Posted by Anthony
My first solo foray into cooking wasn’t exactly a success. I was about 7 and I had spent the afternoon with my Nana, helping her to make homemade pasta and other things for dinner. For dessert, we made pudding from a mix. It wasn’t an instant mix—it required a few additional items and then it had to be cooked—but it was pretty straightforward. At least, it seemed pretty straightforward with her by my side guiding me. I enjoyed making and eating it so much that she sent me home with another box of mix so that I could make it again.
A few days later, I tried to make that box of pudding on my own. Except that the heat must have been up too high or I hadn’t stirred the pudding enough or maybe a combination of the two. I had burned the pudding to the bottom of the pan and it tasted awful. I still had a lot to learn about cooking.
My Nana (my maternal great-grandmother) was always happy to have my help in the kitchen. Whether it was sprinkling something into a soup or helping to make pasta. Similarly, my Grandma (my paternal grandmother) also welcomed my help in the kitchen. But I learned less about technique from both of these women and more about purpose.
My Nana was famous for always trying to feed everyone. Whenever we would visit (which was often), she was constantly trying to get us to eat. “Just a mouthful,” she would insist. “No, Nana. We just had lunch. We’re not hungry,” we would reply. Eventually, she would wear us down and seemingly in the blink of an eye, the table would be covered with a full meal. Homemade soup, pasta with sauce, bread, salad, some chicken or a roast that she happened to have in the fridge.
Grandma was a bit more reserved when it came to, well, everything. She was, after all, German to my Nana’s Italian. But she still enjoyed cooking and sharing good food. Grandma was especially great when it came to dessert. Her coffee cake was the stuff of legends. And even if everyone else in the world required me to clear my plate before I could have dessert, Grandma believed that there was always room for ice cream. It melts as you eat it, her thinking went, and fills in the cracks between all the rest of the food.
From both Grandma and Nana, I learned a very important life lesson: food is love. Food is a necessity, but it’s also a way to connect with people and to make them happy. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family almost every night. We talked about our days and what was going on with us, about the news and the weather, and about things that made us happy and sad. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was building a life-long connection to the importance of sitting down for a meal with my loved ones.
When I left for college, Grandma gave me a copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. She told me, “If you can read, you can cook.” I was dubious. I had read the directions on that box of pudding mix and that hadn’t turned out very well. But, I had been very lucky to eat a lot of good, home-cooked meals growing up and once I was on my own, boxed mac and cheese and take-out pizza only went so far.
So, I started to find simple recipes that I could make from the cookbook. Although I had a few minor kitchen disasters, my skills and techniques slowly improved. Even in college, I cooked dinner for myself almost every night after I moved into my own apartment. And now, even when Kirk and I have different schedules, we make time to sit down together and eat dinner.
This is something that we plan to continue to do once we have kids. Indeed, in such a fast-paced, modern world, it seems vital to hold a space where we can connect with our families, with our spouses, and our children. It is necessary that we eat. It is also necessary that we connect and share with each other. One of the most important values that I hope to teach our children is the importance of connecting and sharing with each other over a meal.