of baked potatoes, my mom, and the five second rule

Tonight for dinner, Danny and I had butternut squash soup (not made but purchased, overpriced, from Randall’s), loaded baked potatoes, and hot french bread.  I can feel the carbohydrates slowly mutating into midsection chub, but it was totally worth it.

I learned how to perfectly butter a baked potato from my dad, Mike “Boots” Ford, who is a master baked potato butterer.  (He is also a master potato masher, and his method involves an interpretive dance that surprises and often unsettles the uninitiated.)  The key to baked potato buttering, I learned from Boots, is that you must resist the sense of embarrassment you feel about exactly how much butter this task requires.  It’s a lot more than you would be willing to admit, and you just have to power through the shame and onto the deliciousness.  Because if you’re going to do the potato, you should do it right.

As I forked delicious butter into my spud this evening, I considered how many cooking essentials you learn from your family.  In addition to the butter thing, my dad has taught me how to make another Ford Family Essential: the egg-in-a-hole.  My Mamaw Ford taught me how to properly scrape every molecule of batter out of a mixing bowl and, through her matter-of-fact delivery of wives’ tale cookery, convinced me against all logic that I must always stir in one direction.  Failing to do so will unmix the batter.

And, of course, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom.  Kitchen time with mom wasn’t so much about recipes mom, long before the brining incidentand measurements.  Sure, I learned how to mix the dry ingredients before adding the eggs and oil.  I learned how to ice a cake in thick scallops, never passing over the same spot twice.  And I learned that you always put some fresh-cut veggies and fruit on the Thanksgiving table, even if they remain relatively untouched next to the stuffing and turkey.  Someone is bound to want at least one gherkin, or perhaps a carrot stick.

But really, I learned one important thing:  This is all a learning process.  If you mess it up — well — either no one will notice, or you can start over.  And if it’s irreparable, you better just deal with it as soon as possible and get to that mental place where you can laugh at yourself.  There is really no reason to have a panic attack if you realize, once the cake is in the oven, that you forgot the vanilla.  Sometimes slapping Halloween stickers on Little Debbie snack cakes instead of whipping up something from scratch for your Brownie troop is fine.  And if it falls to the floor when no one is looking… well… just put it back on the plate.  No one will know the difference, as long as you double-check for dog hair.

This fall, when I realized that I had sent out an important fellowship application with a careless typo, I tried to remember mom in the kitchen.  Even when something seems so important, so last-chance, it’s still part of the learning process.  I remembered calling home during my parents’ maiden attempt to brine a turkey — that fateful day when the bird, in the brining bag, slipped from the counter and hit the floor.  The brine seeped through the tile and into the ceiling of the rec room below, shorting out some wiring and tripping the smoke alarm.  This brine warped the floor.

Sure, the brining incident seemed disastrous at the time.  But everyone lived through it, and now it’s part of the family mythology.

And really, next to rogue turkey brine, a typo is nothing.


11 thoughts on “of baked potatoes, my mom, and the five second rule

  1. When I worked at Wendy’s I learned how to “flower” a baked potato by squeezing the ends so the top kind of explodes revealing all of the tasty goodness.

    It seems that in many cases learning is all about not being afraid to take chances and fail if need be. I encounter a lot of older folks who still don’t know how to work a computer because they were too afraid something they did would mess it up. I learned the computer, however, by taking chances. The consequences of failure were relatively minor (the thing didn’t blow up or anything). However, I still can’t convince them that this is the right approach. (And on a self-critical level… I have trouble extending this approach to other areas of life where it would probably be very valuable.)

    • This is true. I think failure of fear is why it’s harder for adults to learn languages, something I find really interesting. I suspect that children can pick new languages up easily not only because their brains are particularly adept when they’re young but also because they aren’t afraid to speak a new word aloud, even if they’re using it incorrectly. Adults don’t want to embarrass themselves!

  2. Great post. My grandmother probably didn’t know what a kitchen timer was. She timed things with phrases like, “boil while singing The Old Rugged Cross, all 4 verses” or “beat good, a verse of Amazing Cross, but don’t drag it” She firmly believed if you cooked with bad thoughts then the food would be bad, too. Just in case, I sing hymns in the kitchen while I cook. It just seems right.

  3. Good reminder not to sweat the the small stuff – life’s too short to have regrets and live in fear – experience it all because there is always good to follow the bad and nothing makes a better story in the end then a big mistake. Laughter and a mischievous smile will get you through anything 🙂

    • Indeed I am trying not to sweat the small stuff. In celebration, and as it’s finally getting marginally cool here in Houston (40 degrees at night!), I’m thinking about making a huge batch of chili, a dish that mercifully hides any mistakes or inaccuracies. I wonder what the real-life equivalent of chili would be?

      By the way — I’m terrible at replying to facebook messages. Or writing thank you notes! Guh! I never wrote you and Matt a thank-you for the wonderful package you sent ages ago. It has nothing to do with my gratefulness and everything to do with my flakiness.

  4. Gorgeous post. And three observations.

    1) You’re so right about now sweating the small stuff. If a giant pot of brine and turkey can indeed be called small. In all things culinary–and in life–there’s also something to be said too for learning from one’s mistakes, but in having incredible confidence and panache about those mistakes. In Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” she talked about serving a meal to company which was an absolute disaster. But rather than wilt and trip all up in shame, she just acted as if nothing was wrong at all–and then, crucially, learned from it. It’s my life long mission to cultivate this level of bravado–which isn’t quite arrogance, but rather in refusing to make oneself small in shame.

    2.) Based on this post and the picture of your mom, she seems to have had more than her fair dose of this panache. She looks like she was a fabulous woman, and I wish I had gotten to meet her.

    3.) Having met you, I feel like I’ve already met her a bit. As this blog entry is evidence of methinks.

    • Oh, Ryan. You made my night! Thanks. And I have to say, if I’ve meet anyone who can pull off this particular type of measured bravado, it is you. I heard that as Cruise Director you handled the responsibilities and — I’m sure — myriad small crises and Elder Hostel situations with style and grace. And if you can maintain that type of panache at DU, well, you are on your way.

      Do you recommend “My Life in France”? I think I could use a model of panache in my life right now, and maybe Julia Child is just the example I need.

      • Thank *you*! You made my afternoon.

        I do recommend “My Life in France,” although I read it when it was out in hardback a few of years ago now. It was a riveting read, and I generally dislike non-fiction.

        I’m considering reading it again–mostly because I remember how she ended up becoming “Julia Child” quite by accident and out of boredom. I think it will be good solace to remember that even the academic job market can be approached with panache and things will work out anyway.

        My most favorite uncle told me recently (and I’m not even on the market!) that “You do know that none of us care if you’re a professor or not.” It was incredibly refreshing and solace-inducing.

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