I started a new project a few weeks ago. Marshall Ramsey and I began working on a children’s cookbook. I won’t go into much detail here, but we’re both excited about the prospect of working together. The idea of a kids cookbook got me thinking about when my passion for cooking was first ignited.
Christmas morning in 1973, I was eight years old. There was an embarrassingly enormous pile of presents under the tree and displayed from Santa, including a G.I. Joe Adventure Team Sea Wolf Submarine. But the one present that has had the most lasting impact on me was a book. Both of my parents loved to cook so a gift of a cookbook was something very personal from them. It was a gesture that they wanted me to join them in doing what they loved. The cookbook they gave me was the 1972 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook. I remember sitting on the big, plaid sofa in the den and reading through the book, captivated by the images and the recipes. I’d seen my father pouring over cookbooks before and I loved the notion that I was doing the same thing and understanding what I was reading. I felt as if I had joined a club and membership gave me the power to cook and to feed.
I decided on the first thing that I would cook, “Cinnamon Twists” made with canned biscuits. The caption under the picture indicated that I could do my own thing and make different shapes than the ones. I eschewed any help from my parents and went to work by myself. I followed the instructions, step by step, rolling out the dough, pinching the ends together, dipping the dough in butter, covering the dough in the sugar-cinnamon mixture, baking the rolls and sprinkling them with nuts. I made the suggested figure-eight shapes and heart shapes to give to my mother.
When I presented the first tray of warm, baked goods to my family, the feedback and positive reviews were instant. Everyone oohed and ahhed and asked me to make more. Which I did, happily. In one early instant I learned two of my most lasting and important lessons: (1) food is love, and (2) it’s ok to go “off recipe” and do your own thing. After that, I was hooked. I cooked every recipe in the book and haven’t stopped yet.
Fast forward to late summer 2014. I’ve got my first restaurant and I’m being considered as a contestant on a national, prime-time cooking show. I’m riding in the cab of big, diesel pickup truck riding through fields in Terry, Mississippi looking at herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. My phone rings and it’s one of the TV producers calling to ask a bunch of questions about my passion for cooking. In the conversation the subject of my earliest cooking memories comes up and I start talking about the cookbook with the plaid cover and the recipe for cinnamon twists. While we’re on the phone the producer asks what the book looks like and when it was published. She was on Amazon.com looking at some of the editions of the book and wondering which one was from my childhood. I told her that i remembered a girl on the cover holding sandwiches and she said she would send me a link to site that sold it.
Later that evening I bought the book and it arrived in my mailbox this week. It’s hard to describe the emotional connections with these pages. I can remember making “Everyday Drumsticks” for a back-to-school dinner. I remember how creepy the clown in the “Circus Time Lemonade” looked. I remember not liking the “Strawberry-Pineapple Freeze” the first time I made it (grainy texture) and how much I liked it the second time when the texture smoothed out, even though I had no idea why. I keep going back to the book and hoping to recover more childhood memories and time with my parents who I miss so dearly. With some recipes the memories are clear, with others they are misty and hidden and in others, not there at all. I’ll keep reading. I’ll keep looking and most importantly, I’ll keep cooking with love.