My Love of Cooking

Food has always been an integral part of my life. I have been overweight for a majority of my life. At a young age I was already chubby and it continued to grow because I loved food. I’ve got a very good handle on my weight but I still have an intimate relationship with food, so to speak. I know a lot of people, skinny and fat, that also love food. Those people always tend to get a long with me because I love it!

Meals were always important to me and my family. It wasn’t just about the food, it was about the sitting together. We would share stories and talk about things. Sometimes it would be filled with laughter or an intense debate but there’s so many memories around that kitchen table.

Dinner time is family time.

When I was younger, I remember my grandmother was the one who cooked most of the meals. When I was very little it was a lot of authentic Italian food made from scratch. She used to make home made pasta all the time. I remember her cutting potatoes to make us french fries, and waiting for her dough to rise so she could make us pizza. I would always be around the kitchen watching Noni and helping her in any little ways that I could.

My aunt and PBS had introduced me to cooking shows. I watched Yan Can Cook, and So Can You all the time. I spent hours watching Mary Ann Esposito and Lidia as they taught me more authentic Italian recipes. Some I had seen my Grandmother, Aunt, or Mother make and some recipes I’d never seen or heard of before.

Lidia Bastianich
Mary Ann Esposito

Watching food be cooked was inspiring to me. Something about it was almost soothing. To know that there are a million different ways you can prepare something. Something as simple as oil and garlic can be the beginning of so many different recipes. The core to Italian Cooking is keep it simple. Basic easy ingredients are used to create magnificent meals. It’s all about freshness and flavor.

I wasn’t one to do cooking in the kitchen but I was always there to watch. I was amazed at the art behind cooking. My grandmother didn’t believe in recipes. She was from the old country and cooking was just something you felt deeply in your soul.

My grandmother was making pasta from scratch one day. She had her flour volcano set up on her cutting board and started cracking eggs into the middle. I believe she added a little bit of water too.

Flour Volcano for making pasta

Me: How many eggs do you put in?
Noni: The right amount.
Me: What’s the right amount?
Noni: Depends…size of the egg, how much flour.
Me: How much flour do you use?
Noni: Just enough.
I knew I wasn’t going to get far asking questions and instead just watched as she worked her magic. Adding a little bit of water or flour as needed and just feeling the dough.

My grandmother taught me things about cooking so subtly that I didn’t realize I was learning anything. She’s the one who taught me that the most important tools in the kitchen are my two hands. They are perfect for mixing a lot of things. They help you figure out temperature, texture, and feel on so many different things.

As I got older and my grandmother stopped cooking it was my aunt and mother who started cooking more. I was often around watching and asking questions. My aunt taught me the importance of recipes as a guideline. She still did a lot of eyeballing and judging things on her own, but often she would start with a recipe to get an idea of what she would make and then make it her own. A lot of my creative freedom in the kitchen came from watching my aunt change entire recipes by just substituting certain spices. You can prepare a meal very different depending on how it’s spiced. You can make it Indian, Chinese, American, or Italian based on the spices you’ve added to it.

Food should be fun!

When I got older still, there was no need for me to cook. The only thing I really made was eggs, the rest of my meals were often prepared by my aunt or mother. On holidays everybody would cook together. I started helping more, eventually I started doing the cooking for our family BBQs which was really exciting, and something my older brother never really did much either. I wanted to cook more, but I was not inspired to cook more because I had no reason to cook.

When the Food Network came along it was life changing. I could watch cooking all day long, and often did. It was my channel of choice for years, and I absolutely lived off of Good Eats with Alton Brown because he taught me scientifically how to interact with food with some fail-proof tips.

Alton Brown on the set of Good Eats

I was very intrigued and started watching a lot of other shows. I was absorbing information even though I wasn’t really putting it to practice. I tried cooking a few things that seemed easy enough. Roasted Asparagus, Lemon rosemary chicken, eggrolls, empanadas are some of my first cooking experiences. They came out fairly good, and were simple enough that I didn’t really risk getting it wrong. I wasn’t just cooking Italian food anymore though, I was experimenting with my own flavors or ideas I’d seen on TV.

Some of the best in Food Networks early years.

By the time I had hit my 20’s I wasn’t cooking for the entire family yet, but I was making the occasional dish for my grandmother and I, and she’d often give me the most honest feedback. Even now with her dementia, she remembers and mentions those times. “Everytime you made something different you’d say ‘Here Noni, try this’. Do you remember? Do you remember?” She’d ask me. I do remember. Some dishes she loved and asked for again, other dishes she’d say “Well…I’m eating it.” which meant she didn’t hate it, but she wouldn’t ask for it again.

This wasn’t something I did often enough, but there were more than a few times we had our little meals together. Sometimes as simple as a boxed meal or frozen Philly steaks…but sometimes I’d go all out for the two of us. Little moments that we never really discussed.

When I started working at the airport is when I started baking. Somehow baking became my specialty. My aunt and mother could definitely bake, but usually didn’t. So I took up that spot. Whipping up basic cookies and boxed cakes. When Brownies were needed or cupcakes I was the one asked to make them. I started experimenting with flavors and decorations. Even getting my family in on it. I remember baking cupcakes for work and both of my brothers helped me decorate cupcakes. It was a fun little night we had.

So baking became a special thing I got to share with my family and my friends. Treats and activities to do together and talk and laugh and have fun. It became therapeutic. It was bonding me with people. I was always excited to have my grandmother or my siblings taste my treats. I’d pray my aunt approved because she was like our Betty Crocker. I forget the particular dessert I made, but after she ate it she dubbed me the official Betty Cocker of the family. That’s not a typo. Betty Cocker, I wore that name with honor.

The film Julie & Julia is one of my favorites. The joy of cooking.

I started a thing at work with my coworkers and I where every Friday we should bring in baked goods. Nobody had to participate, but those who wanted to could. A few employees who couldn’t bake brought in store bought cookies that they liked. Exotic or different baked goods. I baked. I experimented. I made Almond Joy cakes, Peanut Butter and Jelly cupcakes, Sweet Potato Balls, Banana and Chocolate chip filled puff pastries, Apple pies, apple cakes, peppermint brownies, and dozens of other things in between. I started having other employees from other stores stop in looking for my treats. TSA had heard about them and started popping in. Before long I was getting requests for birthday cakes. Instead of baking for 4 people I was baking for 24.

It was exciting because it meant I was getting it right. I was making flavors that people were enjoying. I started thinking about selling them, but I never quite got that far. I knew I could bake though and I was learning that my cooking skills were also starting to grow. Once you understand the basics of cooking, you can in theory cook anything. Cooking and baking continued to be an exciting thing. It was calming and exciting all at once. I really like the quote from Julie and Julia because I think it nails it.

“I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.”

Julie Powell, from the film Julie and Julia

When I moved to Missouri I had no idea about where I was going to work. I had no set plan and no goal to speak of. My boyfriend happened to mention a nursing home by name that he only knew because he drove by the sign so often. I figured I’d apply to a lot of places but I wanted to check out the nursing home. I have a big heart and a lot of patience so it seemed like a place where I’d be utilized very well.

I walked in for a face-to-face just so I could see the facility and they could see a person to go with an application. I had asked to possibly work in activities and was told they weren’t really hiring right now. I asked if I could volunteer, and she gave me a few options including an upcoming Fall Festival for the residents.

I agreed and volunteered helping to set up, host games, and clean up at the end of the event. They took notice of my interactions with residents and I was called in shortly after for an interview with the kitchen manager, because there was a spot in Dietary and the facility basically just wanted to have me be there. I was flattered and excited. She basically told me she wanted me to be her next cook.

I felt like I didn’t really have cooking experience because it had only been a few meals here and there but my manager was convinced I was the cook. She knew I was Italian and I had meal prepped for my grandmother, but she said she just had a feeling.

So I started cooking…every day. I was in heaven. Cooking was such an exciting experience. I was experimenting with flavors in all sorts of ways. I’m every so gratefull at our industrial spice rack. I’ve heard of nursing homes that don’t allow spices in the food and it is a scary thought to me. My manager gives us the tools to not just make food, but to really make a meal for these residents. The main objective is to just cook food to state requirements and serve it, but I take it as a personal goal to make flavorful food that ties together. We’ve got an amazing set of cooks where I work and the residents often tell us. Some residents who have been to other facilities tell us that our food is often better. Mind you we are no 5 star million dollar nursing home. We are just an average nursing home that has pride in what we do.

I started cooking things I’d never heard of. There were recipe guides for everything. So at first as I learned I just followed the recipes. They were loosely written but anybody can handle most of these meals. As I learned I had to check the recipe book less and less. Before long it became a game. I wanted to outdo myself each time I cooked. I wanted to make it more flavorful more nostalgic and home cooked. It’s always the biggest thrill when my boss and coworkers taste my food and love it.

That’s why I cook. I love to see people enjoying something. So I cook my heart out. I fill everything I make with love and you can taste it. I’ve had people from home, work, friends, and family tell me the same thing. I can taste it in your food. I may not always knock it out of the park and I’ve made my fair share of kitchen mistakes like anybody else.

Even Julia Child made mistakes in the kitchen. The fun and excitement is in the experimenting and the flavors you can create. It’s literally an art form to cook well. Semi-home made or classically trained french, the point is to cook and enjoy it. Everything tastes better when you share it, I’m pretty sure that’s a scientific fact.

Make sure you have fun with it. I’m always dancing or talking or listening to music when I cook. That’s half the fun of it.

So if you don’t cook, you should try it. Start simple and find what you like to eat. Go there. I promise it will be an experience you won’t regret. Share food with the ones you love. Share recipes and share time in the kitchen. Cooking is one of the many languages of love.

I’m off today from my job and about to head into the kitchen to cook. Enjoy your meals and stay blessed. Don’t take cooking or anything in life too seriously.

2 thoughts on “My Love of Cooking

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