Who needs cookbooks when you've got a phone?

The latest power blender, electronic toaster, and remote- control grill are useful gadgets for some cooks, but my family couldn't cook without that basic: a phone.

When I get frisky in the kitchen and venture beyond store-bought pimento cheese, I call Mom or one of my sisters for detailed instructions. It took three phone calls before I could get my salmon cakes to cling together. If Mom's line had been busy any longer, we would have eaten salmon kibbles.

"Cooking by telephone" runs in my family. My Aunt Geraldine, who lives in Florida, once had a frantic call from her daughter Mary in Baltimore.

"Mom, I bought this ground beef three days ago. Is it still safe to eat?" Mary asked.

Her mother strained to see across several states and up the Eastern seaboard.

"Mary, if it's slug-colored and stinks, throw it out," her mother finally said.

When my niece Kirsten spent a semester away at school in England, it would have been much cheaper for her to eat out every meal than to attempt to cook, which required multiple phone calls. For Thanksgiving, Kirsten decided to fix a turkey for the other homesick American students, although she'd never fixed anything more complicated than cinnamon toast.

She called home, hysterical.

"The turkey's in the bathtub defrosting," she said. "What in the world do I do next?"

Step by step, her cooking coach talked her through the process, including plundering the bird's body cavity for its grab bag of giblets. Shrieks could be heard over the phone lines. The cooking lesson cost three times as much as the bird.

My husband, too, cooks by phone when he gets a sentimental hungering for one of his family's Mediterranean recipes. Thanks to a cordless, he's able to pluck the ingredients from the fridge and cabinet as his sister recites them. This means that he doesn't write down the recipe, so the next time he attempts boulettes, he calls again. It's a good excuse to spend quality (that means priced by-the-minute) time with his siblings, though.

My daughter, who is away at college, called not long ago to ask how to soften a rock of brown sugar for chocolate chip cookies. I don't know why she didn't call her grandmother directly.

"Do you have a hammer?" I asked her. "Oh, wait. Let me call Granny and I'll call you back." Mom's advice of a minute in the microwave with a cup of water worked much better. We really needed a conference call for that cooking lesson.

When someone in the family hankers for an unusual recipe, Aunt Iris often gets a phone call because she keeps an inventory of 200 or so cookbooks.

For example, my brother-in-law Dan lusted for persimmon jelly, and Aunt Iris had the recipe. A couple of weeks ago, he itched for old-fashioned scrapple - and that's not something you find in the Pillsbury Bake-off cookbooks. Finally, he called Aunt Iris, who dipped into one of her Ozark cookbooks.

"First, boil up a hog's head," Aunt Iris said. "When you're finished, call me back for Step 2."

I hope Aunt Iris isn't still waiting by the phone.

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