When I was in grad school, I had this friend Nealy. Nealy had already been a reporter and editor, and when we workshopped stories, she gave better feedback than most of the class. She started a book club I joined. She offered feedback on stories even after school stopped. Seven years later (!!) she now lives in Virginia Beach, where she, like me, works as a copywriter. Tuesday, while she was here in town for a conference, we met at her fancy new hotel downtown and when the talk turned to ebooks (she’s written several!), I heard myself saying that I hadn’t been able to read Written Together since the first day it published in 2012. So tonight, for Nealy and for me, I faced my perfectionism and fear and am now sharing chapter 1 with you here, alongside some never-before-blogged photos just to make it more fun. Should you want to keep reading, the e-version is still available on Amazon.
It started with an email. Tim shot me an unassuming note, wondering if I’d heard of a book he liked, saying how one of my posts made him think I’d like it, too. This was November 2009, a month or so after we’d already found each other’s food blogs and begun commenting back and forth with his “I like the look of this ricotta cake” and my “I so agree about the value of home cooking,” but we say it started there, with that email, because, in the same way you can be walking through a crowd and catch one person’s eye, and suddenly in the sea of strangers there’s this connection, this spark, so it was with that note. With that one letter, the initial tie was built between a high-ceilinged, light-filled room in a 1940s house Tim shared with roommates in Nashville, Tennessee and a quiet, sterile office overlooking a parking lot that I shared with one coworker in Oak Brook, Illinois.
No, I haven’t heard of that book, I wrote back to him. But, I’m interested.
The Deal with This Blogging Thing
When I went away to college, I was among the first high school graduates of the 21st century, the bright and hopeful, those who had worn ’00 on our tassels and who had the future wide-open before us. We’d been raised to want careers we enjoyed, work that mattered, opportunities to make a difference—what’s more, we thought it was possible. I was an English major.
Eight years, two degrees and a series of low-level jobs that ranged from secretary to string reporter to editing intern later, my grand ambitions had me managing a writing department for a real estate marketing company. It didn’t take long for me to learn the thing that everybody knows about most office jobs: they’re boring. From my corner cubicle, I wrote descriptions of people’s houses to help them sell without an agent. I created captions for living rooms and garages and big backyards. I engaged in hours-long conversations with clients about why they felt their descriptions weren’t right and fielded angry voicemails from sales reps who told me they could do my job better. It paid well, and I was writing, but the real highlight of most days was figuring out with my friend Becky, who sat across from me, what we would eat on our half-hour lunch break: Balsamic chicken from that Italian place? Pizza? Burgers? So a little over a year into the job, I got the idea to start a food blog.
In 2008, there wasn’t a lot I knew about blogging, just that some friends were doing it and I liked keeping up with their lives, but there was one thing I knew about starting. If I were going to launch a food blog—and my real estate marketing career said I needed to—then I had to start at the beginning, with the place and the person that had taught me to love food. In other words, I had to start with Grandma.
I grew up taking trips to my grandma’s home in Maywood, one of those classic Chicago suburbs with long rows of bungalows; and sharing her bed, where she’d scratch my back at night until I fell asleep. My mom was an only child, and I was the first and only granddaughter. Grandma was everything you think of when you think Italian grandmother, the kind of woman who can take the cheapest of ingredients and make them taste like four-star meals. When I’d come to visit, there would be homemade pizza and barbecue chicken and spaghetti with Grandma’s sauce, and, even when I was too small to know what was happening, she’d let me help by putting chocolate chips in the cookies or stirring her batter with a tall, wooden spoon.
At Grandma’s house as at my own, food was the center of everything else that happened: conversation occurred around the table, no room was more in use than the kitchen, the air always held the scent of some or the other recipe that was being tried. But at Grandma’s house, it was also a place where I was involved, where my hands helped create the dish we were eating. And when she died, it was this that I most felt the loss of, even though she’d been too sick in her later years to make cookies with me or to talk about the secret to a Thanksgiving turkey. I missed knowing I could count on Grandma’s kitchen, that simple place where I could go and find her waiting for me, laughing, an apron around her neck, standing at the stove.
My first post, written August 4, 2008, without a recipe or photos and titled, simply, “Beginning, for Caroline” read like this:
It was my grandma who first taught me to cook, first helped me spoon drops of rounded batter, plump with chocolate chips and sweet dough, onto cookie sheets at her kitchen table. She grew tomatoes in her backyard, made homemade pizzas, fed me delicious chicken on clear glass plates. Self-taught, she catered weddings, rolled her own cannolis. Cooking was her world; the kitchen, where she felt most comfortable.
And so it is for her today, on the ninth anniversary of her death, that I start this blog, in an attempt to pursue food, and the writing about it, with the same passion that defined her.
It was like she was cooking with me again.
A Long Line of Cooks
Like Grandma, my mom, too, loved the kitchen: when I was growing up, she made all our meals, had enough recipes memorized to cook without consulting them, was regularly praised at parties and get-togethers for her masterful desserts or fruit-filled Jell-O molds. Mom, who is all of 5’4”, blonde and known for only showing her tiny teeth when you get her laughing hard, leaned towards Italian-American-style dishes like her mother had, but also branched out beyond that. She’s subscribed to food magazines for as long as I can remember, has hundreds (literally!) of cookbooks lining her kitchen walls and has never had a problem embracing various cuisines, from French to Jewish to Greek to Thai. When she married my dad, a polished and self-driven Indian man raised in British boarding schools, she taught herself to make curries and papadum and learned at what markets to buy the best samosas, those pastries stuffed with stew-like vegetables or meat. When she’d eat at someone’s home and be served something she liked, she’d ask for the recipe and set to making it herself the next day. Even now, when I rave about a restaurant meal, her first response is usually something along the lines of, “I can make you that.”
It wasn’t until late in elementary school that I learned not all families operated this way and that, in some homes, the parents didn’t use the kitchens for much besides housing the plates and silverware they served takeout on. And while I’d be lying if I told you this wasn’t a great gift, this growing up in a home where the people who are cooking are not only capable in the kitchen but also love to be, I have to add that, also, growing up in a family of women who are called good cooks can be a little intimidating.
See, in the same way that some families are known for their business savvy, athletic accomplishments or undeniably good looks, my family—or, at least, the matriarchs—saw themselves as Women Who Could Cook, and that label, like all labels, has a way of paralyzing. For me, it meant growing up with a fear of the place that could yield so much praise.
By the time I was in high school, I wanted little to do with cooking, save for heating frozen pizzas or, sometimes, baking Grandma’s cookies. During my junior year, when my Grandma moved in with us because she’d been too sick to live on her own, sleeping on the bed we’d moved to my dad’s office on the main floor, where we took turns keeping watch all night, the days that I’d be in charge of bringing her breakfast meant Mom’s leftovers or, maybe, cereal with milk and bananas sliced on top. By the time she passed away in 1999, three weeks before my senior year, I was cooking almost never. My brother, 14 or 15 at the time, had become the one the family thought would run a restaurant someday; I liked it that way.
It wasn’t until 2008, exactly nine years after my grandma had died, that I got to thinking, what with the joy I found in my lunches and the pleasure I had in subscribing to food blogs and the way I still flipped through Bon Appetit and Gourmet, that, maybe, it was time to face my fears head on. Maybe now that no one expected me to be a good cook, I could give this cooking thing a try. Maybe it didn’t matter if I were a good cook or not, anyway. And, somewhere deep inside me, I thought, I don’t know, maybe it would be fun.
When Everything Was New
In the beginning, blogging was everything. It was restaurants and festivals and people I loved. I didn’t know much about cooking, just that I wanted to do it better, so I’d find recipes that interested me and try them, and, like them or hate them, I’d talk about them at the blog. I’d adapt ideas from cookbooks and see what would work and what wouldn’t. I’d ask friends for recommendations. I became the girl who brought baked goods into the office, who started a fire in her parents’ kitchen, who wasted money on failed frittatas and pumpkin pies. But along the way, I was learning—learning that cooking wasn’t an activity only the previous generations of women in my family could do; learning that if you keep at an idea long enough, you’ll see fruit; learning that the value of cooking was about more than what you had to eat at the end.
Whenever I talk to people who tell me about baking bread with their four-year-old or showing their kindergarteners how to make sauce, I think about this. I think about my grandma and about how she invited me into baking with her, and I think about those years of weeknights experimenting, by myself, at the stove.
There is more to cooking than eating. It is eating, but it is more than eating. It’s mixing butter and sugar. It’s watching dough rise. It’s pulling fresh muffins from the oven, the heat of the process warming your face and your hands as you move them to a towel.
Cooking’s like love.
Because while love is romance and dating and having someone’s hand to hold on a long summer’s night, love is also first emails and months of long-distance phone calls and seeing yourself with new eyes as you pick up your life and move into a new one. Love and cooking are not just the dinner everyone gathers around or the wedding that brings in friends from out of town. They’re the process—the spilled cakes and the broken hearts and the late-night fights on the sofa. You can want to cook because you want to eat, but you will love to cook also because of what it gives you along the way: the smell of tomatoes cooking down with red wine, the sound of butter sizzling in a pan, the way your hands remember how to mince a garlic clove, super fine, like they’ve done since the early days, when everything was new.
To continue reading Written Together, download your own copy here. Or to walk down memory lane with us, watch this promotional video my brother made for us a year and a half ago: