I was literally a latchkey kid. I may have been the prototype. I remember walking home in the first grade with a house key on a chain around my neck. Although, now that I think about it, it may have been a backup key since I had two older sisters. Honestly, I would have traded a house key to a cool teenager in a ski mask for a Hot Wheels car in a Nashville second.
So, this was the reality and the routine of my childhood. I lived in a single-parent home. My mother worked and there was no money for a sitter. From the time school ended until the time I heard my mother’s beater car turning onto our block and sprinted inside to “clean” my room was a span of 4 or more hours, an eternity in precocious child moments.
My oldest sister was in charge, and my other sister was her capable second-in-command/enforcer. I am amazed that we didn’t all die . . . at each other’s hands. I didn’t meet a kid who lived in similar circumstances until I was almost in high school. Looking back, it seems like we were on the bubble of a weird socioeconomic experiment. We didn’t mean to tear down the fabric of the American family, honest we didn’t!
Anyway, it was all very normal to me and apart from the obvious downside, I learned to be creative, inventive, resourceful and self reliant. In other words, if I really wanted it, I would first have to figure it out and then make it. This is how I learned to cook and make homemade . . . um, “hand crafted” fireworks. We should probably concentrate on the cooking.
Liam Neeson has his “particular set of skills” and I have mine. He can rescue his witch of an ex-wife from a team of assassins in Taken 2 (Seriously?!!!) and I can cook your leftovers and you will like it. A subtle difference, perhaps just a nuance, but I will err on the side of practicality.
Since I brought it up, let’s talk about my credentials. In the words of Sonny Bono (and I paraphrase), “I’ve never been qualified to do any of the things I’m really good at.” I learned most of what I know based on trial and error, over a long period of time, under circumstances that required me to literally eat my mistakes.
I later learned the power of food. If you appreciate good food, it’s not always economically possible to eat out that often. Also it’s my heartfelt belief that every young man should learn to cook. You’ll get a second look if you know how to cook, son. Cooking for or with your wife or girlfriend is a very intimate thing to do. You’ll find in short order (unintended puns are no less painful) if you work well together.
I’ve been cooking for a while now so at this point I can basically improvise meals based on whatever food happens to be in the house.
Here’s a little story in the form of a recipe that I think will help me show you some of the lighter side of being a latchkey kid and perhaps how to cook more creatively.
At age 4 I invented the sugar sandwich. Here and now for the first time anywhere I will divulge the recipe.
Step 1) Run inside the house. If there is a screen door between you and “inside” be sure to whack it firmly with both outstretched palms so that it cracks into the adjacent wall and slams behind you as you pass. The sound of the spring recoiling is worth the extra effort.
Step 2) Grab the nearest kitchen chair and slide it across the floor until it’s in front of the refrigerator.
Step 3) Climb up onto the chair and jump up and down until you can snag the end of the bread sack and pull it down (usually onto the floor).
Step 4) Take the chair and the bread over to kitchen table. In our house the butter dish and the sugar bowl were usually left out from breakfast. This little family idiosyncrasy probably shaved years if not a couple of steps off the invention process.
Step 5) Find a spoon. This was more of an ordeal than you could imagine. I liked to use the clean ones.
Step 6) Stand in the chair, take out a piece of white bread, jam your spoon into the butter , smear butter on the face of your bread slice, jam your spoon into the sugar bowl, smear the granules onto your buttered bread and quickly fold to prevent the loss of sugar.
Step 7) Jump down out of the chair and run back outside.
The last step is both necessary and unavoidable because a sugar sandwich is rocket fuel in a 4-year-old body.
If you are interested in the cleanup steps for a sugar sandwich you’ll have to take it up with my sister. I’m pretty sure it didn’t occur to me. This probably also marked the beginning of the “glance of contempt” followed by eye rolling behavior on her part that probably saved my life on at least a dozen occasions. Sometimes you just need someone to point out that you are about to die in an ironically stupid manner.
Obviously, this is not a recipe that you would ever want to attempt but it does illustrate a few points (other than it sucks to be 3 feet tall) that I find are fundamental to cooking or at least creating interesting food. The first observation is that things that taste good to you separately might taste good together. From here we start to experience and retain different combinations of things that taste good together and things that do not.
From my early experimental sandwich phase, I can tell you that peanut butter and mayonnaise are oddly good together. I can also relate from personal experience that milk and orange juice should never be mixed directly together and consumed owing to an unpleasant chemical reaction. Speaking of chemical reaction, here’s another latchkey observation. Tab, a popular diet drink of the day, tastes bitter. Sugar is usually the cure for bitter. However, if you pour sugar into Tab, the result is not a coke. The mixture produces a volcano-like eruption of brown fizz that spreads out to about 4 feet in diameter. It also produces sharp feelings of fear and dread in the young alchemist. Take that – whoever thought of soda and Mentos!
Some ingredients do not taste good at all but rather have hidden potential and must be mastered in combination with other ingredients that are not the stuff of instant gratification. I remember the time I climbed to the top shelf of the pantry and discovered the Baker’s chocolate. I think that was the day I invented a dish I call the “chocolate spit take”. By then I was cleaning up my own messes and doing my own laundry.
You may have noticed that no measurements are given for the sugar sandwich. This “recipe” consists entirely of flavor elements. Since the bread is already cooked you don’t have to worry about any construction elements or ingredients that give the finished dish form or consistency such as flour or baking powder or liquids. The construction elements you generally have to pay closer attention to. The flavor elements you can generally have some fun with, and personalize your cooking. If you are the type of person who would stress about how much sugar to stuff into a bread and butter fold-over sandwich, you probably wouldn’t make one in the first place. The principle point here is don’t make a sugar sandwich and do improvise with flavors.
Lastly, the “recipe” follows a recognized form, (in this case a sandwich) but is not confined to the traditional sandwich ingredients.
This is the essence of improvisation in cooking. Figure out what tastes good together. Know what you can substitute for missing ingredients or ingredients you don’t like. Learn some basic recipes that you can constantly reinvent. Learn what the ingredients do/how they react with other ingredients. If you are baking, know how dough is supposed to look and feel.
Okay then, let’s take a recipe for something pretty simple and I’ll add some color commentary with the ingredient list. To me, this is a good basic recipe and an excellent place to start since I never really follow a recipe.
This is the Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie recipe:
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4cup packed brown sugar
This recipe already calls for both kinds of sugar but this is something I do pretty often with cookies and cakes to give them a different more earthy sweet flavor. Be careful not to add too much brown sugar to cakes because it can make them too dense. Honey is also a good sweetener but you will need to add more flour to stiffen up the dough. I added some flavored coffee creamer (roughly one dash) and had to add more flour.
- 1 cup butter or margarine, softened
- Stick with the butter (another inadvertent pun)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Try doubling this amount. Works really well with the sugar and the butter, and it makes people wonder why the cookies are soooo good.
- 1 egg
- 2 1/4 cups Gold Medal® all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
I don’t usually alter these ingredients or their measurements because they don’t affect the flavor and can really mess with the consistency. I will add more flour if the dough is soupy and more of a liquid ingredient if the dough is too dry.
- ½ teaspoon salt
Here’s a good tip. I always like to add a little savory (salty) with the sweet and a little sweet with the savory. Even if this recipe didn’t call for salt, I would have added it. On the other hand, a pinch of sugar in your tomato based spaghetti sauce will cut the acidity and deepen the savory quality.
- 1 cup coarsely chopped nuts
- Coconut is really good too.
- 1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips (2 cups)
Milk chocolate chips are good too. Mix in some peanut butter chips or even chop up a candy bar.
- Heat oven to 375ºF.
- Mix sugars, butter, vanilla and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt (dough will be stiff). Stir in nuts and chocolate chips.
- Drop dough by rounded tablespoonsful, about 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheet.
- Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light brown (centers will be soft). Cool slightly; remove from cookie sheet. Cool on wire rack.
Of course, I usually follow the heat and timing directions.
In closing, allow me to make some sweeping generalizations. If it tastes good to you, it will probably taste good to others or they can make their own damn dinner. Just about any leftover will make a pretty great omelet. If you have flour, butter and salt in the house you still have food in the house. And, if you can’t fix it with bacon, butter or sugar, throw it out.