Monday, October 13, 2014

How I Learned to Cook: Part 2


Source: Find more great chalk lettering art by Valerie McKeehan there.

Welcome to back to my little detour during this month-long series on Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. I am obviously not going to get 31 posts written by October 31st, but you know what, I already have more posts (9) this month than any previous month this year. Progress, not perfection, my friends. And that same philosophy was the key to learning to cook for me.

2012 08 10_0287 food

If anyone doubts that food tastes better at home, start with pico de gallo. There are few things that taste as good, or are as easy to make, and the large batch stuff from restaurants will never compare.

I enjoyed Brian’s cooking, and started, just barely, learning to cook while we were in grad school together. My job provided room and board on campus, but only for one. So we used my food card for lunch (and lots of Ben & Jerry pints), and Brian made us dinner. When he was gone during the summer, fighting wildfire, I experimented. I have no idea where I got the recipes (I didn’t own one cookbook), but I do remember making calzones for my friend Angie (there’s a photo from that meal somewhere!) and trying to make taco salad for my friend Triz. It was the early 90s and salad served inside a bowl-shaped fried tortilla seemed brilliant to me. Triz, whose taquitos still reign as the best ever in my memory, asked me why I didn’t just start simply. I was struggling to lower a metal can into the hot oil in order to shape the tortilla like a bowl as she said that, and thought she might have a point.

on mt graham

Our kitchen in a USFS cabin on Mt. Graham in Safford, Arizona, the summer after we were married, 1994. It was actually bigger than the kitchens in our apartments on campus.

In 1995, we left for two years in the Far East of Russia as Peace Corps volunteers. And that is where I really learned to cook. Brian worked for the Russian Forest Service, helping establish a bare-root nursery in an area that had been devastated by wildfire, and I taught English to 5th through 11th graders at the village school. This meant that I got home about 90 minutes before him. So starting the fire and starting our dinner fell to me.


Our sweet house on Dachnia Street.

The fact that we had only two small burners and our wood stove, no refrigeration beyond our windowsills and front porch, and no running water beyond what we carried back from the neighborhood well, meant that the pressure was off. It was actually easier to cook with the limited ingredients I could find in our village, or on our monthly trip to the city. There were no expectations. We were both grateful for any meal either of us put together.


My friend Olga’s mother, pictured above, taught me to make pelmenyi. My colleague, Valentina Nikolaevna, taught me to make borsch. Fellow volunteers, spread out as we were, shared recipes. I lost about twenty pounds my first year as a volunteer, but gained most of it back by the end of the second. We adapted. Some aspects of Russian culture reminded me of my Irish relatives. Everyone was always offering you a cup of tea, and regardless of how little any household might have, they always set a grand table for visitors. We learned that even if our vocabulary and grammar  limited communication, food was a great bridge across cultures.


A polaroid photo sent to us with a thank you note from a group of US forestry advisors who showed up unexpectedly at our door one day in Selikhino. They had been drinking with their Russian counterparts since that morning, and I remember trying to wrangle something to feed them. Here’s my gourmet dish, tomatoes with shredded cheese. I’m grateful for the photo---the only one I have of that kitchen.


When we left Russia after two and a half years, we were sure of so many things. That we would never again complain about doing laundry in the US. That we would always buy fresh bread and loose tea, and make pelmeni at least once a month. Now, with sliced bread on the counter and box of PG Tips tea bags in the cupboard, we’re lucky if we make pelmeni once a year. But our time there did have a lasting impact in many other ways.

My friends in Russia taught me that the best cure for homesickness is being welcomed into another’s home. That bread and wine (or more likely Russian champagne) are better at overcoming language barriers than any pocket dictionary. That the best dessert is often a small bite of chocolate. That there is always room for one more at the table. That a cup of tea is the best medicine for almost all troubles.

I learned that cooking was a gift, and just as in gift-giving, it was the thought and intention that matter more than the recipe or the result. All of these were lessons I could have learned in my parent’s home, but sometimes you need to travel far from home to see the wisdom of your parents.

When we returned home, I still didn’t consider myself a cook but the difference was that I finally wanted to cook.

If you’re still with me on this self-indulgent trip down my culinary memory-lane, look for part 3 on Thursday.


31 Days button

This post is part of Myquillyn Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language linked here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.

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