The cooking of Joy

Hog in a Quilt. Sex in a Pan. Marinated Chicken Boobs.

With menu items like these coming out of my kitchen, it’s no surprise I’m not being featured in any community cookbooks. Good thing, though, because I stopped saving recipes in the ’80s after all the clippings and copies I shoved—with the best of intentions—inside my Joy of Cooking bible finally blew out its binding. When the cookbook came out and I was a newlywed, I did have a fleeting fantasy that I could personalize its best-selling title, that maybe it was my birthright not only to master mealtimes, but to delight in doing so. The honeymoon was over as soon as I figured out the crock pot was my most cherished wedding gift and, as long as I put potatoes on the bottom and remembered to turn it on, viola, dinner was served. I have had a few Julia Child moments over the years. But, for the most part, I’ve come to rely on whimsical recipe names, plenty of homemade wine, and a dimmer switch on the dining room light to conceal my lack of zeal in the kitchen.

My culinary roots just don’t run very deep. My mother, bless her soul, gave new meaning to the word casserole. She knew all the old-fashioned basics well enough, but reserved them for holidays and company. Most days, she relied heavily on Campbell’s, Oscar Meyer, and that little Hamburger Helper hand to whisk her through mealtime. She showed me how to mix spaghetti sauce from an envelope and how to blend in good humor so, hopefully, no one cared. Most of her concoctions she called “glop”—leftover turkey glop…hamburger glop. Growing up, I thought it was just her Midwestern way of saying she was making a casserole, that her lingo was as interchangeable to my New England friends as “pop” was to soda or tonic. It didn’t take me long to learn though, that when it came time to ask their moms if they could eat over my house, telling kids my mom was making glop for supper didn’t translate particularly well.

Once I had girls of my own, I did my best to not let history repeat itself. I found Prego in a jar and defaulted to spaghetti as my yummy, generic kid-friendly meal. For my older daughter, Helen, it was “what Mom was fixing for dinner” for friends for 12 years in a row. By the time her best friend coughed up the courage to tell her she really didn’t like “sketty,” they had graduated high school and it was too late to change the menu. Luckily, around that same time, their Dad rediscovered another wedding gift, the wok. He turned into Chef Morimoto with the thing, serving Becky’s friends stir-fry as the house specialty throughout her high school years. To this day, it’s still a company favorite…at least no one is admitting otherwise. Tom and I do complement each other in the kitchen, rounding out the meal selections with our own signature dishes. As the breakfast cook, his “Tomlettes” keep company full and focused for all kinds of Rangeley morning fun. And, when it comes to barbecuing, he doesn’t just go outside and grill because it’s his God-given male duty and he can bring a beer with him. He rocks—and he’s been undisputed grill master since sometime BC (Before Children).

“Da Da cooker,” Helen would declare, pointing to the burger spatula when she was just learning to form sentences. Thanks to his spatula skills, his prowess with “hot dog scissors” (aka tongs) and his stir frying finesse, Tom has rounded out my repertoire admirably. Like I said, I’ve had my memorable cuisine moments. I’ve made Willard Scott’s favorite three-tiered crimson Christmas cake with cream cheese frosting. I’ve perfected a Scallops and Linguine dish that flies in the face of the Food Network judges who insist that cheese must never garnish shell fish. Interesting…they never told that to my relatives who’d ask me to make it in trade for a car tune-up, an interest-free loan, and other favors. And, they certainly didn’t tell that to the Johnson and Wales University judges who awarded Helen a scholarship when she recreated the dish for their recipe contest. (Yup, the universe did a mysterious balancing act and Helen, my mother’s namesake, earned a culinary degree and has been teaching me new tricks ever since!) Recently, she showed me how to make Hog in a Quilt, a dough-wrapped pork tenderloin slathered with onions, peppers, mushrooms and cheese so delicious it doesn’t really need its quirky name. My dinner guests who’ve tried it are delighted, but probably not for long. Once they realize I’m the one who’s been hoarding the entire stock of pork tenderloins the minute they go on sale at the IGA, they’ll get a bad taste for my cooking, for sure.

Thanks to my younger daughter, Becky, I’ve also recently expanded my dessert horizons beyond everything blueberry. “Hi, Mom, I’m having Sex in a Pan tonight,” she called to tell me from her work-study job in the Bahamas. Although mature beyond her years, she was only 17 and I prayed she was talking about a dessert. She was, but I still had to see for myself. When I visited her and her chef friend made some, eating the layers of cream cheese and chocolate pudding swirled together with illicit amounts of whipped cream became a vacation high point. It was better than the rum drinks, sunning on the beach and even…well, you get the point. Last month, when I found myself stumped over what to bring to the Valentine’s Day pot luck at the sportsmen’s club, I decided it was time to unveil the recipe in Rangeley. “Sex in a Pan” the heart-shape sign on the dessert table underneath my frothy, mint chocolate chip garnished tray read. In the fine print, I included a blurb about its tropical origins and, for any not-so-frisky sports in the group, a list of ingredients showing it was safe. Folks got intrigued real fast. Some didn’t even bother to finish their casseroles before they dug in. And, judging from the smiles on everyone’s faces, I think they’ll want to try it every month.

Aside from these culinary triumphs, though, most days the only Julia Child-like thing about me is my voice after I’ve put more wine into myself than into my cooking. I’m cool with that, with knowing my kitchen experimentation will never make it into a recipe book, or even on an index card to be passed along to my grandchildren. I’m content with focusing on “tastes better than it looks.” If folks around my table want their eyes stimulated along with their taste buds, I figure they can look out at the lake.

I do miss quiche, though, and am planning to add that back into my menu choices as soon as I can get a box of Bisquick with the makes-its-own-crust recipe on the back. It used to be real popular in my house until the day I found I didn’t have bacon, mushrooms, or the two kinds of cheese I was supposed to make it with. I hoped American cheese and an over abundance of onions would substitute for an extra trip to the grocery store. It didn’t. Tom named the resulting dish in honor of Steve Blah (pronounced the way it’s spelled), a guy who kept asking me out in college even though I was engaged. “You can call this Mrs. Blah’s Lazy Day Quiche,” he announced to a burst of giggling from the girls. “Be quiet and eat,” I said. “And just be glad it’s not glop!”

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