Thoughts & Views

What’s cooking? In my kitchen, not much

Elsewhere in this week’s issue of The Observer, you will find a story I did on a gourmet dinner served to Kearny senior citizens by Kearny High School culinary students.

It was a lovely event, but I was not completely at ease. Gourmet food frightens me. And I am intimidated by the people who can cook it.

I cannot cook at all. I do not want to learn. I have survived this long on take-out and eating out and microwave tasties and I am not about to change.

My mother was a great cook. Nothing gourmet, but the best home-cooking you’d ever want. She was Irish and she made the most delicious lasagna. To this day, I will not order lasagna out, because no place, even the finest Italian restaurant, could prepare it as well as she did.

I heard once that if your mother was a great cook, one of two things happened: Either you also became an accomplished cook, because you learned at her knee. Or you don’t cook at all, because you never had to learn; you just sat down at the table and ate wonderful food.

File me firmly in the latter category.

When I first moved back to Jersey, it was into an apartment that had just been given a completely renovated kitchen. I lived there three years, and the brand-new oven was not turned on once.

The week before I moved out, I suddenly became ashamed of myself and decided to bake a casserole, using a recipe from one of the many unread cookbooks I possess. (Friends are always giving them to me as gifts — as a form of intervention. It doesn’t work.)

Anyway, I assembled the ingredients and turned on the virginal oven to pre-heat it. I then left the room. When I returned, both the kitchen and the living room were filled with smoke. Nothing was ablaze, luckily. It was just all the dust that had accumulated inside the oven being incinerated.

I ordered Chinese that night.

Because I don’t cook, I also have problems in supermarkets. I once arrived at the checkout counter with a cabbage that I had thought was a head of lettuce. The clerk explained. I went to the produce section, put back the cabbage, grabbed a lettuce and started to go to checkout again. But I stopped in my tracks and went back to the cabbage bin and retrieved the one I had left there. Its having been selected and then abandoned, I was afraid it would feel rejected. (Hey! How do you know cabbages don’t have feelings?)

As I recounted in an earlier column concerning “pet clams,” I have always been lucky enough to have had significant others who don’t give a hoot about my lack of cooking skills. Either they were cooks themselves or they also preferred dining out. In NYC, where I resided many years, this is not uncommon.

But I have come to realize that not cooking can be a drawback to finding a soulmate in the Garden State.

One day, I was in the Midland Dairy, picking up essentials: Pepsi, cold cuts, Entenmann’s donuts, ice cream. As I was getting ready to depart, the woman behind the deli counter said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What?” I asked.

“Where are your White Castle cheeseburgers?”

I thanked her profusely for catching my oversight, and then I heard another customer say, “She reminds me of my uncle. Pepsi and White Castle cheeseburgers for dinner every night.”

“Really!?!” I said.

“This could be a match made in heaven. Is he married?”

And she said: “He’s dead.”

– Karen Zautyk

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