You can’t tell a book by its cover — or a chef by the Pop Tarts she was weaned on.
By Leslie Bilderback 05/01/2012
People often ask me how I came to be a chef. Is this a question everyone gets about what they do? Does anyone actually care? I firmly believe it is a default question after intelligent conversation has run its course. What I should do is make up a story:
"A family of geese found me as a baby, swaddled in a basket lodged in the cattails along the banks of the Rhône River. They raised me as their own, until the day Paul Bocuse came looking for foie gras. As my liver was not yet sufficiently fattened, I was sent to peel carrots at l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon."
Less romantic was my actual culinary upbringing, at the foot of the boob tube. On weekends my mom and I would watch Julia or The Galloping Gourmet, then try to replicate the recipes we learned. I am not the product of a rich and colorful culinary heritage. My grandmother was a terrible cook --- a Miracle Whip on Jell-O type of cook. Her gazpacho was cold Campbell’s tomato soup mixed with a packet of Lawry’s taco seasoning. She did, however, corner the market on my domestic training.
Her name was Mildred, and she was the epitome of the middle-class suburban housewife who rose to power in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when such skills were appreciated. She kept her Eichler home spotless and later, when my grandparents downsized to an apartment and finally an assisted living facility, those were spotless too. Every morning, without fail, she went on patrol --- making the beds, dusting, doing the laundry, cleaning bathrooms and running the carpet sweeper across the floor. The last time I saw her, just before she died, her carpet sweeper was still standing at attention in the corner, with the dust rag draped over the handle like epaulets, the nearby can of Pledge a dutiful lieutenant awaiting orders.
Mildred could never sit still. She always had a project working on her lap, cross-stitching tea towels, crocheting potholders and knitting afghans like Rumpelstiltskin turning straw into gold. She could knit a full-size afghan during one episode of The Perry Como Show. She was a masterful bridge player who hosted weekly bridge parties for the ladies of the women’s club, complete with tiny plates loaded with Triscuit canapés that lined up perfectly with the corners of her card tables.
Her dinner tables always had the correct forks, glasses and plates, arranged just so. There were matching table linens and centerpieces for every conceivable occasion. She loved everything about entertaining --- except the cooking. That was the one thing she considered a chore, and she did everything imaginable to shorten the task. To Mildred, convenience food was manna from heaven. I never ate anything at her table that didn't come from a box, can or boil-in bag.
She kept her recipes in a red-fabric-covered, three-ringed recipe file, into which she stuffed hundreds of recipes cut from food packaging. Anything that ever appeared on the back of a Betty Crocker box or Cool Whip tub is in there. There are occasional comments penned in Mildred’s gorgeous hand (she never let up on my crappy handwriting and was outraged over public schools’ abandonment of the Palmer Method of penmanship instruction), from which we can reconstruct her social calendar: “Alberta’s good pie,” “Frieda Olsen’s Hot Chicken Salad,” “For Bridge 8some.” They invariably call for fruit cocktail, Velveeta or corn flakes.
Mildred hated cooking, but she did it every night, because that’s what a good wife and mother did. Her meals were always complete: soup or salad, meat, starch, vegetable, bread and dessert, each served on the appropriate plate. If it was a festive occasion she’d whip a Betty Crocker cake to life with her harvest gold electric beaters that I was always allowed to lick. Frosting was only for special occasions. The rest of the time her cakes were bundts. (I am pretty sure she was singlehandedly responsible for the success of that pan.)
Grandma was dumbfounded when I decided to go to culinary school. “What, exactly, is the point of that?” My new skills were way outside her comfort zone. But like it or not, this is my culinary heritage. It’s the gastro-cultural ashes from which the phoenix of my professional life arose.
I inherited Mildred’s things in waves. Each time Mildred moved to an increasingly compact living space, a box or two would arrive in the mail. After she died, I drove a U-Haul of furniture and trinkets across two states. I rarely use any of it, but I frequently enjoy thumbing through the culinary comedy gold that is her red recipe binder --- and her complete set of Cooking with Campbell’s Soup books.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.