I began teaching myself how to cook when I was about 8 years old. I read cookbooks, climbed on top of the counters to reach ingredients that were hidden on high shelves and toiled in the kitchen for hours, trying out new recipes. Since I was careful to not deviate from the ingredients list and instructions, my food usually came out pretty good and I reveled in the pleasure of being able to feed my friends and family.
This desire to experiment with food and the joy I felt in feeding others did not come from my parents. I’ve often felt a small pang of longing when I’ve heard famous chefs/bakers talk about learning how to cook from their grandmother or using “family” recipes that were handed down for generations. My mother wasn’t interested in spending all afternoon making dinner from scratch nor did she have the time to bake up treats for Girl Scouts meetings. And my father frequently worked two or three jobs, which meant he only cooked breakfasts on rare Sundays or occasionally grilled dinners in the summer. So most of our meals came from boxes, cans and the freezer.
Nor did I learn these things from my friends. When I’d spend the night at a friend’s house, I’d get up early (or not sleep at all) and head into their kitchen to make pancakes for everyone. Often, my friends’ parents were less than thrilled at my efforts — mostly because they feared my using things like knives and stoves — but they tried to be supportive because I took such great pleasure in offering them my creations.
In junior high, my friends and I took home economics, but they did much better in the sewing portion. While I struggled to thread the machine and make an even seam, they created pillows and stuffed animals and shirts that could actually be worn in public. When we moved into the cooking portion of the class, however, I earned an easy A. No matter what recipe the teacher assigned — pizza, cupcakes, omelets — I could make it with ease.
I so enjoyed cooking that when it came time to pick out classes for my freshman year of high school, I almost signed up for the culinary electives. Those students who did so not only learned how to cook and run a small business, they had the opportunity to work in a restaurant setting. While tempted, I opted to take music and foreign language classes instead. I knew cooking was my passion; it just wasn’t going to be my career and I didn’t want to take up a space that someone else might have been able to use.
I never did work in the food industry. The closest I came was landing a job as a cashier and bagger at the local grocery store. I could ring up people’s groceries and stock shelves; I just never had the opportunity to work with the butchers or behind the deli counter or in the bakery. But in my free time, I continued to hone my cooking skills.
Over the years, I upgraded my tools, built up a decent cookbook library, refreshed my spice collection and stocked my kitchen cabinets and pantry with the ingredients needed to make dishes from scratch. If I want a decadent dessert, I rarely buy it. I make it. When the housekeeper comes over, I like to have a small, homemade snack waiting for her. On Friday evenings, after popcorn, I’ll often whip up a sweet treat to counter the salty one. I’ve also picked up a large dining room table so when my friends visit, there’s a place for everyone to gather, eat and chat for hours.
The happiness I get from feeding people extends to animals as well. Our dog eats food that features meat as the first ingredient. My cats also eat the good stuff, both wet and dry; in the case of our eldest cat, Dany, who’s started to have kidney problems in her twilight years, we even buy special cases of food, as prescribed by our vet. When I have extra bits of bread, I enjoy feeding ducks and seagulls. I’m a little more wary of pigeons after the incident in southern France when I was quickly surrounded by a Hitchcockian pack who desperately wanted my croissant, but that was just one time, and hey, I survived.
After moving to our new home, one of my first purchases was a bird feeder. I hung it from a shepherd’s stake right outside the dining room window. That way I could easily refill it and the cats could sit on their condos and enjoy watching the birds fly by. Word about my bird seed offerings quickly spread in the avian community and soon birds of all sorts began visiting the feeder: blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, robins. In the mornings, I could hear them call to each other, meeting at my feeder for a meal and then flying into the nearby tree or perching on the fence for a bit of gossip.
The birds were joined by hungry squirrels and chipmunks, and soon I was refilling the feeder every single day. I’d pour in the seed after my shift ended, and by the time I came downstairs for breakfast around 8 p.m., the feeder would be completely empty again. But I didn’t mind. I loved walking past the window and seeing all the colorful visitors eating from the feeder. The cats were also entertained by the creatures they could see but not harm.
Then, I got sick. Five straight days of migraines exacerbated by a bacterial infection that left me bed-bound and weak. The day before I took ill, I had poured in the last of the bird seed, fully intending to drive to the store and pick up some more. I wouldn’t be able to get behind the wheel again for a week, which meant that every time the birds came by for food there was none waiting for them. Eventually, they stopped coming. Once I was able to return to normal life and refill the feeder, the birds had abandoned me.
I don’t blame them for leaving, of course. I was the one who let them down. M was happy to feed and care for our indoor pets, but he didn’t really have time to worry about the area population. He tried to reassure me that the outdoor contingent had plenty of bugs and worms to eat and were not going to starve, but I still feel guilty. That guilt has only grown now that I’ve refilled the feeder and no one is coming by to eat from it. If anyone has suggestions on how I can woo them back, let me know.
I miss feeding my neighborhood friends.