Cooking is full of compromises, especially if you are cooking for a family and working full-time too. Home-made tomato sauce is a great base for your pasta dish, but sometimes you need to just open a can of Prego. And a lot of our sentimental favorite foods are straight from a can, or have only moderately altered ingredients. Kraft Dinner Mac and Cheese was a favorite in our house. Grandmother always kept instant oatmeal and instant grits for our breakfasts there. My friend Susan Smith’s comfort food was a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup with a soft boiled egg cut in half and sitting in the middle like some sort of gelatinous bird’s nest. Ramen reminds people of their college days; the list goes on and on.
The food I include in this collection shares some things in common with those instant and processed foods— these are mostly comfort foods. They are not all healthy, not all artery-clogging monsters, not all carnivorous, come from no particular region or tradition, they are just the recipes that I fall back on when I want a good meal. I have lived in some great food locations, from the brisket and German potato salads of central Texas to the gumbos and soul food of New Orleans, the biscuits and gravy of East Tennessee to the chiles and salsas of Mexico. Along the way I have hung out with people who taught me all sorts of things about cooking.
Ruth Rauh fed me every week for years in San Miguel. Bix Cramer has prepared some of the best food I ever ate, though she modestly claims that it isn’t as good as it tastes. Ryan Dalton and I had a sort of weekly test kitchen where we learned to cook something new each week, and I had a similar arrangement with Josh Ferguson, Danny Tognazzini, Morgan Hardcastle, and some of my other students for a while in Mexico. My family is full of cooks, good, bad, and indifferent, and the meals I have had with them were almost universally instructive.
The first cookbook I ever used was Mom’s “Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook,” which was in the form of a binder and had a section for candy, something you seldom find in modern cookbooks. The book, tattered and missing pages, spattered and stained, is still in the kitchen here at Roddy Branch and I use it once in a while for old favorites like Christmas sugar cookies. I also use various other books, from “White Trash Cooking” to “The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook.” I don’t reproduce any of those recipes here, since my format is more anecdotal than scientific and I presume even the least serious of cooks has a book or two around to consult.
The first thing I remember cooking without a grownup around to help out was tapioca pudding, which I made with my brother Bob. We mixed up the measurements for salt and sugar. How even a child doesn’t realize that a cup and a half of salt might be too much, I’m not sure, but I remember the product of my shame, a pile of inedible yellow custard growing salt crystals, laying out at the end of the garden where even the animals wouldn’t touch it.
The first thing I remember cooking successfully was breakfast.