Life of Jane

Just Fine Dining

Does shopping at the grocery store count as a cooking skill?

By Jane Borden

The origin stories of celebrated chefs are often anecdotes about techniques passed through generations or revelatory meals experienced while traversing France. My culinary genesis tale: Nathan and I looked at our weekly schedules and realized that if we wanted family dinners with our daughter, who was now old enough to eat actual food, then the task of preparing said food would fall to me. I became a cook by default. Très inspirante.

We had a secondary goal to improve the caliber of dinner. Up to that point, our child ate purées from pouches, and Nathan and I grazed on hummus and carrots. No one ever ate well. Now we do eat together. But I still wouldn’t say we eat well.

I always assumed I‘d be a great cook. My mother is. She made delicious family dinners every night of my childhood in Greensboro. I’m making bland fuel that my husband chews and swallows anyway, because he is a good Midwesterner. Consistently, in response to my apologies or doubts, he says, “I think it’s just fine.“Just Fine: Wasn’t that the title of Bobby Flay’s biography?

Further, my mother made it appear effortless. Delicious meals simply appeared every night. Actually, I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen while she cooked, so I can’t say for sure, but she didn’t require three martinis to get through it, which is kind of where I am and, come to think of it, is maybe the problem.

All of my life, I figured I was a natural chef waiting in the wings and whenever I actually put spatula to pan, my innate talent would float to the top like a perfectly cooked shrimp. This is why people are reluctant to learn new skills. Inaction enables the harboring of delusion. Also, I cooked shrimp last week and overdid them. But Nathan said they were just fine.

If I actually were a “natural,” would I have waited until the age of 40 to pick up a pot? Then again, I had an excuse for that too. It had more or less been my sister Tucker’s path. No one expected Tucker to inherit Mom’s prowess because Tucker lived in New York and either ate out or ordered in every meal. But as soon as she moved to Raleigh, she turned into Ina Garten. In addition to parenting two children and working full time as an executive at a bank, she makes homemade stromboli. I can’t even pronounce stromboli and she can talk on the phone while she makes it. She’s in some kind of domestic honor guard. Meanwhile, when I heard feminists talk about having it all, I thought “it” meant a personal chef.

Maybe there is voodoo at play, and in order to become a cook like my mom, I too must move back to North Carolina. Except, if I’m being honest, my style of cooking was indeed inherited genetically — from my dad. His kitchen claims to fame include microwaved scrambled eggs and tapioca pudding from a box. In retrospect, I should’ve seen this coming, considering how many times I have defended him . . . or was it Julia Child who once said, “Of course microwaved eggs aren’t as delicious, but you only dirty one dish!”

To be fair, inheriting my dad’s sensibilities hasn’t left me bereft of culinary skills altogether. First, I have expert leftovers strategy. No food item goes to waste in my home, based on systematic rankings determined by frequent inventories of pantry and fridge, to assess what will rot first. This will serve me well in an apocalyptic future, or in the present whenever I want to feel environmentally smug. Second, I know how to handle (attack) a buffet. And third, I can locate and politely capitalize on every sample station in any fancy grocery store. Come to think of it, these are all strategies for eating. Basically, I’m saying that I’m really good at eating.

Feeding is harder. And yet I persist. Because dinner demands to be made and, according to our schedules, I’m the one to do it. So far I have three dishes in my arsenal:

• Instant Pot salsa chicken. Dump a jar of salsa on two chicken breasts in the instant pot and cook for 18 minutes. On the gas range, cook quinoa and chopped cauliflower in chicken broth. Shred chicken with a fork. Amazingly, it only took me a dozen times to perfect this.

• Turkey spaghetti. Sauté onion, add ground turkey until browned, dump in a jar of spaghetti sauce, add chopped mushrooms on top, and simmer for 12 minutes. On the range, cook whole wheat pasta. This one I should have mastered earlier, but I kept insisting on buying the cheapest tomato sauce.

• Stir fry. Sauté chopped tofu until brown, add vegetables, dump in a jar of teriyaki sauce, simmer.

Usually, my daughter says, “This is not my taste.” It is adorably polite and infuriatingly accurate. That’s when Nathan will say, “Honey, I think it’s just fine,” and his voice sounds like winds rushing over the Indiana plains. But hey, imagine how much my husband must love me when I’m definitely not reaching his heart through his stomach.

Although each rendition is not guaranteed to be better than the one before, like the arc of human history, things are bending in a positive direction. Sometimes, my daughter will say, “Mama, you made the best dinner ever,” and my heart swells. Then I remember that the key ingredients in each dish came in a premade sauce. Ah, the classic French technique of le dumpée du jar! C’est magnifique (ou du moins, facile). That’s right, I speak a little French. Maybe I should develop a recipe involving a bottle of French dressing.

Even if my daughter will never say, as I can, that her mother is a great cook, I am still able to create joy around food — not the preparing of it, which is a nightmare from which I won’t wake until she leaves for college —but rather when we shop for it. This I also inherited from my parents. I remember making fun of how excited they were for grocery runs on the weekend. It was like a date for them. I get it now. But for me, it’s a date with my daughter. We talk about it all weekend long until it happens. While we shop, she sits happily in the cart, munching on free samples — atta girl, way to be a Borden — and we take hug breaks on the freezer aisle when she gets a little cold. Sometimes, like a bad boyfriend suggesting scary movies, I make a second loop down the freezer aisle just to get another hug.

I am really good at grocery shopping. Why shouldn’t that be an innate cooking talent? It takes experience and insight to know which premade sauces complement which food items. My daughter sees a woman who is skilled at choosing and using jars. And if she inherits anything from her dad, she’ll think that’s just fine.  OH

Jane Borden makes the best Instant tapioca pudding in all of Los Angeles.

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