I love the reality show Top Chef, and one of the challenges they occasionally pose to contestants is to cook the first dish they ever made. That always comes with strong associations and memories, of course. When they do that, I try to think back to what was the first dish I ever made?
I honestly can’t remember. Of course, depending on the day, I can’t remember what I made for dinner last night, so….
Anyway, I would’ve been cooking on my own around the age of 10, back in the early seventies. I probably made cookies, simple cakes, or various things like boil-in-a bag creamed, chipped beef (Don’t judge! Frozen food in the seventies was actually pretty good… Banquet Fried Chicken…yummmmm). Since mom worked, I usually made lunch for my father when he would come home at noon. Normally, sandwiches of some sort. Or soup. But my first dish? I have no idea.
What I do remember is my mother always cooking, and that was how I ended up cooking from the time I can remember (or can’t, as it were). Mom tended to involve everyone who was in the house — kids, visitors, whoever, in her kitchen, and it was a great place to be.
She also catered, and that usually meant all hands on deck (including my father who did a lot of lifting of pots and washing of dishes). We all helped, making cheese puffs, slicing fruit, setting jello molds, filling deviled eggs (and making sure every bit of white was clean). Things had to be perfect.
She was usually cooking buffets for up to 400 people. She had some women who worked with her if the party was big enough, but everyone got involved. It boggles my mind how she even managed it on top of a job and family. I did it once or twice myself, as an adult, before I went back to school in my mid-twenties. I did fine — I’d learned from the best — but it wasn’t my calling. I’m more of a cook-for-pleasure person. My one job in a restaurant kitchen (Friendly’s) lasted about 30 minutes — I couldn’t deal with how pre-formatted all the dishes had to be. Anyway, I had other goals to chase.
This fruit tray was one of her signature centerpieces that was always requested. This centerpiece was for our wedding, and was a fairly small one, actually. My sister and I still make smaller ones from time to time.
Then there were the holidays and the birthdays, which meant cookies and cakes. Mom made hundreds of Italian and Ukrainian cookies for holidays, many of which I still make. Then there were the cheese balls, another holiday standard. Sometimes she would have one of us mix the cheese, onions and spices since she had arthritis and it was easier for us to do.
I can’t count how much cheese I grated and mixed by hand in these old stoneware bowls that are in my kitchen right now. I made her cheese balls a few years ago for the holiday. They came out so good, and were totally addictive. I said out loud, “Mom, these are some really nice cheese balls” — and then burst out in tears because that’s what happens, even so many years after she’s been gone. But never fear, I had several cheese balls right there on the counter for comfort.
So, I can’t remember, exactly, what was my first dish, but I remember what my mom cooked and baked, and I know that whatever mine was, that it was likely one of hers, with her helpful hands close by, and her reminding me that the batter left in the bowl was a wasted cookie.
Here is Mom’s Cheese Ball Recipe — if you use it one of these days, send a smile up for Dot Stott to let her know how they come out (and feel free to improvise):
- Dot’s Cheese Balls
- 2lbs extra sharp cheddar, grated
- 2 8oz cream cheese
- 1 tbs Worcester sauce
- 2 tsp Lemon juice
- 1 grated med onion
- onion salt to taste
- Mix together well, form into mid-size balls, roll in finely chopped walnuts and serve with crackers. Decorate with a candied cherry on top for the holidays.
What was your first dish? Do you remember? Do you still make it?