Cooking since Kindergarten
At the tender age of five, I made a bee-line for the kitchen. It was my first day of Kindergarten, and as I entered the room, I spotted the most beautiful wooden kitchen set consisting of refrigerator, stove and oven, and a sink complete with faucets, under which was a cabinet for pots and pans. It was perfectly scaled to my diminutive size. I commandeered the space as Mrs. Richmond was saying, “Now, children, please remove your coats and hang them up in that closet.” She must’ve been pointing somewhere, and I could hear words being spoken, but they drifted to my ears as if from afar. I was in my element, coat be damned.
On Sunday mornings I awoke early and went into the den on the ground floor of our house to watch the religious animated cartoon show, “Davey and Goliath.” Davey was the Gumbyesque little boy of the title and Goliath his huge, goofy-looking, yet inspirational dog. There was always a moral to be learned, and I took it in, patiently awaiting the commercial break. The Easy-Bake Oven was all the rage in the early 1960s, and I coveted that tin apparatus with a small lightbulb capable of baking a three-inch cake in the wink of an eye. Little girls in dresses buoyed by stiff crinolines watched in awe as the cakes emerged on a conveyer belt after which the children spread the little treats with icing.
“I want the Easy Bake Oven,” I announced to my mother one morning. “Yes, Juju, you’ve mentioned that already,” she said dryly. “I really want it,” I repeated, regarding her with what I hoped was a piercing look. She sat next to me on the couch in the den and stroked my hair. “I’ll let you use the real stove and oven, like a grown-up,” she explained. And she did, after many instructive lessons regarding the rolling up of pajama sleeves, the dragging over of a low stool on which I could stand so that I would have the perfect vantage point while using the stove and numerous other precautions.
I prepared my first meal at the age of seven. I decided to forgo “Davey and Goliath” so that I could present my parents with breakfast in bed. I scooped Chock Full o’Nuts coffee into two cups and poured hot tap water over the grounds. Remembering that my mother didn’t eat eggs, I toasted and buttered a slice of bread and set it on a huge tray next to the coffee cups. Next, I scrambled two eggs for my father, then toasted another slice of bread for him and slathered it with jelly. I proceeded up the two flights of stairs leading to the bedrooms while plates and saucers slid precariously about the tray. I kicked my parents’ door with my slippered foot until the dull thud woke them, and my mother came to the door to find me proudly standing before her with my cold food and unpercolated coffee. Her eyes opened wide. Then she smiled and kissed the top of my head as she took the tray from my wobbling arms. She mumbled something about needing to brush their teeth before she and Dad ate and suggested I catch some cartoons down in the den.
My interest in food continued unabated. In junior high school my best friend Katie and I would prepare Indian food feasts, which we’d eat with our hands as we sat on a blanket on her parents’ living room floor. Tandoori chicken kebobs served with spiced cabbage was a dish we mastered. When I attended the High School of Art & Design, my friends and I would cook at home and bring such dishes as orzo salad with chopped vegetables and feta cheese, and spicy cold broccoli salad to the cafeteria to share with each other at lunchtime. And in college, I hid a contraband toaster oven and a tiny two-burner hot plate in the closet of my dorm room and prepared food for my friends, once painstakingly making potato chips rubbed with curry and cumin powders before frying.
I’m still cooking more than half a century since I prepared that fateful breakfast for my parents. I never did get the Easy Bake Oven, but I received support and guidance once I’d found my passion, and have made a good deal of progress since that first meal.
Broccoli salad with Asian flavors
This is best eaten the day it is made, as the broccoli will discolor if kept overnight.
1 head broccoli (about 1 pound)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. Asian sesame oil, preferably toasted
1 Tbsp. minced or finely grated fresh ginger
3/4 tsp. Aleppo chili or other pepper flakes (optional)
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
With a sharp knife cut off the broccoli stalks. Cut the broccoli head into florets of equal, largish bite-size pieces. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli and boil for 3 minutes, or until just tender. Drain in a colander, cool under cold running water or in an ice-water bath, and drain again, patting dry with paper towels. Place broccoli in a large shallow bowl. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, ginger, peanut or vegetable oil, and rice vinegar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add chili pepper flakes, if using. Pour sauce over the broccoli and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least a half an hour or up to several hours before serving. Sprinkle the broccoli with toasted sesame seeds before serving.