding another can of green beans to the pot or slicing the roast thinner for each serving, everyone at our table always had plenty. My favorite among Mom’s recipes is her special occasion-only congealed salad. The combination of Jello, pineapple, cheese and pecans made every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal better.
Growing up, I did not appreciate how much effort was required for meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation, especially when my mom worked a full-time job outside of the home. She did not seem to love cooking, though she never complained and never failed to ensure we had nutritious and satisfying meals. My father spoke up most frequently with complaints or what he called “constructive criticism.” His time in the Air Force gave him a specific set of requirements for his meals. He had an aversion to casseroles, and he insisted food should have flavor.
Dad came into his own as a cook after I was out of the house. When I was growing up, he did the grilling, of course, and would occasionally try to recreate a recipe he remembered from childhood. Not all turned out well. During one trip to see his parents in Columbus, Georgia, he and my grandmother tried for hours to recreate a divinity candy recipe from memory, turning out batches and batches of experimental sweets. Not knowing the difference, my brothers and I ate from each sheet that came out of the oven, oblivious to the qualities that made it a success or failure. No one in my family will forget Dad’s infamous Key Lime Pie failure. He blamed the overly tart concoction on a misprint in the recipe. He used two cups of Key Lime juice rather than a half cup, and we all puckered. Our Sunday lunch guest that day was Ben, a college student from Oregon. As our guest, he was served first. He was so polite that he gritted through the pain in his face to eat his slice of pie while we were still being served. When we took our first bites and couldn’t swallow them, we marveled at his manners and his willpower to choke it down.
By the time I reached adulthood, Dad had latched onto a pecan pie recipe with cream cheese that he liked, and he never made just one. During the holidays he would make a batch of his “Mystery Pecan Pie,” and we would deliver several to friends and families in the church. The supposed “mystery” in the recipe was how the pecans ended up on top after baking when you put them in first to be covered by the egg and cream cheese mixture. When my youngest, Carlton, and I made a Mystery Pecan Pie last Thanksgiving, Carlton explained that the pie was not a mystery at all. “It’s just science, Dad,” he explained. That may be true, but “Science Pecan Pie” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
On the grill, my Dad was meticulous, and it showed. He always uses charcoal, preferring the flavor of coals to cooking with gas, and he is careful not to overcook. Some time after I left home, he really got into smoking meats, and he learned how to stack different cuts in his vertical smoker so that the juices of his pork shoulder dripped onto his turkey. And the spices he added to his liquid mixture made it all smell and taste delicious. Not afraid to experiment, Dad loved adding special twists to simple favorites like grilled hamburgers and hotdogs. He learned to double up his grilled hamburger patties with green chilies, pineapple or cheese inside, making stuffed burgers that were juicy, delicious and filling. His bacon-wrapped hotdogs became an instant favorite with my boys, and now he makes a point to include them on the menu during every visit.
If I had to pick a favorite among Dad’s recipe’s, it is hands down his homemade orange sherbet. The mixture is simple: two liters of Orange Crush, a can of crushed pineapple and a can of sweetened condensed milk. It is perfect for late summer, which is when my birthday happens to fall… hint, hint.
When it comes to grilled steak, my father-in-law, Lanny, was the best grillmaster. He ruined me on ever ordering steak when I eat out. Few restaurant steaks can compare to his for tenderness, juiciness and flavor. I will always remember standing with him at his little gas grill and watching in amazement as he turned the steaks at just the right time so that they were seared but not burned. I was also amazed that he didn’t have to use grilling tongs. He left the lid open and moved the steaks around so that the fat would drip onto the burners and produce the flame-kissed effect my wife now demands of my grilling. It’s just one of the many ways I can’t live up to her Daddy’s legacy.
Some of my earliest food memories of my grandparents are of their special dishes. I remember my dad’s mom, Granny, making buttermilk biscuits from scratch. She served them with supper, though they were even better the next morning, split in half, buttered and grilled in a skillet. The summer we spent two weeks at my grandparents’ house, we had so many biscuits, my brother and I gained 10 pounds apiece. My mom’s mom, Maw Maw, had a number of treats she made for us during her time living in our house. She usually made the dessert for Sunday lunch. I remember most fondly her potato burgers. A Girl Scout Leader with a keen sense of resourcefulness, Maw Maw’s famous potato burgers originated as a Girl Scout recipe. The texture of the shredded potatoes mixed in with the ground beef held the flavors when fried to perfection. It’s a travesty I haven’t tried to re-create this delicacy for my own children.
As for my boys, male children aren’t traditionally the ones who get culinary skills passed down to them in Southern homes, but our oldest and youngest have expressed interest in mastering some of the cooking arts. Barron, our oldest, likes to innovate with the classics like burgers and tacos. He tries various toppings and mixes in different flavors to produce the kind of comfort food that would be popular at a food truck or small stand. Carlton, our youngest, has received the most formal training. He’s taken nine or 10 cooking classes for kids from Whole Foods’ Salud Cooking School. He’s learned everything from a multi-course French bistro meal to breakfast buffets to traditional Italian dinners. He has become proficient at baking during the largely home-confined period of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s held several bake sales through the spring and summer, baking batches of pound cakes ranging from butterscotch pecan to plain butter. His Nutella-iced cupcakes have been a big seller. When he has someone to cut up the peaches, he likes making fresh peach pies from scratch, which requires planning. The dough has to be made the day before and chilled overnight. Reports from his customers have been encouraging. For my money, his pie crusts are as flaky as I’ve ever tasted.
I frequently tell people that I do not have an emotional relationship with food. Food is fuel to me, and I’ll eat what’s put in front of me. Upon further review, I have to offer a slight amendment: food is fuel, to be sure, but it’s also memory.
I’m grateful for the memories I have of so many loving hands preparing delicious meals, and I can’t wait to make more memories of good food and conversation with my children as they refine their skills in the kitchen.
Who are the best cooks in your family? Leave a comment and give some credit where credit is due.