When I was younger, newly married and living on Fifth Avenue, our neighbor, Matt Hillman, referred to me as the “MacGyver of the kitchen.” Matt had a television and we did not, so we often ate together. I would cook meals in exchange for time in front of his screen for The Simpsons and The X-Files.
Matt was overly impressed with what I could create with a seemingly modest list of ingredients. He used to joke that I could go in the kitchen with a package of pasta, sour cream and a banana and come out with a gourmet meal. That joke list of ingredients has always stuck in my head for how gross it sounded, but it got his point across.
I was good, but not that good.
I have always enjoyed cooking and I know that the alchemy that occurs for me in the kitchen is mostly based in a sincere desire to nourish and please the people for whom I am cooking. Every good cook knows that it is absolute love that goes into making things turn out well.
My family is filled with good cooks, so I have had a lot of experience observing the process. I enjoyed not one but two Thanksgiving feasts this year and they were both superb, crafted by an army of fantastic kitchen gurus. Feeding people is something we are simply good at in my clan. Of course, if you’re from the South, you probably have an equally talented pool. Maybe.
But, all of that holiday recipe magic aside, the alchemy that I am most fascinated with is what occurs with the remains of the meal. The leftovers. The stuff that is past prime time. The stuff that was never intended to be eaten at all. This is where the real talent comes in, and I would propose that this is true both in cooking and in life.
There is nothing better in the world than soup made with the carcass of a perfectly cooked bird. A lot of people throw that stuff out, but anyone worth their salt in the kitchen knows that the real “meat” of the turkey flavor is trapped in that seemingly worthless frame of the bird.
My mom was the best cook that I have ever known when she was in her prime. She taught me better than anyone how to stretch a dollar in the kitchen by multiplying the good that came from whatever she bought. A veritable fishes and loaves scenario played out in her kitchen on a regular basis.
A perfect example of what I am referring to is her homemade whipped potatoes. They were absolutely delicious, fluffy, and buttery. But, what I loved most of all were the fried potato cakes she would make with the leftovers. Golden and crispy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside and flecked with little bits of onion, they were heavenly. Everybody knows that leftover mashed potatoes aren’t that good. They lose their magic once they have cooled and stiffened. No amount of heating and stirring can bring back that fresh character. The ability to turn them into something I liked even better was a true super power in my mind.
Over the last several years, health issues have made it hard for Mom to get in the kitchen and since her stroke last year, cooking is decidedly a thing of the past for her. That doesn’t stop her from scanning recipes and imagining what would make the perfect menu for every special occasion that comes along, and my sister and I are happy for her ideas and years of influence on the matter as we plan our own feasts.
The ability to continue to enjoy something that she can no longer do is a tremendous example of turning seemingly worthless remnants into something wonderful. That is where true talent and grace show up. When we can find that kind of alchemy, things we never imagined possible will come about.
Mom has talked of putting together a cookbook with her collection of recipes and lessons learned over the years. I hope that she will continue to work in that direction because I know that her ability to make something out of not much is absolute. She has proven it over and over again.
I can only hope to bring that same talent to the areas of my life that seem worthless and unclear. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in what seems impossible and lose the will to work towards what we cannot imagine. Here’s hoping for each of us the joy of reinventing our circumstances into unimaginable outcomes. Let’s all work towards turning the worthless remnants into wonderful creations this holiday season.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.