Latest from The Spokesman-Review
The routine is always the same.
I walk into our kitchen, a place that is deeply familiar and filled with all the pleasant associations of my family, and I pull out everything I will need. Methodically, listening to the radio or letting my mind wander, I chop onion, celery and carrots into the mirepoix that will form the base of a pot of homemade soup. Sauteing the vegetables, I separate two, three, sometimes four garlic cloves and chop them, tossing the aromatic pieces into the olive oil and butter with the other ingredients. Then I fill the big pot with stock, chicken or vegetable, add seasoning and put it on the stove to simmer. Sometimes I add leftover chicken but usually it is meat-free. In an hour or so our meal is done. I slice the bread, set the table and call out that dinner is ready. We pick up our spoons, take the first sip, and I know I am home.
Food, as we all learn quickly enough, as newborn babies crying out in hunger and frustration, does more than just feed us. Food comforts. Food connects and unites us. It brings us closer and broadens our tastes. Food carries us forward and, as we get older and years escape us, reminds us of the past.
In some elemental way, soup captures all of that for me. It is simple, inexpensive and quickly prepared but it carries so much more than just flavor.
For years now, after returning home from a trip, especially when no one could get away to come along with me, I’ve made soup when I got back and I’ve come to realized it is more than an act of putting food on the table. Sometimes, when I grabbed a cheap fare and took an impulsive journey, giving in to the temptation to travel, the meal is part apology. Other times, when my work took me away and I was busy and frustrated, it is part recompense, a way to make up for my short absence.
But always, whether anyone sitting around the table knows or even cares, the act of making and sharing a pot of homemade soup, of gathering over the savory fragrance of simple ingredients, is an act of love. It is a way to say leaving this place and these people always hurts a little. And that coming home to chop and and stir and season a meal to feed them, somehow feeds me more.
For more about travel and homecoming, read Traveling Mothers
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
BACKPACKING – Backpackers who are tired of Ramen and balk at plain instant oatmeal might benefit from the free clinc on backpack cooking basics Thursday (July 19), 7 p.m., at REI in Spokane.
Topics to be covered include recipies as well as preserving, preparing packing and cooking tasty meals that won’t weight you down.
My former colleague Jamie Neely, who is now an assistant journalism professor at Eastern Washington University, sent along some links to some videos her students have been producing for the student newspaper.
“Dorm Gourmet,” she said, is an “authentic student perspective on dorm cooking, and our students are having a riot producing them. Perhaps even a sophisticated foodie like you would get a kick out of them, too.”
I did. And I can't resist sharing them here.
They are clever and a little goofy at times. I love the unflinching look at what is really being eaten in Eastern Washington University dorms punctuated by trendy descriptions. Notice how few pots and pans there are to wash.
My favorite scene? When cook Josh Friesen can't find any place to drain the bacon, so he just dumps it all right into the dish.
Friesen tackles some complex dishes in the videos which feature Tuna Ramen Casserole, Easy Cheesy Beef and Bean Burritos, Chili Mac with Bacon and Bag Omelets. (And by complex, I mean there is more than one can and/or bag to open).
Here is the link to the Easterner and the Dorm Gourmet videos.
Keri Yirak wonders how many cooks burn one particular dish every time they make it.
She noted that her mother has been burning cornbread muffins since the dawn of Man.
And Don Moore wondered how cashiers feel about it when a customer reaches into a pocket and extracts some bills so incredibly wadded up as to be almost unrecognizable as money.
I guess you can't “boil” it down to seven deadly sins, or even Ten Commandments, but this list of the most common cooking mistakes from the folks and Cooking Light certainly reminded me of kitchen transgressions I occasionally commit and then must atone for. I plan to bookmark and read periodically.
Which ones are you guilty of committing most often? (I tend to crowd the pan, Mistake No. 10)
What percentage of people who received a nifty new chef's knife for Christmas have already cut themselves with it?
I keep very few cookbooks on my shelf for easy access. “The Joy of Cooking,” an old church cookbook with some favorite reipes, two of Alton Brown's books. And my cooking bible, a.k.a. “How To Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman.
I love HTKE for its simplicity as well as for its flexibility. Need a standard pancake batter recipe? It's in there. Don't have buttermilk? Substitutions are in there. Don't have overnight to prep? Quicker procedure is in there. That's just scratching the surface of the book's usefulness.
For some time, there has been an app for that on iTunes. Utility literally at your fingertips. But being a spendthrift, I hadn't gotten around to purchasing it.
Now I don't have to. Starbucks has chosen the iPhone version of How to Cook Everything as it's “pick of the week.” So go get the download card at your closest Starbucks, download the app and have a cooking bible at your fingertips. And save $4.99 in the process.
BACKPACKING — Tired of Ramen? Too cheap for freeze-dried?
Get tips for organizing and preapring fun, easy meals on your next hiking adventure during a free intro to backpack cooking program Thursday, 7 p.m., offered by the staff of the REI store at 1125 N. Monroe.
The program will touch on preserving, preparing, packing and cooking tasty meals that won’t drag you down.
CAMPING — Get tips for organizing and preapring fun, easy meals at the campground during a free intro to camp cooking program Thursday, 7 p.m., offered by the staff of the REI store at 1125 N. Monroe.
Next week at REI: Backpack cooking basics.
From the first time I stepped into her kitchen, Char Zyskowski became a special friend. I was a freelancer, relatively new to the area. I’d gotten a tip about a chef who held cooking classes in her home on the South Hill. I called, we talked, and then arranged a time to meet.
The thing I remember most about that day is the fragrance that met me at the front door. Savory. Spicy. Warm.
Char welcomed me and invited me into the kitchen. She told me to sit down at the table and asked if I would like a bowl of the soup she’d just made. I declined, saying it was against the rules. She stopped, turned around and looked at me.
“How can you write about what I do if you won’t eat what I make?”
I shrugged off the rules, picked up my spoon and I was lost. It was the most delicious meal I’d ever tasted.
Over bowls of soup and a basket of crusty homemade bread, we talked. She told me about the decision, at 49, to create a new life. About how difficult it had been to be separated from her husband and children.
I’ve never forgotten how her face glowed when she talked about her delight in having her husband there with her from time to time.
When he came to Portland, she told me, everything was a little better. “The lights came on,” she said with a smile.
She was a little nervous about the story. Worried that her neighbors would complain. She’d just started teaching the classes and didn’t want traffic to be a problem. By the time our meal and the interview were finished, I was head over heels. I signed up for her cooking class. And then another. And another.
Char knew I had no real desire to be a fantastic cook. I just simply loved being in her home, surrounded by books and pottery and flowers, listening to her laughter and watching her do what she loved to do. I sipped a glass of wine and watched the others fall under her spell. I brought my adult children with me so they could learn the basics and feed themselves as they moved out of my home.
I trolled those cooking classes for interesting stories and met wonderful people. When I joined the staff of the paper, a controversial hire, I joined other reporters for more of her classes.
When we sat down at the end of the class, to eat what we had prepared, we were bathed in candlelight and flushed with satisfaction. I was, at those dinners, less of the outsider. She knew that, too. In the end, I learned how to make a good pot of soup and she crosses my mind each time I chop and simmer. I learned to make peace.
Char encouraged me, challenged me and, at times, comforted me. She asked me to help her write a cookbook.
I was at her table, with the newspaper staff who was preparing a meal for the family of my young editor who had passed away suddenly, when Char told us that she was having surgery the next day. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life. The news wasn’t good.
Over the next few years, as she continued to battle the thing that threatened her life, whenever I spoke to her, she showed the same strong spirit.
“When it comes back,” she told me. “I’ll fight it.” And she did. The last time I saw her she was smiling, enjoying a day in the park with her husband.
Several weeks ago, I was at the thrift store thumbing through books. I picked up one on setting a beautiful table. Just inside the front cover was Char’s name, signed in her own hand. Holding it I accepted that Char’s kitchen was closed forever.
I bought the book and brought it home and put it next to the notebooks from her classes; the spattered and dog-eared recipes she’d shared.
I was out of town when she passed away. Moving from one pocket of weak service to another as I drove through Yellowstone Park, I got emails telling me that she was gone. Staring out the window at the mountains in the distance, I said goodbye to a dear friend.
Over the years, Char Zyskowski tutored me. She encouraged me and inspired me. She fed me in every way.
Tracey Gist, an accountant in Sewickley, Pa., near Pittsburgh, used to eat out five nights a week with her daughters, 9 and 11. She started eating in when gas prices went sky high — she drives 40 miles each way to work — and has kept it up. “It starts with the gas prices, and then the price of food and then the heating bill,” she said “and the fact everyone is on the verge of unemployment makes you not want to spend because of the uncertainty of the economy.” Her children haven’t been happy about it. “ ‘We want to eat out,’ ” she said, mimicking them. “ ‘We don’t like your cooking.’ It doesn’t matter what it is if it doesn’t come on a menu.”