“Will there be cooking in heaven?” My little sister is looking at me, so many years ago, with her eyes crystal blue and as big as an anime characters mythical glance. I was smitten with my baby sisters, both of them. They could not be more different. Born only a year or so apart, they are the pride of my family and the joy of my young life. I was fifteen when the youngest was born, and I immediately fell head over heels in love. I loved her older sister just as much, but there was something between the baby girl and myself. She rode my shoulders while Mom shopped for groceries, accompanied me on dates and to the movies when she could barely walk, and would glare at my potential girlfriends with the scorn of those that know nothing but true love and adoration. I honestly don’t know how she isn’t more spoiled as an adult than she is – but I feel that true love doesn’t spoil. Instead, it builds character and confidence and makes us greater than we would be without it.
On that particular morning we were making pancakes in the kitchen of our old house deep in Southwest Virginia, near the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, places made infamous by the recent History Channel show on the Hatfields and McCoys. The area is now decimated by natural gas wells, strip mining, underground mining, timbering and the construction of an interstate system that will link Ohio to Myrtle Beach to facilitate tourism and tempt the flatlanders to spend hard earned money on over-priced hotel rooms and deep-fried seafood.
When I was growing up, the area was still beautiful, in its own way. Many visitors were horrified by the terrain – my eastern shore relatives would often remark that the county would be bigger than Texas if you could somehow stretch it out. Deeply incised river valleys capped with flat topped mountains dominated with weather patterns that stormed out of Ohio, the area could be inhospitable even in those days. Places such as these were where the Cherokee Indians fled to avoid the Trail of Tears, where they intermarried with the Scot and Irish settlers in order to assimilate into society. Our family is a product of such unions, although the old stigmas persist, underneath generations of acclimating to white society.
My Mom, always ready to laugh, smiled affectionately at her youngest daughter. It seems that those days she and I were always underfoot in the kitchen. She followed me everywhere and I had developed a fascination for cooking, which did not always lend itself to righting the controlled chaos that was usually Mom’s kitchen. It was the focal point of the house, where everyone gathered and talked and laughed and argued. Ours was a big family, with four brothers and three sisters and everyone was always hungry, it seemed. My brothers are still famous for their ability to demolish astonishing amounts of food – breakfast would always begin with Mom scrambling a dozen eggs, just to get those of us who had jobs to get to out the door with some food. She literally lived in the kitchen.
“I truly hope there won’t be cooking in heaven!” My Mom was a little vehement about it. For the first time in my life, the enormity of what she did sank in. She prepared three meals a day for a voracious group of growing teenagers on a budget that would disparage celebrity chef Robert Irwin. She canned vast amounts of vegetables, fruit and meat when they were available. She could stretch a potato into not only something that tasted amazing, but she could somehow make it last! Her stews, chicken and dumplings and biscuits were literally famous.
What she was most famous for was her sourdough bread. Twice a week she would bake bread – the house would fill up with the wonderful smell of rising yeast and the slightly acidic smell of the starter as she wielded her magic. I’ve tried so many times to duplicate her starter and bread, but I’ve never been able to get results like her. Her bread was wonderfully fluffy and dense and wonderful. If she was baking in the mornings she would make cinnamon rolls with the first batch and we would all wake to the smell of sweet sticky goodness. My little sister and I would usually be the first to the table, where we would stuff our faces with the glee of the young who can’t yet grasp the concept of being fat.
I was thinking of all this as I was trying out a new pizza dough recipe last night. We had quite a haul at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday – fresh local chicken, rabbit and duck; a chuck roast; fresh bratwurst; fresh garlic; beautiful fragrant greens from our neighbor; fresh peaches dripping with juice; along with plums so sweet that the natural sugars had crystalized on the skin. We treated ourselves to a wood fired Neapolitan style pizza and the cooks were happy to share their recipe for dough! I eagerly mixed the ingredients and allowed it to rise for two days and then began working it last night hoping to have a wonderful treat ready for my wife when she arrived home from her photo shoot.
With the grill screaming along at about 600 degrees, my brand new pizza stone sizzling away and the dough stretched beautifully on my cutting board. I dressed it in homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella, Vidalia onions, pepperoni and fresh basil from our garden. I left it on the board until Laura arrived, exhausted by a photography shoot followed by a very long drive. She exclaimed over how pretty it was, and then asked a very important question. “How are you going to get it off the board?
Instead of pizza, we had calzones. They weren’t pretty, but they tasted really good. I’m going to try this again, with a floured board this time. Despite my frustration, I still hope that there is cooking in heaven.