I’ll be honest: I have limited skills in the kitchen. Mom made wonderful apple cake, a legendary mandelbrot, an amazing banana bread, but I’ve always considered myself a little more Rod Stewart than Martha Stewart. I have a particular memory of being five or six years old and “helping” Mom cook by cracking an egg rather poorly into a Pyrex mixing bowl. From that point on, my kitchen duties were limited: Decorative toppings like sprinkles and chocolate chips were in my wheelhouse; egg cracking, not so much.
My dad was an auto mechanic and the ultimate Mr. Fix It. As I got older, I realized I had inherited that gene. My brother knows his way around the kitchen far better, while I can take apart a bathtub drain and put it back together. People call me to assemble their Ikea furniture and caulk their showers. I once pulled a MacGyver, rescuing a friend locked in her prewar apartment’s bathroom by using a butter knife to disassemble (and later reassemble) her antiquated doorknob. For her next birthday, I bought her a pretty pink girly tool set while I still proudly use my dad’s vintage tools.
Once, when I was living in an apartment in Queens, I was cooking (or so I thought) a baked ziti to serve while I planned to break up with someone. I hadn’t turned on the oven since moving in almost a year before, so I didn’t realize it didn’t work until I removed the still raw casserole. But I used it to my advantage, telling the guy, “You’re better off without me. You’ll find someone who can cook.”
I do still follow some guiding rules learned from Mom.
Top 10 Things I Learned About Cooking From My Mom:
1. Just pick out the broken eggshells.
2. Everyone can read a cookbook.
3. Add a bay leaf to pretty much any cooked entrée.
4. Add a clove to pretty much any cooked entrée.
5. Buy turkey legs for Thanksgiving so you don’t have to carve anything and have enough parts that people like. (She used to joke that she bought us a six-legged bird.)
6. Pack mandelbrot in shoe boxes for shipping to relatives nationwide.
7. Clean up as you bake or cook so you don’t have a ton of pots, pans, and bowls piled up at the end.
8. Make sure meat is fully cooked. (No trips to the ER.)
9. It’s not hard to make a baked ziti. (Author’s note: Just make sure the oven works.)
10. Don’t be afraid to try.
That last tip really came in handy—and not just in the kitchen. Early in our relationship, I had a fight with the man I would eventually marry. (It’s quite possible I said some things I shouldn’t have said.) I set out to bake him something as a peace offering: a cranberry bread made with Egg Beaters. (I had learned something from that early egg cracking experience.) My little loaf somehow came out delicious, and we patched things up. I’m not saying I completely attribute the détente to the baked treat, but it helped. I called my mom to tell her, and even though she did not necessarily agree with my choice of a boyfriend, she was quite proud. (Fortunately, he grew on her over time, and now when we argue, he sometimes does the make-up cooking.)
I inherited Mom’s Pyrex mixing bowl after she moved to Florida, and thanks to her encouragement about trying, I’ve mastered several dishes, including baked ziti (huzzah!). This holiday season, I plan to tackle Mom’s walnut banana bread. (Some bake; I tackle.) Mom’s been gone for five years, and there are a great many things I wish I could share with her, including my recent triumph of a 12-pound Thanksgiving turkey. (Yes, I added a bay leaf.) I know she’s looking down on me smiling, but also wondering why I didn’t just buy the legs. Perhaps next year I’ll make a six-legged bird in her honor.
Carol Brooks is an actor/writer/comedian who lives in Manhattan. She has appeared off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and way-the-hell-off-Broadway (in Ohio and Pennsylvania). She can be found at www.CarolBrooksOnline.com.
Sylvia’s Banana Bread
3 overripe bananas (brown skins)
1 1/2 c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/2 c. vegetable oil
3/4 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Lightly grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with butter or non-stick baking spray.
Mash bananas well with fork.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix oil and sugar.
Add bananas, eggs, vanilla, and optional nuts to the oil/sugar mixture.
Add flour mixture to the banana mixture, stirring with fork or wooden spoon to thoroughly combine and moisten.
Pour batter into loaf pan.
Bake approximately 50 - 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean.
Cool in pan 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack.