Learning to Cook All Over Again, by Judy Alter

I used to be a good cook, praised for my skills in the kitchen, my willingness to tackle complicated recipes like Coquilles St. Jacques, and my ability to serve large dinner parties and even larger cocktail parties. Today I am cooking from a wheelchair in a postage-stamp kitchen with standard-height counters and no stove or oven. My stove is one of those new-fangled hot plates that operate by magnetism—it heats hot and fast, often too much of both.

I burn food, I scorch the pans, I singe myself. I have spilled, dropped, and splashed. When I chop celery or onions, the floor is littered with bits of green, bits even the dogs won’t eat. The most used tool in my kitchen is not a spatula or a measuring cup but the grabber I can use to retrieve things from the floor or high up kitchen shelves.

What happened? Two things: severe hip pain prevented me from walking and then the doctor advised against even trying to walk; complicated hip surgery and a long recovery followed. For six weeks I could put no more than one-quarter my weight on my left foot, and even today I am strongly advised against bending at the hip. I can stand for a while, with the chair close behind, to stir or chop or wash dishes but that’s it. I didn’t cook for probably six months, and I guess the memory—or skills—grow rusty.

I also moved from my 1800-square foot house to a 600-square foot cottage. Talk about downsizing! People ask what I miss and I reply, “My kitchen utensils.” I thought I took what I needed, but not so. I was in pain, not thinking clearly, and my children cleaned out the kitchen for me, taking what they wanted of what I left behind. For weeks recently I didn’t have a metal spatula, only a rubber-coated one, and any cook knows you can’t get under something and get a good crust with a coated spatula. I missed slotted spoons, tongs, ladles, good knives, and a host of other things. For my birthday this year, I plan to register at Target.

There’s an upside to all this. I put some old bad habits behind me and began to do some things a better way. I’ve found for instance that my unmeasured proportions are off—my dishes based on a roux carry too much of a hint of flour, and my recent hot potato salad didn’t have enough vinegar—I tried to increase the recipe by guess. Usually I follow recipes more carefully.

I’ve had success with such out-of-the-ordinary dishes as a mushroom ragout and failed miserably with everyday things like grilled cheese sandwiches. But every time I cook I get a little better. I’m proud that I recently engineered a dinner for six.

I used to wish I were a chef but by the time I reached this decision my back, knees and feet were too old for the rigorous hours on your feet. Barring a career calling for a toque, I thought I’d like to be a food writer. I did publish three food books: Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books, Texas is Chili Country, and the slim Extraordinary Teas Chef, and as this blog and my own Judy’s Stew demonstrate, I still like to write about food and cooking.

Now my goal is to get my cooking skills back up to their original level. I recognize that I may never again cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family of sixteen or host a cocktail party for sixty, but those Coquille St. Jacques? I’d like to serve them to you someday.

Judy Alter's Bio:

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West. In The Gilded Cage she has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. She is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame. http://judyalter.com/

Skype: juju1938
Buy link for Murder at Peacock Mansion:
Buy link for The Gilded Cage


Terry Shames said…
Judy, you did not complain enough on Facebook! I did not know you went through all this. Brava for your courage and forbearance. I hope you continue to gain in strength. I have no doubt your will quickly recover your cooking skills.
Judy Alter said…
Thanks, Terry. I really tried not to whine although I fear my youngest daughter would tell you differently. I am feeling great. Told the dr. I'm writing, cooking, and wearing make-up--what more can you ask? Walking is next. Thanks much for your comment.
Sharon Ervin said…
Terry, you inspire. Thank you.

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