Al Batt: There is no “I” in food

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, January 26, 2021

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Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

Sometimes I get so hungry I could almost eat my cooking.

I make excellent toast, but I can’t explain my technique well enough to teach a class on toast making. I reckon it’s a gift. I’m a wizard at reheating food in a microwave. I’m lucky to have lived under the spell of two talented cooks (wife and mother). They make cooking as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ve never gunned down a single fish in a barrel.

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I do what I can to make the world a better place by not cooking for anyone. My creations taste like what I imagine packing peanuts would. I should have taken a home economics class from Mrs. McDonough in high school and learned how to prepare some foods. They made a lot of cookies and egg preparations in that class. I know because that classroom was next to the shop class where I was ensconced. The school denied my request for enrollment in that class due to national security concerns. Sadly, that left me with a limited culinary aptitude. I can’t cook but I can eat. That’s called balance.

I’ve heard friends and relatives lament the pandemic pounds they’ve put on. If my mother were alive today, I’d weigh 417 pounds. That’s just a rough estimate and could be modest. Mom loved to bake things. Mother’s motto was, “When in doubt, bake something.” My wife excels at baking but doesn’t produce them in an assembly line production as my mother did.

I remember eating in a small-town restaurant in a small town named the “Take It or Leave It Cafe.” I felt at home there. Many mothers and aunts of my acquaintance were good at telling me I had two choices, take it or leave it. My mother believed I needed more choices. She made food in bulk enough to make Costco blush. Men at her table sopped things up with bread and smacked their lips before saying, “I could eat that again.” I guess they were hoping for fourth helpings.

I grew up on a farm with livestock, a sizable garden and chickens. We had meat, potatoes and eggs every day. When my father wished for food, he wished for meat, potatoes and eggs. We had homemade desserts — sugar cookies, pies, rosettes and cakes. We had cakes because it was somebody’s birthday somewhere. It wasn’t homemade if I didn’t get to lick the mixing spoon before she stopped using it.

My mother was half-German and half-Swede. We ate meatballs, potato pancakes, sausage and dumplings. There were a lot of creamed dishes — peas, corn and asparagus. We ate liverwurst. I liked it but I can’t remember why. My German ancestors didn’t mind seeing sausage made. Wurst was never the worst. To this day, I enjoy going into a butcher shop and inhaling deeply. It’s free as long as I don’t frighten customers.

The senior women in my family kept and exchanged recipes on 3 x 5 cards as fervently as I did the same with baseball cards. I read their recipes that I was trying to recreate and thought, “That’s not happening.” It wasn’t in standard or metric measurements. What’s a smidgen? I understood a pinch, but what’s a dash, nip or tad? Recipes are like driver’s licenses. Recipes in magazines or online that include photos are like driver’s licenses. The real things never look like the photos. I baked an upside-down cake once. It came out of the oven right-side up and lopsided. No photos were taken.

When I married, my father gave me the required bits of advice. “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Most fathers offer that. Then he added, “Never anger the cook, it might result in starvation or worse.” I’d add a third. Husbands, if you want to live a long and happy life never say, “Why can’t you cook like my mother?”

One neighbor was into health foods. She’d put food in front of me and say, “You’ll eat this if you know what’s good for you.” My wife keeps me humble by shoving a forkful of something into my mouth before saying, “Try this. Does it taste spoiled to you?” I’ve eaten my cooking and have led a nearly normal life.

My mother got three cups out of one Lipton tea bag. Maxwell House coffee’s slogan is “Good to the last drop.” Mom could wring another drop out of the last drop. Leftovers lasted in our house.

All you need is love and leftovers.

Now you’re cooking.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune.