A daughter’s pandemic request: Teach me to be a better cook

Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food writer and dining critic John Kessler recently traveled to Nashville to check on his daughter Mary during the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

There’s a special kind of worry you have for your kids when they’re old enough to take care of themselves, but not so far removed from your protection that you don’t still second guess their decisions. Is it really that bad that, every so often, you want to charter a helicopter and hover over them with a pair of binoculars? Now, add a pandemic.

Our youngest daughter, Mary, 22, has spent the past few months living alone in a tiny apartment in Nashville. When the virus started raging in New York, she was working in a restaurant and going to school. Her friends weren’t taking the threat seriously.

She did, though, and, as the virus made its stealth march south and west, she had to endure taunts for wearing a mask in public. Soon, the restaurant closed, the classes went virtual, and she began to distance herself from those not taking precautions. She holed up with her two cats, one of whom threw up every day. Our poor kid was going stir-crazy. Over the Fourth of July holiday, my wife and I drove down from our Chicago home to visit her.

We had been holed up, too, and found ourselves blinking at the bright expanse of the world beyond our neighborhood. Never had seven hours on the interstate felt so exhilarating.

We checked into the Graduate, a hotel down the street from Vanderbilt, where there was a portrait of Dolly Parton, and a chintz canopy over our bed. That augured well: St. Dolly was watching over us.

Mary came to meet us at the front patio. She had cut her own hair into a blunt bob and looked fit from the long nature walks she had been taking to pass the time. We hugged, awkwardly. Was it safe? We sat outside as the sun set, ordered a pizza and made plans for a hike and a shop at Target.

But, Mary had another agenda: She wanted me to teach her to be a better cook. She had good intuition and an assured palate: I still remember her as a 10-year-old telling an Atlanta chef that his sticky toffee pudding would benefit from a sprinkle of salt. However, she didn’t have a lot of moves beyond throwing things in a pan and watching it go. Plus, this: During the pandemic she had decided to become a vegetarian.

On the way back from the park the next day, we passed a farm stand and picked up some crookneck squash, heirloom tomatoes, sweet onions and eggplant. My wife retired to the hotel’s rooftop pool and sunbathed next to a giant bust of St. Dolly fashioned from hot pink chicken wire. God love the South.

When we got to Mary’s place, I surveyed the situation. She had one induction burner, a microwave, a Crock-Pot and a square foot of counter space. The cats looked at me dubiously.

“So, what are we cooking?” I asked. She had opened the fridge to show me kale, basil, a watermelon and some pinto beans that she had soaked and drained, and which now were sprouting. Plus, there was our haul from the farm stand.

"If there’s one thing cooking during quarantine has taught me," John Kessler writes, "it’s take your time." CONTRIBUTED BY JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

If there’s one thing cooking during quarantine has taught me, it’s take your time. For the beans, we got a pot going with onions, garlic, a big glug of olive oil and some dubious chili powder. “We’re not starting it fast; we’re cooking it slow,” I told her, and made her spend about 15 minutes stirring until the veggies went limp and silent as their orange oil released. “That’s yer flavor right there, ma’am,” I said in one of the stupid voices I use only with my kids.

We added the beans, tomatoes and water, got it to a good boil then threw it into the Crock-Pot to free up the burner. Mary had been chopping fast and consistently with a serrated steak knife, power-crying through the onions. I was impressed, so I thought we’d do something a little fancier for dish No. 2. “We’re going to cut the squash, tomatoes and eggplant all the same size, but we’re going to prep them differently,” I said, showing her how to salt the eggplant and drain it in a colander. The tomatoes, we blanched in boiling water, skinned, seeded and diced. The squash, we just cut.

Mary had a big skillet, and this was her jam. She knew her way around high heat and a quick sauté. She stirred and flipped the veggies and tore the basil over the top. Done. We then contemplated what we had left: kale and watermelon. Welp. They perhaps could be turned into something that, say, you’d order in a lifestyle-salad place after hot yoga. The curly kale was old and ornery and needed a massage, so, once I got Mary doing that, she took over and finished the salad with smoked almonds fished from the cabinet and a sharp balsamic/lime dressing. My wife showed up with cheese and crackers (as both a complement and a fail-safe, I think), so Mary nabbed some hard cheese to crumble in the salad. Good job!

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After their pandemic cooking session, writer John Kessler and his daughter loaded everything into plastic containers for a picnic. CONTRIBUTED BY JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

Credit: JOHN KESSLER

And, then, we loaded everything up into the plastic containers that doubled as bowls and took them over to the lot next door for a picnic. There was a dumpster, a perimeter of concertina wire, and a grassy spot amid the cracked concrete, where we settled. Nashville is so hard to figure out. The neighborhoods fit together like a tangram, with new construction filling every boundary once etched by railroad tracks and segregation. Mary lives right at such a fissure, between a food hall and a weed-choked teardown where homeless people take shelter. There also was a food truck serving Chino-Latino dishes, and a liquor store where people bought 40s in paper bags.

From our vantage point, we could see the downtown skyscrapers to the east and the pink-streaked dusk sky to the west. It was so good being together, and when Mary said she was sick of being alone and wanted to come home, it felt all kinds of right.

When we help get her set up in a new apartment in Chicago, the first thing I’m going to do is buy her a proper knife. She’s going to be a good cook.

John Kessler worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015 as a food writer and dining critic. He now lives in Chicago.

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