Cooking Outside the Lines

Cooking Outside the Lines - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 3

Why it’s time that we all loosen up a little in the kitchen.

by Lois Greene Stone

Pregnant with my third child, a close relative of my husband’s decided to stay with us for a week—and to both criticize and control. Our guest decided that she wanted me to make her personal recipe Romanian stuffed cabbage. I figured out quickly it’d be tedious with all the par boiling cabbage, separating leaves, fixing the meat/rice filling before placing globs inside each leaf, then sealing up into a sturdy cabbage roll, making the sauce and slow cooking… just what I needed with a pregnant belly and two other children under the age of four. Holding back a sigh, I asked her what I must buy from the supermarket. She gave me the list of ingredients and off I went to the store. Upon my return, she told me that she’d forgotten to mention the raisins. "I must have raisins." Her tone was sharp. Out I went again. I got raisins. But, when I got home, she insisted she meant to tell me to get the golden ones. Oh, and I needed bay leaves. She waited until I’d exchanged the raisins to inform me of another of her must haves. While I clearly allowed her to manipulate me, I also made a silent decision right then to alter, to suit myself, any recipes chosen for my personal cooking. After all, the bay leaves added nothing special, and the regular raisins would have been just as good. Who cared? Cooking should be creative, not a confining burden!

The experience reminded me of a cookbook that I received as a gift years before. It was filled with elite chef recipes that called for foods seldom found in real peoples’ homes: saffron rice, for example, and all types of exotic seasonings were a must. Just seeing the "must" was enough to turn me off. What snobbery! Some of us are more comfortable using whatever is on hand for spices. We’re the ones who almost never measure, and toss leftovers in with the main entree. We understand that risks and mistakes are part of life, and cooking errors can be laughed at later. No person or printed word, I quietly vowed, would again take control over my kitchen or change my freedom to cook into a science experiment.

I continue to wonder why so many people are threatened to venture outside the culinary box?

If an expensive French cheese is listed in the ingredients, but the pocketbook considers it extravagant, why not substitute it with another cheese? Those who assume the dish would be compromised might not have ever chanced the results from making the concession. Your child wants blintzes, but you haven’t the ingredients to make the outside dough? Try white bread. Seriously. Remove the crusts, roll out the bread flat, add the cheese or whatever filling you like, fold the rolled-bread firmly, then fry the non-authentic but tasty blintz. Surprise yourself; be imaginative.

For me, I’ve always liked to color outside the lines, both literally and figuratively. But I know that doesn’t work for everyone. Perhaps a scientific and mathematical mind gives one reason to follow exactly what appears on a printed page. And those who make certain a teaspoon is different from a pinch are more comfortable with the sense of order on a printed page. A structure-oriented woman would not like to do a recipe incorrectly. She’d probably be anxious, without the printed instructions, that it would taste quite awful, look unattractive, she’d hear negative remarks, and her sense-of-self would be diminished. There could be a fear of failure or even a sarcastic comment passed about her inability to prepare a simple meal. Blame can be passed to the recipe itself if it had been totally followed and still came out wrong. We who prefer fewer boundaries when at the stove, would laugh off the "What did you do that this smells so bad?" or "Is a soufflé supposed to look like mush?" The process is freer—sometimes with great results, sometimes disasters—but cooking isn’t threatening and mistakes are shrugged off.

I observed from my mother that "romance" with food is often about presentation and not the dish itself. A fast-food meal served on China with a cloth napkin and a couple of sprigs of parsley decorating the plate changes both the appearance and the atmosphere of the meal; biologic eating becomes dining. I tested this theory when my older son married; he was in first-year medical residency, and my daughter-in-law was getting a master’s in human development. I mentioned my supposition, so we decided to see if it was valid. Packing a basket with bone China, a few pieces of sterling flatware, a small linen cloth with matching napkins, and two stemware crystal goblets, we headed to McDonald’s. My daughter-in-law ordered the burgers and fries, and I set the table. I lit the small candle we had also packed. The burgers and fries did seem different. There’s a quiet elegance when we handle sterling or the stem of a crystal goblet. There’s an atmosphere of Old World grace, as people might have felt when the era called for dressing for dinner or waltzing in brocade gowns. So, our McDonald’s food was transported from fries stuffed into a cardboard container, and a skinny burger demanding condiments in order to cover up the grease, into chopped beef and golden potatoes. Our minds "saw" the beautiful dinnerware and altered our perception of the meal. We ate at a slower pace, slicing bits of burger with gleaming sterling. Certainly it must have appeared quite out of context pairing such exquisiteness with fast food, but, still, our biggest surprise was the way other diners avoided us. No one asked if we were having a celebration, but rather assumed we had mental problems they didn’t want to catch.

Notice, in movies, there’s often a woman with her hair pulled back, secured by an invisible pin, and her body language presents an attitude of polished behavior. Ever notice as that one pin gets released, her hair tumbles down, and she comes across as relaxed? As the pin is removed, she shakes her head in a gentle motion so the tresses cascade around her shoulders. The dining table itself can be the structure with an orderly and beautiful arrangement of dishes, colors, flowers, candles, napkin rings. Cooking well requires the pin be removed, the creative process to cascade, mistakes to be chuckled about long after the meal is history, and feeling like a free spirit.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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