The wok was an expression of my newfound love for Chinese food. My parents had developed a friendship with a local couple, the Crabbe's, and Mrs. Crabbe was from Hong Kong. Every couple of months for a 2 year period, beginning when I was 12, we trailed the Crabbe family into Toronto's Chinatown for Chinese food and ingredients. We'd arrive in time for lunch or dim sum and Mrs. Crabbe assumed control of the ordering and eating. The Chinese food that came to our table looked nothing like the Chinese food in Goderich—no deep-fried wontons drenched in viscous, garnet coloured sweet and sour sauce. We didn't ask too many questions about what we were served and instead dove in to the utterly exotic and mostly delicious food with the sloppiness of early chopstick use. I know we ate lung once and sea cucumber. There were a few dishes that I didn't like, but my love for good Chinese cooking was born in those restaurants under her tutelage.
In 1976, the same year that I received the wok for Christmas, my mother began work. I was just beginning high school, and to earn my allowance, began preparing weekday dinners for my family. I did this up until I was 17 (when my family disbanded).
There was little in the way of convenience foods at that time, in spite of the futuristic fascination of the 70's. Convenience in my house meant Kraft Dinner, hotdogs, or Shake n Bake. My mother occasionally turned Kraft Dinner into a complete horror by adding a can of salmon, chopped canned tomatoes, and christening it Alaskan Dinner. (I wanted to be in Alaska on those evenings.) TV dinners were a rare treat reserved for nights when my father was away. That was the sum total of ready-made in my corner of small town Ontario. Our home-cooked dinner was not unusual.
My mother, an exceptional organizer, would sit down once a week with her favourite cookbooks and create menus and a shopping list. All the ingredients were purchased and a sheet with the date, recipe name, book title, and page number was pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. I had my marching orders and would come home from school to begin dinner preparation. I didn't mind the activity in the main but there were times in my teenage years where I hated being pulled from friends to get dinner on the table. It felt like a sizable and seriously adult imposition. That resentment could sometimes find its way in to the cooking, making for a less than stellar meal.
I had gleaned some kitchen basics from my parents. My father loved to cook and weekends were often given over to elaborate, adventurous, and utterly delicious meals like Chicken Kiev, Beef Wellington, and Cannelloni. But much of my early learning was from cookbooks. The books I remember cooking from most were: Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook (1961) and The New York Times Menu Cookbook (1966), Gourmet magazines The Gourmet Cookbook Vols. I & II (1974) and The Gourmet Menu Cookbook (1972), McCall's Cooking School Cookbook (1976), Dione Lucas' The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook (1964), and Time Life's Foods of the World series (1968 - 1976). Julia Child's books were in the collection as well but not used much for weeknight meals.
I don't recall struggling to learn nor do I recall a lot of bad meals. Could be that deleting disasters from my memory bank allowed the young me to soldier on. The debris stained pages of those books tell the story of recipes that were family favourites: "Beef Stroganoff" from the New York Times Cookbook (a note in the margin indicates that the sauce can be doubled), "Country Pork Chops" from the New York Times Menu Cookbook, "Chicken Tetrazzini" and "Our Favorite Lasagna" from McCall's Cooking School Cookbook, "Mandarin Spareribs" from The Gourmet Cookbook Vol. II, "Arroz con Pollo" and "Chicken Cacciatora" from The Gourmet Cookbook Vol. I.
They were solid cookbooks (and for the record contained almost no pictures) providing me terrific guidance. It was a largely solitary way of learning how to cook. Just the omnipresence of the cook whose lead I was following and me. It didn't seem that unusual an activity for a girl growing up in a family that had an insatiable hunger for delicious things.
But by today's standards it likely seems quaint. Learning to cook now is less a necessity and more a choice. Food programming on television has come a long way since the Galloping Gourmet. (I can't even imagine what would happen if I'd followed Graham Kerr's lead as a young girl—let's start by getting drunk.) Local cooking classes and online websites like Epicurious are expanding the learning options and cooking has evolved into a highly social leisure activity designed as much to entertain as to inform.
There's also little that isn't available in the way of ready-made meals. Most large grocery stores have devoted substantial (and prime) space to take-away food. Finding the ingredients to make dinner requires a wade through the convenience offerings. The lure away from weekday cooking is considerable.
If I were to compile an armful of cookbooks to learn from today I'd begin with the classics and round them out with a few reliable and interesting modern offerings added according to taste and interest. Even with all my years of professional experience, the first time through a recipe I always assume the cookbook writer has authority and follow their lead explicitly. After that I make modifications as I see fit.
A small but mighty cookbook collection could be assembled from the following:
One good, basic, all-purpose cookbook
The Joy of Cooking. Irma S. Rombauer
The Fanny Farmer Cookbook. Marion Cunningham
One slightly more sophisticated all-rounder cookbook
The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Amanda Hesser
Jamie Oliver's Dinners. Jamie Oliver
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Ina Garten
Several quality international cookbooks
The Foods and Wines of Spain. Penelope Casas
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Marcella Hazan
The Country Cooking of France. Anne Willan
Around My French Table. Dorie Greenspan
Bistro Cooking. Patricia Wells
Jerusalem, Ottolenghi, Plenty. Yotam Ottolenghi
The Food of India. Prya Wickramasinghe
Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Paula Wolfert
The Food and Wine of Greece. Diane Kochias
One or two quality baking/pastry books
Chez Panisse Desserts. Lindsay Shere
Bouchon Bakery. Thomas Keller
Butter Baked Goods: Nostalgic Recipes from a Little Neighbourhood Bakery. Rosie Daykin
One quality reference book
The Oxford Companion to Food. Alan Davidson
On Food and Cooking. Harold McGee
One or two food magazine subscriptions
Tauton's Fine Cooking
Even though the Beef Stroganoff recipe pictured above has only 4 steps to completion, there's plenty of information missing from between those lines. Learning to cook from ordered, prepared ingredients—mise en place as professionals call it—would have been a process of trial and error. In the beginning I'd likely have had the flour and butter mixture (roux) hot before I'd even opened the consommé can. And just how did I know which pan to choose for the beef and onions? Did the word sauté ever seem foreign to me? Or was it stamped on my DNA, waiting for the right opportunity to fall from my tongue.
Craig Claiborne and his contemporaries guided my tender budding practice and together we found delicious answers to the never-ending question, 'what's for dinner'? When I look on those recipes now I'm amazed. I see the roots of what would become my life's practice. The stains on the pages hold the memory of where it all began for me.