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Sep 22, 2013 03:56 AM

What or who was your gateway to being a cook and what difficulties did you encounter along the way?

I started cooking when I was about 10 years old. A girl about 11 years old proposed cooking "apple crisp" from the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Kids. It was a great success and I was hooked.

My two grandmothers were also gateways, one grandmother introducing me to her two or three special American dishes and the other grandmother doing the same with a half dozen Swedish dishes. This all happened before I was 15.

After being exposed to Cantonese food at the first Chinese restaurant which I ever went to at the age of 10 or 12, I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook Chinese food. The problems with achieving this goal were multiple.

This was the 1960s and I had little money, lived in a small Indiana town about 35 miles outside of downtown Chicago, had no transportation and had no Chinese cookbooks. At first, I tried cooking from Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens, which offered a few "Chinese" recipes. I soon concluded that the authors of these books did not have a clue about Chinese cooking, despite their claims of deliciousness.

Then I tried cooking from some small, spiral-ringed "Chinese" cookbooks that proudly announced that all the ingredients were available at any American supermarket. Yeah. I soon learned that substituting canned black beans and sherry for fermented black beans was a non-starter.

I started having some success when I found a real Chinese cookbook (probably at the local library) that called for actual Chinese ingredients. Getting these ingredients was, of course, a huge problem. Some, like bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, required a trip to the "big" grocery store 15 miles away. Others (most, actually), like hoisin sauce, required a trip into China Town in Chicago, about 30 miles away. So, I learned to make lists of the ingredients which I needed, figure out my budget (eliminating recipes that did not fit it), and used substitutions parsimoniously (when they actually worked).

Explaining what I wanted to a Chinese store owner was another challenge. I had the English name for what I wanted from the recipe, but pronouncing it so that the grocery store owner understood me was a challenge. Just showing him/her the name of the ingredient, printed in the recipe, often did not work because he/she did not read English. If the store owner could understand what dish I was trying to make, he often figured out what ingredient I was looking for.

Sometimes, I was just handed a can with Chinese writing on it. I had no idea if I was buying the right thing (and, on reflection, sometimes I wasn't). Still, store personnel were often very helpful and sympathetic.

My standard for success was simple. If the food tasted like what I ate in my "local" (15 miles away) Cantonese restaurant, I counted the recipe as a success. Maybe a third of the recipes I tried were successes.

As we moved into the early 1970s (and I got a driver's license), getting the right ingredients became much easier, particularly because local grocery stores began carrying a much larger collection of Chinese ingredients.

I do not remember the names of those early Chinese cookbooks which were gateways to Chinese cuisine for me. But I do remember the New York Times International Cookbook, edited by Craig Claiborne, which had some terrific Chinese recipes in it and also introduced me to a dozen other ethnic cuisines.

So I guess my gateways were people and books. The internet, videos, the Food Network, and cooking programs all came much later and made my cooking life so much easier.

What were your gateways?

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  1. I grew up in a mennonite family. My many boy cousins and myself were required to help out in the kitchen doing whatever chores we were capable of from an early age. As we grew older pretty much all us boys left kitchen chores for 'outdoor' chores. All the girls stayed in the kitchens.
    I learned to love cooking and all that went with it back then.
    You haven't lived until you see thirty twelve foot long folding kitchen tables stretched out in rows of ten in the big community hall heaped full of home made noodles being air dried by big electric fans. Or watch six huge pigs being butchered in the slaughter house by a few dozen men.

    1. Coming from and Italian American family, food was always a focus. I used to like to flip through the cookbooks my mother had. When I was 9 my grandfather got sick. For the five years that he lived he watched a lot of FN in its first few years. I would spend hours hanging on every word with those early shows. My mother didn't really let us help much in the kitchen so I learned a lot by watching her and my father.

      1. We owned a restaurant and both of my parents were accomplished and inventive cooks. I don't really remember "learning" to cook. It was just something we all did.

        My parents also trusted us in the kitchen. We were given access that many of my friends didn't have in their homes so I was able to experiment a lot.

        1. In my growing up years, the catalyst was Mom going to work when I was in the 6th grade. I'd come home to an empty house, so to avoid boredom, I'd start doing the laundry and later, beginning dinner. After awhile, I made the whole dinners.

          Gateway for Indian cooking was marrying an Indian who couldn't cook and couldn't describe Indian cooking to me! This was waaaay before the Internet and easily obtained "foreign" ingredients, so I had to get creative.

          1. My mom and her mother were great cooks. And my grandfather was an executive at General Mills.

            Betty Crocker sent my mother a letter congratulating her on her first homemade loaf of bread when she was seven.

            I was "cooking" at 3.

            When my mother brought my newborn brother from the hospital (I was 3), I decided she needed a special lunch so I made her a blue cheese and radish sandwich (side note: I've been an adventurous eater all my life ... Unlike said brother). To this day that sammy is quite a treat.

            When my friends had easy bake ovens, I was making pies and a roast beef dinner.

            My only difficulty is that after being encouraged to go to culinary school @ 40 by my weekend class instructors, I couldn't finish due to the time pressure of my day job.