By BEEBE BARKSDALE-BRUNER
My cooking talent is what I call creative, never ﬁxing anything the same way twice. If I have a recipe in front of me, I don’t follow it. I get ideas on shortcuts. I’ve been that way all my life. My ﬁrst grade teacher, Miss Redwine, noticed I was loath to listen and follow directions. I’ve spent 30 years experimenting, so I’m fairly certain of the culinary outcome when I take shortcuts and make substitutions. After so many years of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that even mistakes can be used later.
I now know that you can’t make peanut butter healthier by heating it to bring the oil to the surface. I believe this is the effect of hydrogenation: the oil stays where it is and can’t be poured off. Making healthy food is always my intention, but I got laughed out of the kitchen for the peanut butter effort, and my husband still remembers to bring up this episode when he feels like it. To strangers he might say, “My wife bakes peanut butter right in the jar.”
Amazingly, nine times out of 10 what comes out of my oven is edible and even quite good. I wouldn’t lie to you. I have gourmet taste buds. When we eat out, which is often, there are only a few restaurants that meet my criteria for healthy Julia Child-type dishes—well thought out and tastefully served.
A recent failure of mine: three large peaches, a little mushy. I’ll slice them for cereal, I thought. Then I realized how unappetizing they would look, having turned brown in the refrigerator. I couldn’t ﬁnd a bowl, so I sliced them into a baking dish.
At that point they looked something like the start of a brown Betty. I waited. Then, with inspiration, I dumped a third of a bag of brown sugar into the dish, mixed it with butter, added a good amount of biscuit mix, slid it into the oven and baked for 30 minutes.
When it came out, I must admit it didn’t have the gourmet look in deﬁned layers of fruit and crust, but after cooling it was the best peach pudding I’ve ever tasted! My husband and I licked the bowls clean while trying to decide what to call it.
I like to use my cooking talent for helping family and gifting, as long as I have the ingredients on hand and the preparation doesn’t take more than 10 minutes and doesn’t involve much chopping and dicing, which I hate. I must confess, I do like the “dump method” of cooking. Dump is self-explanatory. I’m sure you’ve heard of a dump cake. I could put the recipe right here, but use your imagination.
Recently my brother-in-law came home after shoulder surgery, his right arm in a sling. I wanted to cook something special—something that he could handle with just his left arm. Finger-food, so to speak. I went through my inventory of staples. Since he’d be laid up and on pain pills, I knew he would need roughage. I decided on whole wheat mufﬁns. I thought, I’ll do this the right way—from scratch. I wanted to keep his wife from worrying about his diet, since she is a working girl with little personal time. I added walnuts, grated carrot and raisins to my recipe-in-the-making.
I had a general idea of what constitutes a mufﬁn. But I didn’t have mufﬁn tins, so I got out a tube pan, thinking it would cook at the same rate because of the volume of the batter, two inches by two inches.
Blending all the ingredients, I was careful not to overmix and popped it into the oven at the correct temperature, unfortunately forgetting the melted butter, which was still in the microwave. In haste I jerked out the tube pan and stirred in the butter. It had been baking only a minute or two.
Of course, the resulting circle of bread was a disaster. It cooled. We tasted a heavy thing that wouldn’t be served in solitary conﬁnement with water. I left it broken in a plastic bag on top of the range. The bread lumps stayed there in plain sight for a few days while my subconscious worked on a solution.
It was blackberry season. Because of the dry weather we had not so much a bumper crop, but enough to make a ﬁne cobbler.
I crumbled the disaster on the bottom of a baking dish, dropped in blackberries next, then added butter and sugar—I forget exactly what my remedial actions were.
You can’t imagine how good it tasted, especially with the walnut crust. I congratulated myself. Why be bored with routine when you can have an exploration and learning experience?
Beebe Barksdale-Bruner is primarily a poet. This is her ﬁrst nonﬁction publication. She also has work and awards in ceramics and digital paintings.
Editor’s Note: This essay was a semifinalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.