For several years this was our family's routine. It was also how and when I learned to cook, not at the knee of a doting grandmother, not in my mother's own house, but in my father's small apartment kitchen. At 15, I became the female head of the household when my mother entered the hospital for four years of on-and-off illness and convalescence.
When we moved from my mother's little house on Long Island to my father's apartment in Miami, not only did we leave behind our playmates and the home we knew, but we abandoned every vestige of our food habits -- of food familiarity and identity -- as well. Gone were the Sunday pot roasts and slow-simmered spaghetti sauces my mother made for us. Gone were her meatloaf sandwiches, her Beef Stroganoff, her homemade holiday dinners. They were replaced with the weekly rounds of taking out and ordering in, highlighted by the occasional meal at a relative's house.
For a while anyway, it seemed to be a kid's culinary dream come true. But I knew it couldn't last indefinitely, if only because of the expense. I was drafted as the family cook.
I read the directions on frozen pizza boxes and got the expected results. Kraft macaroni-and-cheese was a big hit. Mrs. Paul filled our freezer and I soon became adept at preparing the kind of food you'd find in any below-average school cafeteria.
My sister and brother, then 11 and 9, suffered withdrawal from their fast-food fixes. They looked ready to rebel as they sat down to meals at home that were as bad as those they endured each day at school. I branched out into Rice-A-Roni and soon Hamburger Helper was on the table more nights than not.
Once I turned 16, I got my driver's license. I decided to impress everyone with a real steak dinner and drove to the grocery store. Once there I was faced with a dizzying array of cuts: sirloin, t-bone, flank steak, round steak, top round, ground round; plus roasts, chops, livers and more. I bought an inexpensive package of skirt steak, something I'd seen -- sliced thin and arranged on a platter -- on our table countless times, and brought it home.
Now, if you buy a 79-cent bag of rice there are directions on the bag. The same is true for any box of pasta. Even coffee and tea come with instructions. But not meat, which as the centerpiece of the meal is the most expensive and easily ruined component. Well, I thought, nearly every grown woman does this, nearly every day. How hard could it be?
So with my best friend, Diane, I set about making my first-ever fancy dinner from scratch. The oven had to be hot, that we knew for sure. But how hot? Diane, much more a daredevil than I, suggested going all the way. We compromised and turned it to 500, which first required some maneuvering to light the pilot. We remembered from home ec class that ovens need to preheat, so we let that happen while we prepared our feast. Giggling, we sprinkled the inch-thick steak with smoked salt, a concoction that was my father's favorite. Suddenly I pictured my mother in the kitchen of our old house; she always left the oven door open a crack, so we did that, too. I even found the proper broiling pan, and my confidence rose.
We slid the glistening meat into the oven. We waited. Then we heard it -- the sizzle of fat. After another minute or so, the aroma began to find its way into our hopeful nostrils. We peeked inside.
Almost nothing appeared to be happening. The steak was still mostly pink, but a dull tan color had begun to creep up the sides. Where was the brownish-black coating of fat that would crunch satisfyingly in our mouths? Then it hit us -- we had to turn the steak over to cook the other side. Surely that's when it would happen.
We did, and it didn't. So we cooked it a little longer and after 20 minutes or so, we declared it done. It smelled all right, but it looked all wrong. It was uniformly tan, the color of a Birkenstock sandal, and every bit as appetizing. We tried to eat it but couldn't. The extra time in the oven while we waited for browning to occur had made the bargain cut of meat too tough to chew. We had to throw it out.
By now you realize that we didn't broil the steak, we baked it. My mother's oven was electric, and I had watched her put steaks on the top rack of the oven, with the dial set to broil so the element would cook from above. But in my father's gas oven, of course, the flame was at the bottom. Broiling could only take place by putting the meat underneath the flame, in the lower compartment I mistakenly assumed was a storage drawer.
What we ate instead that night has long since been forgotten. Diane and I laughed when it happened and we've laughed about it lots of times since, because the teenaged antics of two girlfriends learning their way around a kitchen were bound to produce some comic mishaps.
Eventually my family struck a balance between taking out and making our dinners, and I felt a little less anxious as my skills improved. By the time I was 21, I was working as a caterer's assistant.
But what none of us could bring ourselves to say back then, and only discuss rarely even now, is that without my mother in the kitchen, nothing was the way it should have been. The familiarity of food and its routine, even an imperfect one, is so much a part of life that when it changes, nothing seems quite right. Even if that first steak had turned out perfectly, with crisply browned fat and the desired pink color, its taste would have left us all hungering for something we did not know how to ask for.
Excerpted from Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas, with more than 200 favorite recipes, copyright (c) 2003 by Amy Rogers, published by Novello Festival Press. Used by permission.
Amy Rogers will read from and sign the book at Park Road Books Sunday, September 14, from 1 to 3pm. Free munchies made from some of the book's recipes will be available (although not baked steak).