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March 31, 2017

The Friend Who Taught Me to Cook When I Felt Like It

Iona’s always been part of my life.

She was there when I first learned to cook. She didn’t laugh when I tried to bake my first cake, for the Brownies’ daddy/daughter dance*. She was totally down when I decided to try to enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (How did I learn about the Bake-Off? From another great woman, Nora Ephron, who wrote about it for Esquire. Her essay was republished in a collection that you should read, “Crazy Salad.” But I digress.) She didn’t laugh when my cookies came out terrible, so terrible I wouldn’t even eat them.

She cheered for me when I tried to make healthy birthday cake for my oldest son’s first birthday; she didn’t even giggle when I made that cake without sugar, and with soy yogurt for dressing. And she never said a word when I decided I was a crap baker and needed to stick to savory dishes. Even though she loved sweets and baking, she remained a life-long friend.

She was an adult before I was. She was on her own before I was even born. But when I grew up and we got to know each other as adults, she treated me like an equal, and gave me confidence. I remember what she was like when I was little (and she remembers how silly I was, no doubt). She could do so many things I couldn’t, and I couldn’t wait to be grown up enough to make muffins to take to the beach, a pound cake for our holiday dinner, or cookies for a bake sale.

But I kept her secrets, too. I was silent when she splattered Jell-O chocolate pudding all over the kitchen when the beaters kept going after they were lifted out of the pudding. Then I laughed my 10-year-old head off when she shrugged and started cleaning it up while we ate the remaining pudding out of the big bowl with one big spoon. I never said a word when my mother came home from her trip and decided the kitchen was looking a little run down and it was time to remodel.

Iona’s been there since before I was born, and she’s always understood my life in the kitchen.

My mother did not like to cook. She fed us healthy, reasonably good meals and she wasn’t interested in our complaints about the quality. (Kidding. We never complained, because the meals were just fine and we were raised right.) Mom made excellent stove-top popcorn, delicious spaghetti sauce, and cookies whenever she was compelled to for some bake sale or another. Her oatmeal raisin cookies were delightful. But she couldn’t have made them without Iona.


Iona, a hand mixer given to my parents as a wedding gift by my father’s friend English McCutchen, is still going strong. (She’s outlasted both of my parents and English. And if you think I don’t think about that every time she comes out of the cabinet, you don’t know me.) Her avocado green color takes me back to a time when I was too young to cook. A time when olives counted as an appetizer, gelatin molds were totally acceptable as a savory salad, and I had to go to bed to the sound of grown-up laughter floating up the stairs, in response to jokes I wouldn’t have understood anyway.

I love all the things I couldn’t have in those days: cocktail snacks, hostess dresses, nights out at Wit’s End**, and avocado green. (Do I love the fact that ladies had to make all the snacks and wear hostess dresses in certain situations whether they wanted to or not? Not so much. But I do love a ham ball rolled in parsley, and a dry martini is always nice.)

Iona reminds me that my mother lived through that time, never wore a hostess dress, and only baked if she darn well felt like it. With Iona in my kitchen, I know when to cook and when to order take-out. Iona reminds me to do what I want and let the rest of the world deal with it.

I’ve been trying to de-clutter my kitchen and there are plenty of things in the Goodwill bag. I love a casserole, but do I need two casserole dishes that are the same size? And let’s be honest. I’m never going to use that olive pitter/stuffer. If I want a martini with a blue cheese stuffed olive, I’ll go to a bar, like an adult. And I definitely don’t need a hundred dish towels, no matter how perfect they match my different outfits.

And I don’t bake very often, but Iona’s staying. She’s more than a mixer, she’s my entire history in the kitchen. What’s the oldest thing in your kitchen? Want to tell me why you keep it? I bet you have stories.

* Is it just me or is the Daddy-Daughter Dance a little weird? I mean, I loved it, but only because I was used to hanging out with my dad as often as I spent time with my mom, which was a lot. I would have had just as much fun with mom, and none of the three of us could bake. Dad might have been the best at it, but we were all pretty bad. But I digress. Again.

** Columbia legend, y’all. Just ask anyone over 60. Or anyone under 60 who was old enough to babysit their kids.