My Grandmother Padgett was a marvelous cook. Even now, I drool at the thought of her walnut pound cake and the dark chocolate covered coconut candy she served. And it wasn’t just the sweet treats she excelled in. Her roast beef, chicken and dumplings, and angel biscuits were unsurpassed.

My other grandmother, Grandmother Clyburn, was my mother’s mother, and her cooking must have been fair (like mine?) because I never heard a single person brag on it. In all my years of knowing her and being in and out of her home, I don’t recall ever tasting any of her kitchen creations except toast and eggs. She broiled the toast after smearing it with real butter, and I loved it.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a mediocre cook at best. I can do it, but I don’t look forward to it like some folks. In fact, the idea of preparing a delectable dinner with several dishes is daunting to me, and I’m wondering if that’s why I’ve gravitated towards hosting holiday drop-ins with tasty finger foods for the past couple of years.

Last week as I began putting Christmas paraphernalia away, I came across three sets of Christmas china, none of which I had used for a “sit-down” meal,” a good old-fashioned family event. What is wrong with this picture? I asked myself.

Knowing I was going to see two of my three children over New Year’s weekend, I decided to prepare a traditional meal that included black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread. We set the time for late Sunday afternoon, and I was filled with anticipation and honestly, a little bit of dread. What if my plans for around the table sighs of gustatory delight backfired?

My daughter Elizabeth, always organized, helped me plan and gather what I’d need. With ham, rice, cornmeal, buttermilk, green beans, and spinach, we felt good confident about the meal.

That’s when the self-doubt came to call.

I felt like something was missing, so we dropped by the Piggly Wiggly  at Market Commons. They have the best deli in South Carolina, and I chose a loaded baked potato salad, a Waldorf salad, and a small chef salad to supplement our Sunday feast. Armed with the essentials for a memorable New Year’s meal, I was content.

But here’s what happened:

  • The rice that I had so cleverly prepared with chicken broth was a solid, gummy mass of goo. Apparently, I forgot to burn off the burner.
  • The ham was incredibly salty. Also, I had heated and added a glaze that was much too spicy. Live and learn, right? I won’t be doing that again.
  • The Waldorf salad had too much celery, and I removed each tiny piece of it and then added a sliced banana for that mellow taste. Everything was fine until little Ethan announced that he didn’t like the “white things” on his apples. Despite his mother’s reminders that he liked coconut, he couldn’t be persuaded to eat one bite.
  • The green beans in the steamer bag were so green that they looked almost artificial. They were waxy and chewy and tasteless, the latter because  because I forgot to add seasoning.
  • The loaded potato salad that looked and tasted so good after being warmed in the oven for a few minutes became a soupy mess after being forgotten for another half hour.
  • The cornbread was so-so without my mother’s cast-iron frying pan to bake it in.
  • The chef salad that was supposed to add some texture and color to the menu remained uneaten in its festive bowl. Without a drop of salad dressing in the house, the dish was unappealing.
  • The Star Wars cookies Elizabeth made were colorful and yummy.
  • I had planned to prepare spinach, but well, why waste the time?

My idea of having a traditional around the table meal panned out. We used plates that had once been my mother’s, and we decorated the table with Christmas items that had not yet been put away. The scene was pretty. But the food. Well, it was so unappetizing that the experience has helped me come up with my word for the year: IMPROVE.

Improve in cooking, writing, loving, painting, teaching, helping, and every other area of my life. Vying for first place was learn, but since that’s something I already make it a point to do every day, improve wins the day.

Has anyone else decided upon a word to guide behavior, thoughts, and feelings this year? If so, what is it? And why or how did you decide on it?

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