THE BLOG

Maybe It's in the DNA

06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My late grandmother, may she rest in peace, was very, very good at the things she was good at, and spectacularly bad at the thing she was bad at, which was cooking.

She could sew and knit and organize into oblivion, and she could draw and paint, and she had beautiful penmanship and made her bed so neatly and perfectly that you could bounce quarters off the surface. Every photograph she ever put into an album (chronologically, always, all of them) was labeled and dated, and she balanced her checkbook to the penny. She could crochet. Her collection of antique hatpin holders -- she had hundreds of them -- was kept spotless. She saved every dollar she ever had and could account for every dime she ever spent. She had the most beautiful long nails that she kept impeccably manicured in pearly bubblegum pink. But cook? My Bubby could ruin a bowl of cereal.

The three things you could always find in her refrigerator were artificially sweetened iced tea, powdered milk, and margarine. So you can imagine the shivers of unhappy anticipation that went through our bodies when Bubby invited us over for a meal. If we got lucky, she would have ordered in hoagies from her local sub shop (Sack o' Subs on Ventnor Avenue in Ventnor, New Jersey); if we were less lucky, she would have cooked.

Once, for brunch, she prepared pecan pancakes. Good news! Pancakes are hard to screw up! Unless, of course, you were my Bubby.

Somehow the batter was leaden and mealy. To this muck she added a fistful of pecans, which she had apparently been keeping in the freezer. A few bites into the heavy, sodden pancakes, we all had the sudden unhappy realization that she had neglected to defrost the pecans, so they remained frozen, trapped like icy fossils inside of the pancakes, where eventually they might have thawed in a day or so.

But let me not skip over the iced tea. Whereas most of the iced teas of my childhood were unsweetened and required added sugar, which would sink balefully to the bottom of the glass, Bubby's iced tea was like liquid Sweet-N-Low. The chemical aftertaste bothered me not at all -- in fact, it was the best part. She kept it in a glass pitcher painted with lemon slices, and it seemed to replenish magically, not unlike the always-full Lucite candy jar on her coffee table, which usually contained just peppermints and the occasional rogue butterscotch disk.

Some say we deliberately form our adult selves in reaction to our parents: either you create a life that is a replica of your parents' lives -- intentionally or not -- or you mold yourself into the opposite of what your parents were. Thus: messy parents beget an extremely neat child; timid drivers beget Formula One fanatics, and so on. In this case, my grandmother, the terrible, deliberately hapless cook, sent my mother full tilt into a gourmet rampage.

My mother can cook anything, but more importantly, she can improvise. If a gorgeous pile of tiny purple potatoes presents itself to her at a farmer's market, she will come home and whip up a purple potato salad garnished with herbs from her garden and serve it with cold roasted Moroccan chicken and some kind of lemony orzo and a stone fruit cobbler into which she has tossed some blackberries that looked good to her: a delicious meal created on the fly with the confidence of an excellent cook who no longer particularly needs a recipe.

My mother, obviously, was not born into a family of cooks and was raised (to hear her tell it, and I kind of believe her) on the most miserable gruel imaginable. But she married into a cooking family -- my paternal grandmother is a classically trained chef who hosted her own cooking classes at her summer place on the Jersey shore. It was my Muzzy who taught my mother to whip up the most sublime béarnaise sauce, the most gorgeous crepe gateau (layered crepes with red caviar, sour cream, tuna in oil, hard boiled egg, and other salty delicacies sandwiched in between crepes and sliced like a layer cake), the whole poached salmon layered with "scales" made of cucumber slices, and the richest chocolate cakes you could ever eat. She would sooner poke out her own eyes with a meat thermometer than toss a handful of frozen pecans into a pre-mixed pancake batter.

With her towering height and authoritative voice, Muzzy in her kitchen reminded me a little of Julia Child, though much better dressed. To this day she still has strong opinions about how to make matzah balls, which must be very, very light, and about how certain desserts like individual chocolate puddings must be served with an "underplate," a term that set off a firestorm of giggles at more than one Thanksgiving dinner.

I can only dream of one day being as confident a cook as my mother and my Muzzy, both of whom instinctively know their way around the kitchen and who know how to salvage even a botched recipe. But somehow I can't manage not to screw things up.

Dark memories still haunt me of the cupcakes I baked once for a friend's birthday, for which I mixed and matched two different recipes from the Joy of Cooking. The batter, which was yellow, was not especially sweet, and I further compromised it by letting it sit in the fridge for a whole day while I went about my business. The icing was made later with dark chocolate and sour cream, and while my love for bittersweet chocolate borders on the irrational, this icing ended up tasting like liquefied unsweetened baking chocolate, which even I found unpalatable. Paired with the cupcake batter, which yielded a dozen extremely dense, very crumbly, bread-like cupcakes, the icing was a gluey chocolate disaster.

But now it was too late: the birthday party was imminent, I had promised to bring cupcakes, and Sprinkles was not yet in existence. So I iced the cupcakes and decorated them, and they looked adorable -- happy birthday, mike! -- but they were so bad that I wouldn't let anyone eat them. By the end of the night, the frenzy of curiosity over the dreadful cupcakes overpowered my insistence that they were strictly look-don't-touch, so someone picked one up and took a bite.

The result? Frozen pecans, all over again.

Maybe it's in the DNA.

By Emily Fox