Summer squash, sharp knives and the making of a cook

In 1978 my mother gave me two new-fangled kitchen items. I was college-age and while I’d like to think that she was motivated by fear I’d starve, she told me at the time that it was the thought of all those dirty dishes that did it. Neither item was a dishwasher. But one was a microwave. My mother’s logic was that if I had a microwave I could heat cans of things in a single dish; therefore there would be fewer unwashed dishes piled in the sink when she came over. In her defense I’ll say the place wasn’t set up for a dishwasher and having grown up in an older house, I’d never had one and so didn’t know (yet) what I was missing. The microwave was a huge thing with a tiny compartment for cooking food, a timer dial and a button to start or stop it. That’s it. A wonder of technology in 1978.

The other new-fangled thing was more of a mystery. My mother was just beaming and my stepfather (who I later learned made it) so proud. Until they realized I had no idea what it was. Then they got a bit peeved. As I looked blankly at a rectangular industrial-looking sheet of clear lucite or some type of plastic, a guessing game ensued. It was part of something else, “goes with”. It looked like the window of a small car, but this was not considered an intelligent guess.  I kept trying to think of things that an industrial sheet of plastic could be a part of. Finally my mother told me (exasperated) that it went with the microwave. I looked at it. I examined the massive heavy dark cube of a microwave (you don’t want to know how big and heavy microwaves were in 1978; it barely fit on the counter). I looked at them. There didn’t seem to be any way to fit the panel onto the microwave.

“It’s a cutting board!” my mother exclaimed in a mixture of joy and exasperation. I furrowed my brow. “A cutting board?”  “Yes!” she beamed, as if this were the most marvelous thing in the world.  If not a marvel—it still looked like something salvaged from a junkyard—it was certainly a novelty. We’d never had a cutting board in our house. I’m not sure I’d ever seen one before in person, though I had heard of them and I had seen a cooking show some years back that surely used one. My mother, and my grandmother who had lived with us for most of my life until she had a severe stroke, had always cut all vegetables, meat—everything—in the air, over the pot or skillet it went into, slicing deftly through everything except fingers. They held the food and cut it pulling the knife from the back forward to the thumb. “You’ll never cut yourself with a sharp knife,” I was repeatedly told, “dull knives cut people.” That was the adage, but it didn’t appear to be true; I could cut myself with any kind of knife. I found holding food and cutting it through all the way to my finger without cutting my fingers extremely difficult to do.

My mother didn’t get my step-father to make a cutting board out of god-knows-what because she feared me cutting myself. I didn’t know how to cook. Neither she nor my grandmother ever taught me, really. I picked up a few things, but since I never made meals, only watched and did simple things (preferably without sharp objects) as I was told, I did not actually know how to cook one single thing by the time I left home. Later an aunt told me how to roast a chicken and a friend’s brother’s girlfriend “taught” me how to make spaghetti out of a box (this, even though I had a whole passel of Italian relatives, who, to my dismay, had taken to cooking with canned and boxed stuff). I could make skillet “lasagna” from a box and  frozen 99 cent pizza, and my mother had already made sure I had a can opener so I could eat canned food, but there was no need for a cutting board in any of what I knew how to cook. My mother, having grown up in the days before convenience food, was so enamored of boxes, cans and bags that the amount of fresh food that needed to be cut in our household was exceedingly small. But my mother, always class conscious from her poor upbringing, had latched upon the idea that cutting boards were de rigour, that this—and the microwave—were the upscale things that every modern kitchen needed. Being frugal (again, from her upbringing) she had my stepfather make one from scrap, rather than “pay good money” for a real one.

The microwave (heat instant food in it) and the cutting board (prepare fresh food to cook) didn’t really “go together”. My mother’s estimation that I had no need to actually cook meals suffered a bit of a blow from that primitive cutting board. Yes, I did the heat-n-eat thing with the microwave, but I really wanted to cook, so the cutting board was used to add fresh ingredients initially to prepackaged mixes, but eventually I began leaving out more and more packaged ingredients and adding fresh. It was not without incident. In fact it was years before I could cut or chop anything with any reasonable assurance that fingers would not be cut and chopped as well. Nevertheless, within a few years of getting that newfangled cutting board I’d devoted myself to cooking—and baking—as much food from scratch as possible.

I don’t think my mother quite understood it. Why I would go to so much trouble? For a while I made all my breads from scratch (I don’t bake everything myself any more) while my mother got a bread machine. She hounded me for years to get a bread machine, threatened to buy me one more times than I can count. I had some narrow escapes, but my vehemence finally got through. I don’t have anything against bread machines in general, I just don’t have any need or desire for one myself. They make good, tasty bread, but since I really enjoy the process of making bread, dumping ingredients into a machine and turning it on, has absolutely no appeal to me. I’d get a good loaf of bread, but nothing more enjoyable out of it. If you don’t enjoy the process of making bread—or don’t have time for it—but want a good fresh loaf, a bread machine would be perfect. I do appreciate the convenience of appliances and “instant” food ingredients: I’m not a fanatic. I’m someone who couldn’t recognize a cutting board when she saw one, yet nevertheless became a good, enthusiastic, cook.

What kicked off this reverie was slicing and cooking yellow crookneck squash for supper tonight. I still have that ancient cutting board and still use it occasionally, though it’s battle-scarred and brown from decades of drippy teapots. I have, in fact, three cutting boards and could probably do with a fourth. I have a nice newer model microwave with all kinds of features and settings, too. I use the cutting boards all the time for everything. The microwave is mostly used for heating leftovers. Tonight, however, neither were used as I prepared the summer squash. Without really thinking about it, I began—for some unknown reason—cutting the squash up over the pot, the way my mother and grandmother had, the way I rarely ever do, though I finally developed the aptitude for it. (Or perhaps I just have sharp enough knives now.)  Though cheap frozen pizza, canned food, and popcorn did form the bulk of my college cuisine, I also bought yellow crookneck squash as long as it was in season, cooked it gently, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, dabbed it with margarine. It was sliced on that makeshift cutting board, cooked the ol’ fashioned way on top of the stove and eaten greedily by the bowlful. I was a college student, but I was becoming a cook.

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