I don’t remember actually learning how to cook. Does anyone, really? If you’re taught at some point in your life, it’s something you then take for granted once you know how to do it—like walking, or reading, or tying your shoes.
I grew up surrounded by cooking. My mother is an autodidact, a professional caterer who never went to culinary school. She ran her business out of our kitchen. Mom learned the way precocious people do—by watching her mother, by studiously applying what she read in books— and by doing what most entrepreneurs do, which is apply a fake-it-til-you make it approach. When my mom started to get catering jobs as a recent Soviet immigrant in Worcester, Massachusetts, she was asked to make foods that she herself had never eaten before, like tuna salad, mac and cheese, and cream of broccoli soup (she had never even heard of broccoli). But she figured it out.
And because my mom did all of the work of figuring it out, I never really bothered to. She is my font of food knowledge that is there 24-7, like a personal cooking hotline, to text or call for information basic (how to roast sweet potatoes) and advanced (what is the ultimate coffee cake?). And the knowledge that she passed down to me as a child gave me the foundation, and the foolhardy confidence, to become a food writer, which is how I earn my living .
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I saw my mom do things that most home cooks don’t do. She made elaborate celebration cakes for weddings and special occasions, classic French confections that layered dacquoise, genoise, chocolate soufflé, coffee buttercream, raspberries and whipped cream. I watched her craft these creations from start to finish, from measuring and sifting dry ingredients on creased pieces of wax paper, to piping the decorations, which I’d stay up to witness if it happened late at night (it often did).
I watched attentively. It was meditative, enticing, and, at times, suspenseful. But my interest was rooted in sugar lust. I sat in wait so I could lick the bowls, swipe errant drips of cream that fell onto the work surfaces, and eat the precious “scraps” that would result if my mom needed to shave off bits off the cake to even out its shape. I was like a human golden retriever.
Growing up around a professional cook gave me opportunities that I didn’t realize were opportunities. One thing that still amazes me is the way my mom trained my palate. (And the fact that she trained my palate.) When she would cook for clients, she often summoned me as a taster. I remember being called upon to determine the balance of flavors in spanakopita filling. She’d ask, “What does this need more of—nutmeg, pepper, salt, lemon?” I don’t think I even knew what nutmeg tasted like, but that’s how I learned.
Maybe I had a good sense of taste to start with, maybe my mom coaxed it out of me, or maybe the truth is in the middle. Whatever the case, I loved being asked my opinion. When I would give my mother the verdict, she took my word for it. She would taste the mixture, nod, then add more of whatever I had prescribed, give me another taste, and so it would go. She made me, a little person with virgin senses and zero power in the world, the arbiter of what was good.
Later on I realized how much these moments in the kitchen impacted my day to day existence. When people would come visit me in any city I lived in, whether it was Montreal, New York, or Somerville, Massachusetts, the way I showed them around would be to take them on marathon eating tours, to ply them with delicious morsels that I had spent years unearthing. Souvlaki, chocolate truffles, smoked meat sandwiches, bagels, baklava. Isn’t that how everyone experienced a place? Deliciousness was my happy place, no matter where I was.
Gabriella Gershenson is our latest Writer in Residence—please welcome her! She'll be writing about what she's learned—and hasn't yet—from her mother in the coming weeks. And she'll be cooking with her mom, live, on our Facebook this Thursday at 1:30 PM.