The First Dish
The first thing I ever “cooked” was … well, something I didn’t cook at all. I planned the menu, though. And we all paid the price.
I was in my elementary school’s “gifted” program for a while. In the seventies, this was a place they put kids who either showed an awful lot of promise or a lot of trouble paying attention, on the grounds that maybe they’re just under-stimulated. I’ll let you guess which camp I fell into.
One of the books we read was Old Yeller. I know, right? Deep end of the pool for young kids. Now, part of the gifted program involved taking the literature we were assigned, and doing something different with it, often something tactile.
(As an aside, I think this is where I first heard about the different types of learning – at the time, classified as visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic. That fascinated me then and it still does today.)
One of the many things I wanted to be as a kid was a chef. Before they were celebrities, before they were world travelers. I just loved eating, and I loved reading about good cooking, and I wanted to share that with people. So, when I saw “cook a frontier meal” on the list of sanctioned activities, I grabbed it, then went home to tell my mother, bless her heart.
My mother’s a saint, and my memory is that we sat down to plan the meal we would serve to my classroom. It was all set out in the book.
A more reasonable child might have gravitated to the turkey suppers, or the pork which Old Yeller is introduced as stealing. A less indulgent mother might have insisted. But that wouldn’t do for me. We ate pork and turkey all the time, that wasn’t a frontier meal. No, we had to do something to show I’d paid attention to the novel, that I was invested in the process, and one sentence in the book had leapt out at me:
“After that, Old Yeller caught onto what game we were after. He went to work then, trailing and treeing the squirrels that Little Arliss was scaring up off the ground. From then on, with Yeller to tree the squirrels and Little Arliss to turn them on the tree limbs, we had pickings. Wasn’t but a little bit till I’d shot five, more than enough to make us a good squirrel fry for supper.”
Squirrel fry? Squirrel fry?
FASCINATING. MOTHER WE MUST DO THIS THING. WITH CORNBREAD.
Did I mention my mother’s a saint?
Now, our family wasn’t a hunting family. Dad was a scholar, not an outdoorsman, and this was before girls were encouraged to take up arms. Fortunately, one of mom’s friends had a son who hunted, and he was able to deliver a reasonable number of pre-skinned rodents without too much advance warning.
I have no idea if mom butchered them herself, or if they were pre-delivered as discrete chunks of protein; but I know for a fact she went the route of stew rather than fry, because the seventies were the start of the health-conscious craze and mom was right in the thick of it. I could tell you stories of tofu’s first appearance in the Midwest that would roil your stomach, but I digress. Stew she was willing to make, stew it would be, though I vividly remember she dredged the meat in flour, salt, and pepper before browning them to drop into the stew. I’d never paid so much attention to food prep in my life.
Potatoes, carrots and celery were staples. Black-eyed peas featured heavily in the book, so in those went, and a pan of cornbread to spoon the stew over. We drove to school with the unplugged crock pot feeling very proud of what we’d managed.
The class was excited, too, to have something besides the industrial lunches of the educational cafeteria. A room full of third-graders and their teacher, tucking eagerly away into a hot home-cooked meal, smug and self-assured. One of my classmates, about halfway through, mentioned that “this chicken stew is a lot better than cardboard pizza.”
“Oh,” I said, “it’s not chicken.”
I like to imagine the teacher paused here, spoon halfway to her lips. I do recall her asking, “Well … what is it, then?”
“Squirrel,” I said. Pandemonium ensued.
If you’re a parent, I want you to imagine this. Really imagine it. Today, as I understand it, a single peanut is classified right below an AK-47 in terms of no-nos for your children to bring to school. Try to picture your precious little Madison or Jayden texting you, “Ivan just made me eat a squirrel! OMG. And cornbread isn’t even Paleo!”
I don’t know for a fact that this faux pas got me removed from the gifted program. It’s possible that I just wasn’t keeping up.
But I do remember coming home with a lot of leftover stew, and I remember the phone ringing quite a bit that afternoon, and a few days later I was in a different program altogether. One which featured a lot more one-on-one time with a counselor.
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