By Jean Clavette Graves
Public Affairs Specialist
FORT POLK, La. — I haven’t always loved cooking; and once upon a time, I was an extremely picky eater. My aversions led to plucking onions out of everything, refusing the idea that nuts belonged in any dessert, denying that fruits could be included in salads or pizza and protesting even the prospect of consuming corn tortillas. In high school I’d skip lunch and, instead, drove around smoking cigarettes with my hooligan friends.
If I ate at all during the day, it was usually a Suzy Q dessert cake with a diet coke. Dinner usually consisted of trading ice cream sundaes from the Baskin Robbins I worked at for pizza with the boys who worked at the Dominos next door.
As a teenager, my mom made me cook dinner once a week for our family. And, every week, I made the same thing — round steak in rich gravy with mashed potatoes. It was a simple dish involving round steak, onion soup mix, cream of mushroom soup, some flour and water. Preparing this recipe offered an outlet to relieve my frustrations revolving around the chore itself, as I had to tenderize the meat before cooking.
As a college student — my skillset no further refined at this point — I recall a concoction that consisted of hot dogs, macaroni noodles with honey and an exorbitant amount of ramen. Grocery shopping meant stealing food (and beer) from my dad’s house.
I also worked at Subway, so I never lacked sandwich makings, including plenty of expired cold cuts stored in the refrigerator in our walk-up apartment off State Street near the University of Wisconsin – Madison. If I wasn’t eating at home, I would eat bean burritos from Taco Bell — back then I could get two or three for less than $2.
After college, I found myself on the West Coast with a want-to-be-rock-star boyfriend. I was following the low-fat eating guidance of Susan Powter’s “Stop the Insanity!” Powter was a spikey haired, loud-mouthed health and fitness guru during the early 90s who yelled, “Stop the Insanity” during her infomercials. I recall substituting shredded carrots for cheese on low fat pizzas and living a vegetarian lifestyle for a while.
The premise of this lifestyle was to eliminate fat from your diet to the greatest extent possible. I eventually discovered that flavor is in the fat; so a low-fat lifestyle did little to titillate my culinary experience and made meal preparation a chore. Why bother being creative in the kitchen when the resulting meals were boring and flavorless?
I did, however, lose all the weight from college, which was great when I found an Army recruiter who told me about the student loan repayment program. It was a relief that I didn’t have to worry about losing weight before basic training — something many people struggle with before entering the service. Once in training, the low fat, vegetarian lifestyle was thrown out because I was astoundingly hungry all the time due to the strenuous training.
Over the years, I’ve gained and lost hundreds of pounds; and honestly, I am fat and happy right now. I’ve developed a love for food and cooking, catalyzed and perfected throughout 22 years of marriage. I guess that getting married brought out an instinct to take care of my husband. Some days I regret this because the man is spoiled rotten. But, having nice meals together as a family is still something we do more often than not. Even when it was just the two of us, we would sit at the kitchen table, turn off the television and have our evening meal together.
My cooking skills didn’t come overnight — it took time and patience. After our first year of marriage, I wanted to make my husband a nice Southern meal (he is from South Carolina). I will remind you that I am from Wisconsin and Southern cooking in 1999 was not only something I wasn’t familiar with; it was something I simply didn’t know how to do. The meal I chose was a chili cornbread casserole, and I was so proud. It looked and smelled delicious.
With the golden buttery cornbread crust over chili (which I probably got from a can) bubbling and ready to eat, I served the dish to my husband. He took one bite, and his face said, “THIS IS NOT GOOD!” I was upset and heartbroken — I probably started crying. I said, “You don’t like this? I made this special Southern meal just for you, and you don’t even like it?”
Well, he kept eating it, trying hard to show the enthusiasm and enjoyment on his face. I finally took a bite — rancid. The cornmeal was rancid! Bless his heart; he was going to eat it all just to make me happy. I guess I knew then that he was a keeper.
After hundreds of recipes, dozens of cookbooks, thousands of home-cooked meals and countless hours of Food Network viewings, I can finally say that I am a pretty decent cook. I’ve learned to love cooking; enjoying the experimentation of different techniques and cuisines. I like picking up fresh produce at the farmers market and making something special. I relish spending hours on a weekend making homemade breads, pies, de-veining shrimp, cooking meats low and slow, standing at the stove stirring homemade roux to the darkest richest brown, chopping veggies, firing up the grill, using my kitchen gadgets and creating something delicious for my family.
Today, when I get a craving, I can look at several recipes, then close my web browser, cookbook or foodie magazine and make it. Sometimes this is problematic because I’m unable to duplicate the meal when I don’t follow a recipe. Still, this ability in the kitchen has proven just as useful as it is tasty.
With the emerging trend of sharing food via social media, my love of cooking and sharing that skill has transferred online. I love to cook, and I want to share my creations with the world through photos. Although I’m glad there was no social media when I was in high school or college, (there would probably be some pretty embarrassing photos of me if there had been) I’m a huge fan of social media now, especially Instagram. I will often make my husband wait to eat while I plate three separate dishes and pick the most aesthetically pleasing one to photograph and post.
I also like to share my food with my friends in person.
Last year, I learned a friend’s son would be participating in a rotation here at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk with his military police unit from Fort Drum. I’m the spouse of a retired MP, and I know it’s a small world that likes to take care of its own. I also knew that, if my son were at Fort Leonard Wood, my friend would’ve taken care of him, so I offered to feed her son. He was unable to leave the installation and come to dinner, so I decided to feed his whole platoon on base. My son and I served them twice: The first day was red beans and rice and the next was gumbo and King Cake. The Soldiers were so appreciative and complimentary. Their gratitude made me feel happy and fulfilled — moments like these help to carve and refine my love of cooking and sharing good food with others.
I’ve had friends even suggest I write a cookbook, open a restaurant, food truck or catering business, but then it would be work — and, honestly, who likes to work? For me cooking is a passion, it is art, my hobby and a joy. I cook for the love of my family and friends, not financial gain.
When my son has food at a restaurant or even gumbo in southern Louisiana (remember I’m from Wisconsin) and he says, “Mom, yours is so much better,” my heart melts.
One day, he’ll be on his own and I hope he remembers how much I loved him and showed it through the lunches I packed and dinners I served. I hope he knows that all of that work was out of pure love and devotion to him and his daddy.
I’m proud to see this love of cooking in my son as well. He has developed an amazing palate and some great techniques for a 16-year-old kid. As an Eagle Scout, he not only earned his cooking merit badge, he has become quite skilled at outdoor Dutch oven cooking.
During the COVID-19 stay at home order, we did a “Chopped” challenge at the house that we filmed and shared on Instagram. “Chopped” is a Food Network reality/competition show where contestants have limited time to prepare complicated and delicious meals to then be judged, chosen or “chopped.” His dish turned out so much better than mine. I couldn’t get my noodles cooked in the short time we allowed ourselves. We are planning a rematch soon; and this time, he’s going down!
People have asked me to teach them how to cook. I always tell them to find a recipe, follow the directions and get started. I didn’t develop my skills overnight; I just kept at it and slowly acquired new techniques through numerous recipes and learning different cuisines. Like anything, practice makes perfect. Julia Childs once said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces — just good food from fresh ingredients.”