It would be incorrect to say that Mrs. Brown taught me how to cook. This is because I was a regular in the kitchen most nights when my mother made dinner. Observation, as well as increasingly complex sous chef duties, probably did more for my cooking skills than Mrs. Brown ever did. But cooking was an everyday thing in our house, whereas Mrs. Brown’s cooking lessons were a unique experience. I think it was the short period of time and the fact that I was “officially” learning how to cook that keeps me remembering so many moments from those lessons.
I came to Mrs. Brown—like so many things when I was young—through my friend Stephanie, who lived across the street. Stephanie was two years older, incredibly curious and had an iron will, so when she got the idea to do something, we usually did it. At some point, she decided she wanted to do 4-H and so her grandmother, Mrs. Brown, was recruited as teacher. Our club was quite small as I recall, perhaps only consisting of Stephanie and myself, though there may have been one other student.
Mrs. Brown was a small woman, with a head of tight curls and an expression on her face that implied her life hadn’t quite worked out the way she envisioned, but that she was carrying on, regardless. She was no nonsense, but kind and though she was not looking to entertain us, I think enjoyed teaching us to cook.
We worked through a colorful 4-H workbook and learned the basics of cooking: reading a recipe, proper measuring, techniques for chopping and mixing. The workbook showed a picture of a boy squatting down to see the proper level of the liquid in the liquid measuring cup. This was a revelation to me as we always just held the cup at eye level in my house. I still hold the liquid measuring cup aloft today, though generally the picture flashes through my head and a twinge of guilt shoots through my body because I know I’m not using the proper technique.
I can recall Mrs. Brown instructing us to never chop directly on the counter, “I’ve had friends with new countertops who just started chopping away on them, and in no time at all they were ruined.” I locked that bit of advice away. She also cautioned us never to put a hot pan on the counter as it could scorch the counter. “I made the mistake of doing that once and had to live with the scorch mark for years.” To this day I cannot bring myself to set even a warm pot on the counter.
There was also a lesson in the proper way to wrap a sandwich. This was confusing to me as I’d been carefully folding my sandwiches into Saran Wrap for years, but according to our curriculum, we needed to use waxed paper, draw the ends together and roll them over and over until they reached the sandwich, tucking the ends underneath. I found this complex, and entirely unnecessary due to the Saran Wrap’s clingy powers. It was also fun in an old fashioned way, like shaking cream in a jar to make butter. Interestingly, today wrapping sandwiches is when I most often think of Mrs. Brown. I’ve switched back to waxed paper (wax and paper equal better for the environment than plastic) and always feel a bit of mirth thinking of Mrs. Brown explaining about her daughter, Stephanie’s mom: “Janet used to always wish I would buy the saran wrap—but the waxed paper was much cheaper.” Janet confirmed this to be true when she picked us up that day.
The food we cooked was generally normal American starter cooking food like muffins, but the 4-H curriculum introduced my family to stir-fry. We made stir-fry from that recipe weekly for the rest of my childhood and adolescence.
When our cooking lessons ended, Stephanie’s interest had moved on to other things, a different friend and I carried on with 4-H and Mrs. Brown, learning how to sew a nightgown. Though my interest in sewing waxes and wanes, cooking is something I still enjoy on a regular basis and I’m thankful for the lessons Mrs. Brown taught me.