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If Big Mama Could See Me Now
What I've Learned About Life From Cooking at Home

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Girl, I'll probably take some heat for this, but I'm going to say it anyway: Far too many of us view cooking as subservient. We -- and I can say that because I was once one of you -- proudly tell prospective husbands that we don't do cooking.

As I got older and bolder, I would boast to Big Mama, my grandmother, that I wasn't going to "slave" in the kitchen for anybody. If my man wants a meal, he can cook it himself, I told her. She would shake her head in disapproval.

I was sadly, selfishly wrong. What I didn't think about was the family I'd have one day: Who was going to prepare home-cooked meals for them?

Certainly, fathers cook. But I get it now. I understand the nurturing that happens when a parent -- especially a mom -- cooks and serves a meal.

Studies and statistics support the effort. Compared with teens who frequently eat dinner with their families, those who rarely sit down to family meals are 3 1/2 times as likely to have abused prescription drugs or an illegal drug other than marijuana, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

As it happens, the recession has forced many families to cut back on eating out. The number of restaurant visits in the United States has been trending down since the first quarter of 2006, decreasing as much as 10 percent during one quarter last year, according to Decision Analyst, a Dallas-Fort Worth marketing research and consulting firm.

Because I write The Post's Color of Money personal finance column, I've seen the high cost of eating out. Dozens of readers regularly tell me that their budgets get busted by frequent restaurant visits.

If you shop well, you can cook at home for less money. But there's another important benefit and blessing that is priceless: Having family meals at the same time, at the same table is a way to keep the family healthy and close. I just wish I had understood that earlier in my marriage and motherhood.

Some of the best times I've had in my home with my kids and husband have occurred around the preparation or consumption of a meal. We have to teach our children how to cook, so they can cook for their families and minister to their needs.

I'm thankful that I finally appreciate the bond created by cooking for my family. I love to cook now. But my biggest regret as a mother of three is that I didn't learn more from my grandmother, who tried to teach me before she died, in 1995. (Of course, she never wrote down any of her recipes.) I wish I could re-create her delicious chicken and dumplings. I think my husband married me, in part, because he thought I could make that dish, which she served him many times while he was courting me. (She knew what she was doing.)

When Big Mama died, my home became the place the family gathered for Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holiday meals keep us tethered as an extended family.

I will forever remember the first Thanksgiving meal I made for my new husband and members of his family. The turkey was juicy and not overdone. The string beans, collard greens and macaroni and cheese turned out fine. I cooked the whole menu from memory of what my grandmother did.

And then there were my candied sweet potatoes.

Had I watched Big Mama more closely, I would not have made a basic cooking mistake that to this day, more than 18 years later, is the source of family jokes.

Here's what happened: I cut up the sweet potatoes, which I thought at the time were a bit hard to slice. I filled a baking dish with the thick pieces, then dark brown sugar, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and dots of butter. Hours later, the potatoes were still not the velvety soft creation I remember from Big Mama's meals. Convinced it was just a matter of minutes before the potatoes would soften up, and with dinner starting soon, I slid the dish out, put marshmallows on top and pushed the potatoes back in the oven.

I served them along with everything else. Right away, one of my new brothers-in-law said, "Um, Michelle, the sweet potatoes are a little crunchy," eliciting snickers from my other new in-laws.

I was mortified. Someone at the table asked if I had boiled the sweet potatoes first.

Boiled?

So, now I am trying to teach my two daughters and son how to cook. I want to spare them future culinary embarrassment.

My two younger children can be picky about certain foods, so I adjust recipes accordingly. For example, my son doesn't like spicy foods. So I either tone down the heat in certain recipes or delete the hot spices altogether. Or I'll set aside a portion for him, minus the objectionable ingredients.

But there is one food rule in our house: Everybody has to try any new meal I make at least once. If they completely dislike a new dish, I won't force them to eat it a second time.

Cooking has become a family affair. We are huge fans of "Top Chef," Bravo's reality television series. I especially treasure watching it with my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia. It's one of the few times we aren't clashing, as some mothers and daughters do in the early teen years. When my son gave me the latest "Top Chef" cookbook for Christmas, I squealed like a little girl. And Food Network is the bomb diggity. (Please, don't tell Olivia I said that.)

I regularly botch recipes. But I keep trying, and occasionally I hit on a dish my family adores, such as a low-fat casserole made with lean ground turkey, pasta, salsa, corn, cottage cheese, cumin and cilantro. It takes about 45 minutes, start to finish. I team it with a Caesar salad and whole-wheat French bread, which we dip in olive oil. I'm almost annoyed at how much my family likes this dish, because there are never any leftovers for lunch the next day.

If you make preparing a meal enjoyable and interesting, your children will want to learn to cook. Maybe my grandmother's occasional drill-sergeant approach was the reason I hated her lessons. They frequently came with a lecture that I wasn't going to get a man if I didn't learn to cook.

I try to find recipes that will engage the kids. Jillian, 8, and Kevin, 11, love cracking eggs, and they fight over the privilege. I found a stuffed pasta dish that really gets them involved. We get an assembly line going, with a lot of the meat filling going into tummies as we stuff.

I'll admit that teaching Olivia to cook is a challenge. She's at that age; need I say more? Actually, it's partly my fault. I find myself slipping into lecture mode, like Big Mama. I'm working on that, because I want to cook with my daughters. It's my responsibility as their mother to make sure I prepare them to be the chefs in their own homes someday.

I've promised myself that I'll figure out a way to approximate Big Mama's chicken and dumplings and her celebrated corn pudding. I'm looking forward to the day when Olivia makes my candied sweet potatoes for her husband and in-laws.

And I'll make sure they won't be crunchy.

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