By Linda Dinan, guest columnist
Our third guest writer for November is Linda Dinan, a former elementary teacher and principal who retired "home" to Minnesota in 2015. She is a member of Second Act Players of Rosemount and appreciates all the opportunities for theater and the arts in the area. Linda shares her lifelong love affair with the kitchen, just in time for Thanksgiving. Thanks, Linda!
11:38 a.m. "It's a girl!"
"You arrived for lunch!" my mom always said. Apparently, my connection to the pleasures of food started early but definitely has not held static. A favorite picture of my 2-year-old self features me with a big bowl and a spoon mixing something up. I've come a long way!
Growing up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, I had easy access to quality ingredients, including eggs, especially the undersized or soft-shelled ones laid by the young chickens. Experimenting early in my culinary career, I learned adding eggs to mud pies before you "cook" them on the sun-drenched cement cistern cover created a quality product.
My mom was a good cook, but there were other things she would rather be doing, so she encouraged my early interest in food preparation. Eventually, I was enticed into handling some of the suppers for the family with the proposal that if I cooked, I was excused from cleanup. That was an easy decision for me! Status as the "cook" gave me authority to make decisions about that evening's meal. With the resources of the family farm, presenting a tasty dinner was easy. Salt, pepper and onion were available to "spice" things up, but no garlic, since Mom was still haunted by the memory of classmates' garlic breath in her one-room schoolhouse. Sage and thyme sat on the shelf until needed for Thanksgiving turkey dressing.
By the time I left for college, I was a confident cook who could easily put together a farm feast for my roommates and our boyfriends. My skills and sophistication took a leap forward when I was introduced to an "ancient" colleague of my graduate school boyfriend. At 29, Jim had been cooking for several years in a Portuguese restaurant on Cape Cod. He was a pro. A new culinary world opened to me when he asked me to be part of the preparation of occasional weekend feasts. After collecting money from everyone coming to dinner, the two of us would head to Lund's to buy ingredients, then spend the afternoon preparing a meal under Jim's guidance. He was the beginning of outside influences on my food interests. Who knew those raisins from Dad's favorite oatmeal cookies could join anchovies, pine nuts and garlic for a delicious pasta dish? In addition, I was gaining status among the gourmet graduate student as a "good cook!"
As a newlywed in 1968, I became a fan of Julia Child's PBS cooking show which brought French cooking to American audiences. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and soon soufflés and beef Bourguignon were added to my repertoire. At the same time, Life magazine included a tantalizing menu within each issue and introduced other cultures through their extensive Time-Life cookbook series. Another magazine, Gourmet, featured centerfold spreads of perfectly presented full-course meals from appetizer to dessert. Having appreciative friends, new foods and gourmet dishes became part of the fabric of our social world.
Living over 500 miles from any relatives, we enjoyed over 20 Thanksgivings with friends who became our "adopted family." Our friends were "foodies" and willing to add recipes to our traditional ones. In 1979, we tried Gourmet magazine's "centerfold" walnut-oyster dressing recipe, and it has been on our Thanksgiving table since. Sage and thyme paired with oysters and walnuts make an exquisite turkey dressing!
In my seventh decade now, I still happily explore new recipes and new techniques through TV programs, cookbooks (never leave the library without a cookbook) and the internet. International foods are available at supermarkets or small ethnic groceries. If I can't find pomegranate molasses or curry leaves locally, I can find them online. Some unique flavor combinations are becoming so familiar that McCormick has added them to their traditional spice line, such as Za'atar and Harissa. Even whole stores are devoted to spices. My spice rack is much larger than my mother's!
New flavors require new devices for food preparation in my kitchen such as the InstaPot, an air fryer and the latest, a Sous Vide tool. Last weekend I successfully prepared a dozen soft-boiled eggs and Hollandaise sauce with my Sous Vide and a tub of water. Easy and fascinating!
Will future generations share this passion for cooking? Our daughter holds the same attitude toward cooking as her grandmother: "Let someone else do it." I am, however, already working with my grandson in exploring food preparation. I hope he will continue with our Thanksgiving dressing recipe and experience the satisfaction of preparing traditional tastes for family and friends; I also hope he develops my "taste for change." There are pleasures in the making, and there are rewards on many levels.