This morning I made oatmeal for breakfast. And not the stuff out of the little microwave packages either. I made real, honest to goodness oatmeal, using oats and everything. I know some people are already rolling their eyes thinking, “big deal,” but for me, it is. See, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized there was any other way than adding really hot water to oatmeal with dehydrated bits of apples in it, to make the stuff. I mean, I understood people could buy containers of rolled oats, but as far as I knew their only purpose was for making oatmeal raisin cookies, or, on really bad days, to be added to meatloaf.
This is not entirely my fault. I don’t exactly come from a line of celebrated cooks. My mom isn’t a bad cook exactly, she’s just not a very interesting one. When I was growing up, her repertiore consisted of spaghetti (with sauce from a jar), fried seafood products (from a box), soups (from a can), meatloaf (actually from scratch) and getting my step-dad to take us out for dinner. Breakfasts usually consisted of several cereal boxes lined up for me to pick from. Desserts came from boxes with labels by Jello, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.
In all fairness to her, it’s not like her mom was much of a cook. Not that Mom talked a lot about what she ate growing up, but the only meal I ever remember my grandmother making when I would visit her was pan friend hamburgers, which she served on some kind of funky bread accompanied by a salad (of iceburg lettuce). Except for breakfast, which was always rye toast, we ate every other meal out.
Things weren’t much better when I moved in with my dad. Now, his mother actually could cook, and quite well, but it was not a skill she passed down to her sons. There is a story about how my dad and uncle tried to make a cake one morning as a surprise and ended up breaking all the eggs on the floor and spilling the oil as well. They ended up playing in the mess they made, which was far more entertaining to them then actually making a cake. To this day, my dad only prepares two meals: pizza (either from the freezer or from this horrid boxed mix he loved in his childhood–with dough so thin you can see through it in places) or meat on the grill. And, if it’s meat on the grill, 99% of the time it’s hot dogs and hamburgers.
My step-mom isn’t much better. She also had a mom who could cook, but I guess she never really picked up on the skill. Her idea of making dinner was ordering out a pizza or bringing McDonald’s home. Every now and then when we couldn’t decide where to go for dinner, she would threaten to prepare the gigantic can of Chef Boyarde Ravioli she kept in the pantry (known to us all as the “killer ravioli”). I do remember a few meals of tacos (made from packet spices) and spaghetti (made from an even more horrible box mix by Kraft–the sauce tasted like ketchup), but those are really the only ones that come to mind.
And vegetables? Until I was in college, the only veggies I’d ever had came from either a can or the freezer section and were generally boiled or microwaved to death. I ate them, but only because I was told I wouldn’t leave the table unless I did.
For some this may seem shocking, but I was born in the mid 70’s and there was a recession going on. It was (and still is) far cheaper to buy veggies frozen or in a can than it is to get the fresh stuff. And the veggies we had weren’t the organic ones they sell in stores now that tout labels of no additives. Ours had preservatives to keep them from rotting.
You know how fridges have those two crisper drawers? In my house, despite the little white etching on the drawers, they weren’t used for fruits and veggies. At my dad’s, one drawer was reserved exclusively for cheese. There were block of cheese, cheeseballs, cups of cheese, string cheese and slices of cheese, most in some sort of cheddar variety (port wine, sharp, extra sharp, white Wisconsin, etc). The other drawer, and believe me, I loved this as a kid, was for candy bars. Yup, that’s right, there was a drawer devoted to chocolate (huh, might explain my chocolate fixation and blog). Any day of the week, any time of the day, I could go in and snatch a Snickers or Reese’s or Milky Way. That drawer and I were good friends.
My mom’s fridge wasn’t much better. They were used for fruits and veggies, but the only fruits we really ever had were red apples and oranges. I’m pretty sure the only veggies that ever entered that second drawer were iceburg lettuce and tomatoes for the ocassional salad, which I drowned in Thousand Island dressing.
As a result, nobody taught me how to cook. The closest I came was baking with my mom, and like I said, even that was all pre-packaged. I remember once when I was in Girl Scouts, our troop had an international food fair. Each girl was supposed to bring something exotic. My mom made Gateau au Chocolat. I thought she was so cool. Every time someone asked what I brought, I’d get this huge smile and let the words roll off of my tongue: Gateau au Chocolat. Guess what I learned years later? She made chocolate cake…from a box. She added a bit of cocoa powder to the mix to make it seem like a darker chocolate. But really, our contribution to the international event was by Betty Crocker. How much more American can one get?
Heck, when I was in high school, I was hanging out at my house with a guy I was kind of dating. It was lunch time and we were both hungry, so I figured I should make something to eat. We had frozen hamburger patties, so I took two out, got out a pan and thought I should cook them up. Never having done this, I was sort of at a loss as to what to do. I put them in the pan, but had no idea what to set the stove at. We were hungry, so I just put them on high to cook them faster. Ever minute or so, I kept asking him if I was doing it right. I was petrified I was going to give him food poisoning. I’m not sure what I was thinking. They were pre-cooked frozen patties. There was really nothing bad I could do to them other than burn them. Which, I almost did since I was scared I’d undercook them.
This is a pathetic story, but 100% true. Before I could drive, if my folks were both working at dinner time(which happened about twice a week), I ate Lunchables. Or a bologna sandwich. If I was feeling really inventive, I’d put some Prego in a bowl and microwave it. Then, I’d get out a bagel, butter it, put some garlic salt on it and microwave it as well. I’d dip the bagel in the sauce and call that dinner. Or, if we had the fixins’ I’d make a Reuben sandwhich. I’d toast the bread, put some corned beef on it, a piece of cheese and some saurkraut, and then I’d microwave it for like 30 seconds. When it was done I’d add the Thousand Island, and poof: dinner in under three minutes. If I felt like cooking, I’d pull out the big guns: full on spaghetti. Of course, that meant pouring that Prego into a pan and heating it while I boiled some noodles. Then I’d just mix them together, using the left over sauce for my garlic bagels. Or I’d make Ramen noodles. I practically lived on those things.
When I left for college, it was a good think I had a dinning service meal plan because I might have eaten nothing but Ramen noodles. Or starved.
***This is going to be a series of cooking related blogs.