Mom was a good cook.
No, I take that back. She was a great cook. She could take a little hamburger, a few potatoes and some canned tomatoes and whip up a feast that would make Bobby Flay weep. And the things she could do with a chicken … well, it makes my mouth water to think about it. Her homemade chili sauce was second to none. Her bottled peaches were better than candy.
And I once offered to make my sister Kathy's bed for a week if she would give me the last slice of toast made with Mom's homemade bread and slathered in Mom's homemade apricot-pineapple jam.
Kathy wouldn't go for it. She preferred to eat the toast — infuriatingly slowly — in front of me, watching me suffer with each exquisite bite. If memory serves, that was the same day I tried to kill Kathy with a crutch. If I had succeeded, all we would have had to do was give the judge a taste of Mom's homemade bread and jam, and he would have ruled it justifiable sistercide.
No doubt about it, Mom was a great cook. Most of the time.
But put a beef steak in her skillet, and she turned into the anti-cook. She could take the finest, most perfectly marbled ribeye and turn it into a hunk of protein with the flavor and texture of shoe leather. Of course, it wasn’t intentional. She really did try, bless her heart.
The night before I was married, she thought she was giving me a special treat by preparing a thick cut of top sirloin. Instead, she gave me a case of gastric distress that lasted throughout the honeymoon.
Tender? I think not.
Several months later, my big brother Bud took me out for lunch and ordered steaks for both of us. I wasn't thrilled, but since he was paying I figured I could choke down a few bites. When the waitress served our steaks, I was surprised at how good they smelled. Mom's steaks never smelled like that. The first bite was a charbroiled epiphany, a revelation of sizzling flavor.
Suddenly I understood why others spoke of steak fondly. I devoured my steak greedily and stole a bite of Bud's when he took a second trip to the salad bar. I was a born-again beef-eater and that steak was my first communion.
"You know," I said to Bud, patting my stomach contentedly, "I used to think Mom was a great cook. But it's hard to believe her steaks come from the same animal as these steaks."
"Mom is a great cook," Bud said. "But think about it. She grew up during the Great Depression. That's when she learned to cook. How often do you think they had steak?"
"Probably not very often," I guessed.
"Probably never," Bud said. "And when I was little and Dad was in the service, I don't remember ever having steak. It's only been recently that they could afford to buy steak. So it isn't that she isn't a good cook. It's just that she hasn't had a lot of experience cooking steak."
So my mother had a weakness in the kitchen. It was difficult to wrap my brain around that concept, especially the next Sunday after we enjoyed one of Mom's incredible fried chicken dinners. But then it occurred to me … so what?
“Great” doesn’t mean “perfect.” It just means “great.” Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher, but he still lost 87 games. Dustin Hoffman is a great actor, “Ishtar” notwithstanding. They say Luciano Pavarotti occasionally struggled with his lower register. And my mom was a great cook even though her steaks weren’t.
Great, that is.
It’s that way with all of us, isn’t it? Even our strengths have elements of weakness. That’s why great athletes still practice, great actors still rehearse and great pianists still run scales. Because when it comes down to it, greatness isn’t something we are; it is something we become. And that process of becoming includes learning and growing through both success and failure.
And, occasionally, gastric distress.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com, Twitter: JoeWalkerSr