Welcome and thanks for visiting the DOK Photo blog! I'm a natural light photographer serving Moab, Utah, and specializing in newborn and child photography. This is where I post sneak peeks of recent sessions, my attempts at memory-keeping, and sources of inspiration.
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

How I Learned to Cook: Part 3

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Wouldn’t it be nice if I could conclude by saying that I am now a great chef, supremely confident in the kitchen and experimenting with my own recipes? I’m not. I still get flustered and distracted easily while cooking. Still get overwhelmed while trying to plan a week’s worth of dinners. Still prefer the ease of baking compared to trying to get different dishes done at the same time.

But I am a cook. I learned, thanks to teachers and mentors, and the opportunity to try again and again. If you do anything almost every day for ten years, you can’t help but get better at it.

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It’s only a story to me because I never expected it, for so long consciously avoided it. And now I consider it a gift to be able to feed the ones I love, to gather friends around a table.

I saw how cooking in no way limited what else Brian might do. And once we had children, I suddenly cared twice as much about what ingredients we used and where our food came from.

So many of my fondest memories are centered around a table. I grew up in a household where, if Dad was home for dinner, all of his children had better be too. On Saturday mornings, my mother would make a large Irish breakfast and we would spend hours around that table, listening to stories about my mom growing up on Adams Street in Chicago. You can’t grow up Catholic without seeing the sacred in gathering around a table and breaking bread together. In Russia, we learned that even more keenly. When we came home, we lived for a few months with our best friends, also newlyweds, and took turns making dinner together every night. In Oregon, my friend Alison welcomed us into her home and to her family’s table so many times.

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I miss being able to call my mother with a quick cooking question, or getting a call from her about a great recipe she saw on TV and could I please find it online and send it to her. That’s how the hot corn dip I bring to everything joined our repertoire. I didn’t learn at her knee like some girls do. She was a busy cook and I wasn’t interested, but as adults it was one of the ways we connected best. I have probably called my friend Angie for her salad dressing with rice vinegar and a dash of Tabasco at least six times (why do I keep losing that recipe?). In Utah my friend Annabelle embraced cooking and baking, as well as inviting people to dinner---a lost art! And every time I bake her rum cake or make a salad with pork loin now, I think of her. I love the community of cooking, and the way food and memories intertwine.

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I have cherished recipes in my mother’s handwriting, my grandmother’s, my mother-in-law’s. I’ve loved Nora Ephron’s writing since I read Heartburn at sixteen, and eventually came to love Nigel Slater and Laurie Colwin as well. Michael Pollen and Molly Wizenberg, Ree Drummond and Jenny Rosenstrach. They have been my teachers and companions in the kitchen too.

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Ultimately, more than my mom or Brian, websites or cookbooks, these three faces have been my motivation and teachers in the kitchen. I hope someday they’ll be welcoming Brian and me to their table, where we’ll toast to new celebrations, play movie lines and try to get each other to say the word “what”---and there will be plenty of food and love for everyone.

31 Days button

This post is part of Myquillyn Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language, and this tangent, linked here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.


Monday, October 13, 2014

How I Learned to Cook: Part 2

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Source: lilyandval.com Find more great chalk lettering art by Valerie McKeehan there.

Welcome to back to my little detour during this month-long series on Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. I am obviously not going to get 31 posts written by October 31st, but you know what, I already have more posts (9) this month than any previous month this year. Progress, not perfection, my friends. And that same philosophy was the key to learning to cook for me.

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If anyone doubts that food tastes better at home, start with pico de gallo. There are few things that taste as good, or are as easy to make, and the large batch stuff from restaurants will never compare.

I enjoyed Brian’s cooking, and started, just barely, learning to cook while we were in grad school together. My job provided room and board on campus, but only for one. So we used my food card for lunch (and lots of Ben & Jerry pints), and Brian made us dinner. When he was gone during the summer, fighting wildfire, I experimented. I have no idea where I got the recipes (I didn’t own one cookbook), but I do remember making calzones for my friend Angie (there’s a photo from that meal somewhere!) and trying to make taco salad for my friend Triz. It was the early 90s and salad served inside a bowl-shaped fried tortilla seemed brilliant to me. Triz, whose taquitos still reign as the best ever in my memory, asked me why I didn’t just start simply. I was struggling to lower a metal can into the hot oil in order to shape the tortilla like a bowl as she said that, and thought she might have a point.

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Our kitchen in a USFS cabin on Mt. Graham in Safford, Arizona, the summer after we were married, 1994. It was actually bigger than the kitchens in our apartments on campus.

In 1995, we left for two years in the Far East of Russia as Peace Corps volunteers. And that is where I really learned to cook. Brian worked for the Russian Forest Service, helping establish a bare-root nursery in an area that had been devastated by wildfire, and I taught English to 5th through 11th graders at the village school. This meant that I got home about 90 minutes before him. So starting the fire and starting our dinner fell to me.

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Our sweet house on Dachnia Street.

The fact that we had only two small burners and our wood stove, no refrigeration beyond our windowsills and front porch, and no running water beyond what we carried back from the neighborhood well, meant that the pressure was off. It was actually easier to cook with the limited ingredients I could find in our village, or on our monthly trip to the city. There were no expectations. We were both grateful for any meal either of us put together.

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My friend Olga’s mother, pictured above, taught me to make pelmenyi. My colleague, Valentina Nikolaevna, taught me to make borsch. Fellow volunteers, spread out as we were, shared recipes. I lost about twenty pounds my first year as a volunteer, but gained most of it back by the end of the second. We adapted. Some aspects of Russian culture reminded me of my Irish relatives. Everyone was always offering you a cup of tea, and regardless of how little any household might have, they always set a grand table for visitors. We learned that even if our vocabulary and grammar  limited communication, food was a great bridge across cultures.

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A polaroid photo sent to us with a thank you note from a group of US forestry advisors who showed up unexpectedly at our door one day in Selikhino. They had been drinking with their Russian counterparts since that morning, and I remember trying to wrangle something to feed them. Here’s my gourmet dish, tomatoes with shredded cheese. I’m grateful for the photo---the only one I have of that kitchen.

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When we left Russia after two and a half years, we were sure of so many things. That we would never again complain about doing laundry in the US. That we would always buy fresh bread and loose tea, and make pelmeni at least once a month. Now, with sliced bread on the counter and box of PG Tips tea bags in the cupboard, we’re lucky if we make pelmeni once a year. But our time there did have a lasting impact in many other ways.

My friends in Russia taught me that the best cure for homesickness is being welcomed into another’s home. That bread and wine (or more likely Russian champagne) are better at overcoming language barriers than any pocket dictionary. That the best dessert is often a small bite of chocolate. That there is always room for one more at the table. That a cup of tea is the best medicine for almost all troubles.

I learned that cooking was a gift, and just as in gift-giving, it was the thought and intention that matter more than the recipe or the result. All of these were lessons I could have learned in my parent’s home, but sometimes you need to travel far from home to see the wisdom of your parents.

When we returned home, I still didn’t consider myself a cook but the difference was that I finally wanted to cook.

If you’re still with me on this self-indulgent trip down my culinary memory-lane, look for part 3 on Thursday.

 

31 Days button

This post is part of Myquillyn Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language linked here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

How I Learned to Cook: Part 1

 

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A side tangent this week, as part of my Write31Days series on Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. His kitchen patterns, whether it be the layout, the table, the windows (and he discusses each of those), all stem from his argument that the kitchen is the centerpiece of a home. Today, at age 44, I fully agree, but I spent much of life trying to stay as far away from the kitchen as possible.

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My parents, in Italy in 2004 I think. Aren’t they adorable?

One of my goals in life was to never learn to cook. My mother spent most of her life in the kitchen. She had nine children, one with special needs, and was married to an adorable Irish man, who never cooked. My dad loved my mom’s cooking, mainly because she cooked to his taste, and he was loathe to eat anywhere else or anyone else’s cooking.

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It’s funny to me that I didn’t appreciate the craft that went into cooking, but I did always appreciate the time and attention my mom gave to setting her table. My mom set a beautiful table, as did my grandmother. Arriving at my Nana’s apartment, the table would already be set with linens and tea cups.

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I remember buying those dishes in the above photo, one at a time from Pier 1, during the summer of my sophomore year of college. The A1 sauce and White Zinfandel crack me up. Decades before Instagram, I was already taking photos of our meals---well, not the food, just the pretty tables.

The first time we went out, Brian made me dinner. A man who cooks! This was completely novel to me. I made him dinner once that year, for Valentine’s Day, and it was a disaster. I misread the recipe, added 1 teaspoon of cayenne rather than 1/8th, to a stir-fry dish. Chivalrous man that he is, Brian ate it anyway. *Swoon*

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Our apartment in 1998.

When we got married, Brian chose most of the items for our kitchen. He was the cook. I was more of a baker than a cook, so I chose the white Kitchen Aid mixer. Twenty years later, it’s still a workhorse in our kitchen. We still use the same Calphalon pans that Brian picked out, and the same Dansk blue dishes that we chose together, the same Chicago cutlery knives we received as a gift. I am grateful for the Midwestern tradition of wedding showers, and how our friends and families helped set up our home. I’m grateful for Brian’s insistence on quality over trendy, and my mother’s motto that if you take good care of things, they last.

The main equipment of our kitchen hasn’t changed, but our roles in it have. I went from a woman determined to never learn to cook to one who normally cooks six nights a week. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss how I got past my fear of cooking, and why I’m grateful that I did.

31 Days button

This post is part of Myquillyn Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language linked here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.




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