To this day, my sons are the only children I know who would pretend to enjoy their mother’s horrendous cooking, even after learning that burnt food is not, as I raised them to believe, “Cajun style.”
As toddlers, they rarely complained about the meals I lovingly defrosted and heated for them, for the simple reason that they didn’t realize there were other options.
Then they experienced school lunches.
Whether the daily menu featured beef stroganoff or sloppy joes, grilled cheese or chicken fingers, my newly enlightened sons raved about their unbelievably good lunches more convincingly than a food critic touts the virtues of an upscale, trendy restaurant.
Like a determined FBI agent interrogating a shifty criminal, I questioned my favorite cafeteria lady, with the food-splattered apron and sensible shoes, about the appetizing meals that continued to elude me. I had to know what secrets this hash slinger in a hairnet was hiding from me.
“What’s in the ‘secret’ sauce that makes the sloppy joes so tasty?” I asked as I crossed my arms and raised one eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” she responded while putting on disposable gloves. “We open an enormous can, dump the contents in a big bowl and add ground beef.”
“Why are the noodles in the beef stroganoff so light and creamy and the beef extremely tender?” I insisted while shining the warming lamp directly in her eyes.
“It’s delivered frozen and we add a few simple ingredients,” she answered, wondering how she could convince me to volunteer in the library rather than in the cafeteria.
A few years ago my youngest son created a detailed Pinterest board labeled “Food to Make” and forwarded the link to me. I appreciated his complete faith in my limited cooking abilities as I attempted to recreate the wide range of recipes he selected. Five of the 16 meals that I stir-fried, slow-cooked, baked, smoked, and fried on the sidewalk – Dallas summers are unbearably hot – vaguely resembled the photos in the Pins. The other 11 I dubbed “Mystery Meals.”
Needing to step up my cooking game, I spent two months poring over YouTube videos and binge-watching Top Chef, both of which inspired me to create a variety of dinners, all requiring more than two ingredients. (After a few misdirected clicks I also learned how to build a deck and carve an owl out of a tree trunk. I stopped when my construction expertise was starting to outweigh my culinary skills.)
The following Mother’s Day, my family sensed my need to expand my cooking repertoire and presented me with a shiny black grill and a red apron emblazoned with the words, “Queen B…BQ. I tossed everything on the grill including, meats, vegetables and a few photos of me from the ’80s – those had to go.
Both sons, with large appetites to match their over-six-feet-tall frames, not only devoured what was on their plates, they asked for seconds. At first I was shocked, then flattered, then quickly flustered as I looked past the burners and deep into the bowels of the flaming dark monster where random pieces of meat and vegetables had landed and subsequently become charred beyond recognition. That was the night my sons learned to love salad.
Weeks later, something clicked; I consistently fixed appetizing, non-gag-inducing meals in the kitchen and on the grill that didn’t require my sons to play “Name That Dish.” Inspired by my culinary conversion – and secretly hoping that inedible cooking wasn’t hereditary – my sons put their own Food Network-inspired cooking skills to use, preparing dinner alongside me a few evenings a week.
Judging by their food preparation techniques, it was obvious they had watched a variety of shows, yet apparently none of the episodes featured the chefs cleaning the kitchen or loading the dishwasher.
While we cooked, my sons put their phones aside and, rather than respond to my questions with their usual one-word answers, we had full conversations. Finally, I was getting a glimpse into their lives without creeping on their Facebook pages.
My younger son asked his older brother about his girlfriend – the one I didn’t know he had – and I kept quiet. They discussed the challenges of school and their plans for the summer. Rather than weigh in on their next steps (read: micromanage), I kept my thoughts and opinions to myself. After dinner I was bursting with words of wisdom I desperately needed to share so I nudged the cat into my bedroom and gave her career and family advice.
Even now, when all three of us are home at the same time, we join forces to prepare (almost) chef-worthy dinners. Admittedly, none of us would qualify as viable contestants on any cooking show, but the chopping, steaming, and sautéing that now seems effortless to the three of us, has little to do with technique and outcome, and more to do with spending time together and building a connection.
We have created a tradition that I hope my sons will pass along to their children. And I’m fairly confident that any recipes titled “Creole Gumbo” or “Red Beans and Rice” will truly be Cajun.