Breaking Free of a Culinary Rut

I don’t know exactly how or when it happened. It was such an insidious thing that crept up on me so slowly that I wasn’t even aware it was happening until it was nearly too late.

I started cooking when I was eight years old. My mother, and her mother before her, were pretty darn good cooks. My mother began passing her cooking skills on to me at a young age, and I found I really enjoyed cooking and baking. By the time I was in high school, I was doing my fair share of the family meal planning and the cooking.

My dad was also a good cook. He could open the refrigerator, grab whatever he’d find, throw it all together, and come up with a pretty good dish. Both of my older brothers have this ability as well. If there’s a gene for good cooking I think my entire family had it.

My mother always insisted that we all sit down at the dinner table together and share a meal as a family. It was a good rule, and I think if more families followed it today the world would be a much better place, but I digress. My mother made a number of delicious dishes which she frequently served–lasagna, beef stroganoff, tacos, and pork chops, just to mention a few. She also searched through the women’s section of the newspaper every Wednesday for new recipes to try. Everything was wonderful, with only one exception. Her fried chicken wasn’t all that great. She would put a light coat of flour on the chicken, lightly brown it in a very small amount of oil, and then bake it in the oven. (Sorry Mom, but that’s not fried chicken!) So, with the exception of the fried chicken, I learned how to create many wonderful meals, all from her. Then I went off to college, and that’s when the bad thing began to happen.

As soon as I got my first college apartment I started buying frozen pizza, ramen soup and hamburger helper. And while I would still occasionally make the beef stroganoff, I was fixing the frozen pizza or the hamburger helper far too often. I rationalized it by “being too busy” to really cook, but in hindsight I now realize I was allowing myself to become lazy in the kitchen. One college boyfriend was a bright light in that he too was an excellent cook, and I learned some good cooking tips from him, but alas, he didn’t want to make a long-term commitment.

After college my lazy cooking habits continued, and again I rationalized them by being too busy, or having too many leftovers to deal with. I’ve been married twice, but neither spouse was a food aficionado. (That should have been my first clue.) One could have lived very happily on peanut butter sandwiches and shredded wheat cereal, while the other’s favorite restaurants were McDonald’s and Chinese buffets. There was no real incentive for me to cook for either of them. Neither had any appreciation for a good, home cooked meal made from scratch, and since there were no children from either marriage the laziness continued. Other bad habits emerged, such as eating out far too frequently, and bringing home take-out meals.

Thankfully, it all changed after going through a midlife career change. I started doing historic presentations for schools and associations. One was about the WWII home front, and that was when I published, Anna’s Kitchen: a Compilation of Historic WWII Ration Recipes. I also tried some of the recipes at home, and while tasty, none included french fries, so my husband, as usual, wasn’t impressed. Once again I lost my motivation for cooking or trying new recipes.

I’m not saying I divorced my husband entirely because of his total lack of enthusiasm over my burgeoning writing career. (I was also writing historical children’s novels at the time.) I’ll just say that once he left I flourished as an author, and I eventually started up my own publishing business. I also wanted to do a major revision of Anna’s Kitchen, but first things first. I wanted to test most, if not all, of the recipes. Finally, I had a culinary lifeline. It was the perfect incentive to not only start cooking real food again, but to learn and grow and to create new dishes. It was like being reborn. I also have a completely new circle of supportive friends who genuinely love my cooking, In fact, some of them can’t get enough of it. It’s nice to finally feel appreciated for my culinary efforts.

So I’m now in a much better place. And who knows. Maybe someday I’ll finally learn how to make fried chicken.