Real phone-home cooking

"Mom, how do you bake a potato?" My daughter's voice on the telephone was in a whisper. She was making a meal to impress her boyfriend, and it was approaching 6 p.m.

Time, they say, is of the essence. But I know that with her I must start at the beginning.

"You have the recipe book in front of you?" I asked.

"Umm-hmm," the noncommittal whisper replied.

"And what are we making tonight?"

"Potato pancakes!" she said, grandly.

I stopped for a moment. Every potato pancake I've made has been made of raw potatoes - grated, blotted, and then mixed with a concoction that makes them stick together. Served with applesauce or sometimes cream, they have graced my table on special occasions. What type of potato-pancake recipe calls for baked potatoes?

"Baked potatoes?" I said. "You're sure?"

"Umm-hmm."

"Baked potatoes?"

"Umm-hmm. How do you do it?" she whispered, impatiently.

"Amanda," I said, "read me the recipe."

"Take four baked potatoes - "

"Slowly."

"Take four baking potatoes..."

"Baking. Not baked."

With that resolved, Amanda went back to cooking. Only later did I find out the potatoes were on the green side, and the finished pancakes looked like undercooked shredded wheat. She also had used the wrong size grater.

This was not the first of her culinary attempts. When still a young lass Amanda decided to make pancakes for breakfast. Knowing that the cooking oil was kept under the sink, she grabbed the first large bottle she could see. The smell of freshly roasted vinegar lingered in my kitchen for days.

It's my fault, perhaps. For me, cooking has always been second nature - as it was for my mother and her mother. I assumed my daughter would follow in our footsteps. Perhaps cooking ability has skipped a generation. That's what Grandmother says in tearful whispers when Amanda comes over to try her latest experiment.

There was the time she made twice-baked potatoes a new way, by skipping the initial bake. They were raw and rock hard. We used them to shoo crows from the trees. They packed a wallop.

The microwave became a new casualty when my daughter used aluminum foil to cover a dish of leftovers and then left the room to make a phone call. The resulting lightning fried the oven's insides. It was never the same. In fact, it seemed to quiver whenever she walked into the room.

But Amanda persisted, and soon there were two things she could cook well: Kraft macaroni dinner and a dish called "poutine," consisting of French fries, instant gravy, and shredded cheese. A year later she could thaw and reheat with the best of them, as long as there were instructions on the package. Still, I worried about what would happen when she left home. Could she manage on a Boil-'n'-Bag diet?

She is on her own now and has new victims - I mean test subjects - for her culinary mysteries. Lately she's been designing her dream kitchen, figuring that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em (and that kitchen gadgets must be the secret to success).

Her desire to wear a tall white hat and wow friends at a French restaurant still lingers. She even considered taking chef courses in college. I admire her never-say-die attitude, though, when it comes to learning the mysterious language of food preparation, and she is improving.

Some of her creations are outstanding, like her recipe for lentil, lemon, and feta cheese soup, which knocked us all for loop. (Even Grandma had to have the recipe for that one.) There's also her famous mashed potatoes with roasted garlic, second only to Dad's turkey at Christmas.

Still, every time the phone rings, I prepare myself. I stand with Fannie Farmer within easy reach, I take a deep breath, and then I answer the phone.

"Hey, Mom? Is Dad there? How do you cook a turkey? And what do you do with those things inside the white bags?"

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