OPINION COLUMNS

The alchemy of the kitchen

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, January 8, 2014

{{{*}}}Fragrant steam rising from the big pot of soup on the stove fogs the windows of the warm kitchen while winter rages outside.

I would sit for hours at the yellow-formica table watching my Mom cook. She’s stunned at what I remember – songs she sang, what she fixed, even the colors and sizes of the pots and pans, mixing bowls, trivets, pot holders and dish towels, spoons, spatulas and strainers.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

She doesn’t cook much these days, but she was great at it – a southern lady who knew how to feed her family. I’d watch her fry chicken, brown that big Sunday pot roast before sticking it in the oven with potatoes, carrots and onions, bake pies and cakes, put together soups and casseroles, make her own salad dressing.

Sometimes she’d do “eggs-in-a-hole” for breakfast, using a drinking glass to press a hole in a piece of bread, then pan-toasting it while frying an egg in the middle (we ate the holes, too). She was an artist with cornbread and chocolate-chip cookies. We still laugh at my younger daughter’s comment at the breakfast table one day as my mom fixed her some toast: “Grammy, you sure do butter pretty.”

My job was setting the table, cleaning up the leftovers and staying out of the way. Food preparation was Mom’s world. My sister assisted because she needed to learn (it was the 1950s and ’60s), and she also became a wonderful cook.

I got good at eating.

My dad did his cooking on the grill – the only thing I ever saw him cook in the kitchen was eggs-and-macaroni. His idea of food preparation was spreading apple butter on toast, wrapping a piece of bologna around a sweet pickle, or wrapping a dish towel around the ice cream carton before he sat down with it and a teaspoon to watch a ballgame.

He did teach us pancake syrup is wonderful on cornbread, leftover rice is delicious with cinnamon, milk and sugar, and buttered rye bread is amazing dipped in black-eyed pea juice.

I grew up with a love of food, but few skills in the kitchen. What took place there was magic to me, alchemy, wizardry, sorcery.

I married a wonderful cook, and my daughters learned from their mother. She’s famous for her rolls and a wizard with the Crock-Pot. She gets on delicious kicks – soups, salads, cookies, paninis, anything Mexican, everything healthy. She’s a teacher by profession and by nature, so she’s not shy about assigning tasks, especially when there’s a big group coming over.

My assignments have changed very little: set the table, help clean up and otherwise, stay out of the way.

Until the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s.

I’m blessed with two wonderful brothers- and sisters-in-law. My wife’s sister and her husband, who live close by, have gotten into wedding catering – not in a commercial sense, but for friends and family. A couple of years ago that included a fantastic rehearsal dinner when our daughter got married.

Their son, who is in medical school at Galveston, got married that weekend in Houston. As parents of the groom, they decided to host a do-it-yourself rehearsal dinner. When we heard that plan, we volunteered to help.

So that Saturday in the kitchen of a big Houston church, I became a sous chef (or perhaps a hope-I-don’t-get-sued chef). Working with a crew of their friends, who have become our friends. I chopped vegetables, scrubbed potatoes, bagged hors d’oeuvres, washed pots until my fingers pruned, swept, wiped, cleaned up spills and did whatever else I was told to do.

Cooking for 50 requires almost military precision and organization. I’m in awe of those who feed multitudes, even if they didn’t start with just a few loaves and fishes.

Throughout my newspaper career, I’ve done stories on folks who do things I can’t do. Chefs are right up there with doctors, runners, architects – they’re people with mystical powers that defy explanation.

That remains true. But now, I’ve had a glimpse of what it actually takes – the planning, organization, purchasing, preparation and presentation – to have wonderful food cooked just right, all hitting the table at just the right time, so that someone like me can come along and say…

“Wow! That’s good!”

My New Year’s resolution list still includes the well-worn vow to eat less. But now I can add, “and appreciate it more.”

My compliments to the chefs.

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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