by Shelly Peppel
My mother wasn't much of a cook. She was a great mother: tender, imaginative, supportive, accepting. But she was never happy in the kitchen. Her own mother had died when she was five, and her father—with two young children to raise, a fruit ranch to run, and a job as a lawyer (all during the Great Depression) had plenty to do. I don't know for sure, but I'm going to guess cooking wasn't high on his list of priorities either.
So my mom grew up in very difficult times with no one to show her any kitchen magic. By the time my siblings and I arrived, Mom was nimble with a can opener and a bag of frozen peas. Convenience. That was her idea of mealtime.
She never asked us to help in the kitchen (not too difficult to open up a can); and, as we never sensed any action there, none of us were drawn to her side before meals. It's no surprise that by the time I set off for college I'd never cooked a thing. I didn't own a cookbook or a single kitchen utensil. And when I arrived at the dorms where meals were provided, life went on as before.
It was only in my second year of college, now living on my own, that I started to realize I lacked some essential skill. I skirted around it a bit by dating men who loved cooking and gardening. I ate cereal at home. I got a job as a waitress and ate at work. Even so, it didn't take long before it was obvious I needed to learn to cook. Obvious to me, and to others.
A friend of mine saw what was missing and decided she couldn't abide it anymore. She was used to adversity and liked a challenge. I shouldn't have been surprised when she showed up at my door one Friday with a bag of groceries in her arms, announcing we were going to make eggplant parmesan together.
And we did. It was the first thing I ever made—from scratch or otherwise. And I was 19 years old.
I doubt if I was any prouder the day I lost my first tooth than I was in that sunny kitchen with my inaugural steaming casserole. I made that dish over and over again, although in time it was replaced by other things I slowly learned to cook, until it finally phased out all together. I made it (once) for my mom, and while she tried to be polite I could tell she was wondering why anyone would want to eat eggplant. But being the supportive and accepting person she was, she never said so.