How Does One Become Obsessed?

Hi. I’m Penny. I live in Chicago, I cook for fun, for my friends and family, and if you try to make me follow a recipe I can almost guarantee you that I will screw it up. Cooking from scratch and by the seat of my pants is my favorite, but that doesn’t work for baking… so anyway, why on Earth would someone devote a website to food? Because it’s one of the most basic, fabulous pleasures of life. An expression of love, in all languages. Not just fuel for the machine.

My earliest memories are in the kitchen. I wasn’t cooking much as a kid, but I was observing a whole lot. My family was the kind where dad went to work before the sun was up and a few hours later mom woke us up for school and was home when we got back. Dad got home at 6:30 and ta da dinner was served. Six days a week, with mom taking Friday night off for fast food or Sunday when they took us out. That’s a lot of dinners together.

I’m the youngest of three girls. The eldest was never the domestic type, in fact that was a word that made her shiver at the thought. My middle sister was the sporty one, almost never cooking unless it was whatever she learned in home ec that week – crepes, omelets, fudge. I, for some reason, always had a penchant for hanging out with mom in the kitchen and watching her miraculously get everything on the table at the same time while it was still hot. It was fascinating, and in the seventh grade I was given – or bought, I’m not sure – my first cookbook. It had a recipe for hamburgers formed with onions in the mix and then pan-fried in Worcestershire sauce. They were a hit – or the family was just being nice. Either way, watching them eat something I’d made pretty much sealed the deal.

My grandmothers had completely different kitchen styles. They both lived in opposite walking distances from our house, and were a frequent summer destination, especially my dad’s mom’s since our cousins lived down the street too and were close in age. We’d scramble in front of her little Lane Dutch Revival tables (two of them, for cousin CJ and me) and wait for lunch.

She’d bring out a plate of summer sausage sandwiches, cold, with little knobs of cold butter. And maybe a glass of 7-Up with a cherry in it if she had them. That was it. The best things she made were cold… now that I think about it. Summer sausage sandwiches, a mean Waldorf salad and Hungarian sweet and sour cucumbers. I’ve figured out how to make those cucumbers and they’re requested almost every holiday that grandma would have made them. There is no written recipe, and only a few of us have bothered tinkering long enough to figure it out – it is now solely my job. I like that.

My mom’s mom, or Gigi, as my nieces started calling her, was a kitchen dynamo. Fueled by at least one cup of percolated coffee a day, As The World Turns, Readers Digest, Uncle Bobby and her daily dose of the Cubs, she fed us some of the best childhood staples a grandmother can. Kraft mac & cheese (spiral shaped, only), Fresca, Apple Jacks and homemade cookies were the things we asked for the most when visiting. She made her own pickles, dill and bread n’ butter, excellent fudge, and every Christmas she made two types of cookies which we happily cut with her antique (to us, original to her) cookie cutters, and decorated. She made us all quilts, one for when we were kids on our twin beds, one for our ‘marriage bed’s and one for our first children. I found out after she passed that there is indeed a baby quilt for me in my mom’s attic for whenever the time comes.

My mother’s cooking was completely influenced by her upbringing. She has two younger brothers and had a mother that worked a few jobs to keep food on the table. She started preparing lunches and dinners before grandma got home, and pretty much never stopped. She has a reputation amongst her peers as being a great cook, though to her it’s just what she does. What she has to do. She has to feed people. Period. And we’re not even Italian.

So why Julia Child, you ask? Some of my favorite tv shows as a kid (and even now, actually) were cooking shows. Julia Child and Jeff Smith ruled my Sunday afternoons. Julia taught me the joys of monkfish, how to behead a goose and most importantly how to laugh at yourself and the million little ways the kitchen can sabotage the cook. I always thought that Jeff Smith seemed like such a kind man that truly enjoyed just basic cooking. I don’t know if he did what they say he did, but I hope not.

So that’s the beginning. The rest won’t be so long, I just thought I’d take a moment and introduce myself. Hi.


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