Teaching cooking is both fun and challenging. I have led large groups of adults through five-hour classes with labor-intensive recipes. I have taught young children beginner knife skills and how to use a blowtorch. Yes! I have had an adult student argue with me over the history and legality of imported prosciutto, and an 8-year-old student argue with me over consuming one more mouthful of raw peanut butter cookie dough. It is rewarding to see grown-ups leave a class full of confidence and new recipes and even more rewarding to see children learn what I consider to be one of the most important life skills.
Recently I took on a different kind of cooking lesson, one that required an entirely new mind-set for me, and for my student. My former boss in Washington, D.C., was recently widowed at the age of 82. His wonderful wife had always done all of the cooking, and now here he was, rattling around his big, empty farmhouse in McLean, Va., without a clue.
They had four wonderful children, two of whom live near him. They are doting, loving sons with lovely wives and they are doing the best they can to make sure he eats right. When I told him I would come down for a few days of cooking lessons, he excitedly planned a dinner party.
Roger is fit and active. He has no food allergies but he banned duck, liver, and brussels sprouts from our upcoming lessons. Oh, well, there goes the 20-minute cassoulet I thought he would like!
My goal was to demonstrate recipes that required a minimum of work, nothing daunting, nothing with massive amounts of fussy ingredients. It was also important to keep movement to a minimum, I didn’t want to exhaust him. Spending an hour over the stove stirring risotto or basting a chicken would probably not be very appealing to an elderly beginner.
I gathered up a collection of recipes that were simple, nutritious, and would freeze well. Upon arrival I went through the pantry looking for expired tins of tomato sauce and old spices. Half-empty boxes of tapioca made me sad. Roger’s wife, E.J., was a wonderful cook and this well-stocked larder was evidence of her wide-ranging abilities.
The next project was “smart shopping.” I wanted Roger to see the vast possibilities now available at most supermarkets. “Check out the salad bar for pre-chopped vegetables! Look, butternut squash and string beans already manicured for you! Do you like pizza? Some of these frozen foods are not bad! Let’s get some steaks so you’ll have them in the freezer!” I had noticed that the crisper bins in his refrigerator were devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables. He was also averse to the oven and preferred to cook on top of the stove. Turns out this was due to the discomfort of having to bend over so far, something new to consider in our AARP cooking lessons!
On our first day I went about making Craig Claiborne’s veal meatballs with tarragon in tomato sauce. Slightly complicated but a good meal to have in the freezer. Roger wandered off muttering something about needing a nap.
Next was the butternut squash. I showed him how easy it is to drop the cubed squash into a gratin dish, drizzle with maple syrup, a bit of grated ginger, rosemary, and olive oil, into the oven and come back an hour later. The same for new potatoes, thinly sliced, olive oil, more rosemary. Again, pop into the oven and walk away for an hour. This was even easier to prepare than the sad little box of instant mashed potatoes from Betty Crocker that I found on the kitchen counter. The sauce we made for boneless chicken breasts was also a breeze. A vinaigrette to keep in the refrigerator for a week’s worth of salads rounded out that day’s lesson and we were done.
Roger was grateful, but there was something akin to resignation about him during these lessons. Almost surrender.
As things were bubbling and baking, I would take occasional breaks to wander around E.J.’s gardens. I could feel her everywhere and I hoped she approved of me muscling my way into her kitchen. Perhaps I shouldn’t have thrown out that half-empty box of tapioca that expired in 2008? There are birdbaths and fountains and little holy places all over their 10-acre property. A rock with a quote from Goethe by the koi pond, a baby Jesus feeding bunnies and birds in a far corner. E.J. was a formidable, marvelous, beautiful woman, a poet of great talent. Her moral compass was inspiring, her husband and children her greatest pride and joy.
Roger’s dinner party was a great success and one of his sons even asked for some of the recipes. We toasted the most important woman of his life, missing from our table.
On the day of my departure we cooked up a big casserole of homemade macaroni and cheese to take to his other son Jonathan and his wife, Carol, who had had a baby seven days before. This dish was bland and easy, a crowd pleaser for all of their other children, and safe for a nursing mother.
Although retired from a long and distinguished career in journalism, Roger’s perspective and expertise are still in demand. As we were cooking, he had to escape to his den to conduct an interview with Douglas Brinkley for an upcoming book about CBS News. Another writer sent hundreds of black-and-white pictures from the Watergate trial so that Roger could identify the more obscure players. I feared the picture of Richard Nixon with sideburns would ruin our appetites!
Did the old dog learn new tricks? I think so. But I think I learned even more. How to gently lead a reluctant and still mourning student into the land of self-sufficiency, practical skills, nutrition, and the pleasures of a meal you made yourself. Every one of us will someday be where Roger is now, slowed down, possibly alone. Cooking in a restaurant for the pleasure of others is what I do every day and it is rewarding. Cooking for those in need is even more so.
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