My mother is the best cook I have ever known. It's true, most of us would probably adopt this view of our mothers or our mother figures, but I think she might be one of the best cooks in the world regardless of my bias. When I was ten she began cooking the Wednesday Night Fellowship meals for the First Baptist Church. At first the Baptists were skeptical of my mother. The woman that cooked the meals before her was an institution at the church, and my mother had some very bigshoes to fill. My mother, without batting an eye, silenced even her staunchest critics. The quality of her meals caused a surge inWednesday Night Fellowship attendance. And when she stopped cooking the meals a little over a year later, the Baptists were disheartened, and Wednesday Night Fellowship attendance dwindled back to pre-mom figures. To this day I still have Baptists from those days come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my mother's cooking. My mother also catered privately for people who requested her services, and she cooked briefly for a Carthage bistro whose patrons still maintain she was the best cook that little restaurant ever had.
Any time anyone comes up to me and goes on and on about how good my mother is at cooking I just nod my head and agree. They are preaching to the choir. After all, I grew up on her cooking, and I know better than anyone the level of quality she brings to a meal. If I had to choose which of her strengths is the greatest in the kitchen, my choice would probably surprise you: her ability to constantly ignore the rules of cooking and let her intuition guide her. With my mother there are no recipes, no quantities of things, no durations or timers used to tell us when things are done. For her there is taste, sight, smell, and extra sensory perception. She uses the first three faculties to tell her when a dish needs more of an ingredient, and the last faculty to tell her when something is done. My sister calls her the Food Whisperer because it seems like the food just tells her when it's done. I maintain she just cooks with her senses and has faith in them. She can also use these faculties to prepare variations on old dishes or to create entirely new ones out of her imagination. Many of you would see this as a potential weakness, but trust me when I say that in her hands this talent is the basis for everything she is able to do.
Choosing one food from my mother's entire arsenal of food was one of two immensely difficult decisions I had to make during this exercise. My mother is one of those rare breeds of cook who can do both simple home style dishes and complex cosmopolitan dishes and do them extremely well. All of her strong home style dishes revolve around gravy (and in fact gravy alone was almost my choice for this exercise). Her ham and gravy is one of my favorite things on this planet. Her pork chops and gravy spurred one of the great debates in my family when she tried to prepare them in a way other than fried with gravy. My father calmly ate the resulting dish, told her it was delicious, but then famously added, "Don't fuck up my pork chops again." This created a decades–long debate on whether you should cook pork chops any other way but fried. She is one of three people in my family who excel at making biscuits and sausage gravy (my father and oldest sister being the other), and hers are my favorite because she crumbles pieces of fried bacon on the top. And these are just the homestyle dishes! Her strongest more cosmopolitan dishes are hard to beat too: seafood, artichokes, and linguini in a balsamic and olive oil sauce, grilled lamb chops in a lemon mint marinade,Thai influenced pork with basmati rice. And all these are just the tops of the lists, narrowly beating out the dozens of other things she cooks better than anyone else. You can see why my decision was so hard. I had to think about my choice for awhile, but eventually I came to a clear one, one that is solid, one I stand by above all others, she does better than anyone else – steak.
I told you my sister calls mother the Food Whisperer, well in the same spirit I often refer to my mother as the Steak Whisperer. My mom just knows how to cook a steak. She has this ability to take even the crappiest cut of beef, throw it in a cast iron or flat griddle (as God intended) and fry that hunk of meat until it is cooked perfectly. She understands it. She gets it. And she has tried on numerous occasions to impart her wisdom on me. She maintains the secret to cooking a perfect steak has nothing to do with the cut (though too much gristle in a steak is hard to overcome), or the time you cook the meat on each side. Rather, the secret is in the juices. You have to cook it unti l"the juices run clear." Like I said, she has tried to show me what this means many times, but the concept always eludes me. I recently talked with my oldest sister about this subject and she explained that she thought cooking a steak "until the juices run clear" was just what our mother said to hide the real reason she cooks such a damn good steak.
"And what reason would that be," I asked my sister.
"It talks to her and tells her when it's done, and she doesn't want us to think she's insane," she replied.
She was joking, of course (I think), but I don't think this idea is far from the truth. I think it all goes back to my mother's greatest strength, her intuition. I don't think the steak literally tells her when it's done, but I do think my mother has an innate sense of knowing when it's done. At any rate, whatever the reason is, if I had to choose one thing to eat that my mother cooked it would most certainly be steak.