The proof is in the pudding -- or something like that

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By Steve Doyle

Sometime during the past 10 years, though excavation of my mind has yet to render the moment with precision, I made the daunting and deflowering decision to try cooking.

I’m not talking about microwaves or opening a lot of cans but of actually taking a recipe, attempting to enhance it and then serving it for the nourishment of family and friends.

I have been judicious and timid in those efforts, but so far, no one has died, though I fear that day could come.

Now you probably recall that I grew from a family that has an epicurean expertise throughout its lineage similar to those who have prepared food for the gods.

My paternal grandmother was a country culinary artist so gifted that some years ago I was moved to publish a volume of her recipes, both perfected and perpetually purloined, that I presented proudly to several generations of women in our family.

Though primitive and far more sentimental than diet-defining, that collection has remained a rudimentary reference for those who wanted to be inspired or at least take a taste-bud transcending trip to bygone buffet tables.

My loving and talented wife, God bless her, has taken it upon herself to celebrate my grandmother’s life of eternal goodness with a new tradition: Each year on the date of Mammaw’s passing, she prepares at least one item from that cookbook for a meal we typically consume on the old hardrock-maple dining-room set I inherited from Mammaw.

That table has held hundreds of meals for thousands of persons during nearly 80 years it has been part of our family, and the recipes passed upon it were often created with love as their principle ingredient. But there was plenty of other good stuff, too.

Just last week, we celebrated what we call Mammaw Day again – though we are not always true to the exact date – with her traditional broccoli casserole and homemade banana pudding.

My wife followed the recipes very finely, and the infusion of butter and other dairy products was something distant and unfamiliar to our digestive systems, formed on typically healthy diets.

But when we were eating the golden broccoli and cheese and the meringue-topped pudding, we didn’t much care.

Those two recipes have left diners at dozens of church and family events licking their lips and passing their plates back for seconds, and perhaps they are the most primary in a bill of fare that is far from exotic in origin but very near it in flavor.

That my wife’s  efforts were an exact match is no small feat, especially given the skimpiness of most of the directions.

Mammaw helped train and learn from many chefs in her life, though she would have insisted to you that she learned far more than she taught. Maybe.

But I submit her legacy is in the tasting: Some of her best work annually shows up on the buffet and dessert tables at feasts everywhere.

The meats are more tender, the vegetables more flavorful and those desserts are, well, more sinful, as my nephew’s new wife describes it. At Christmas, you have a hard time getting out of my mom’s house before a stop or two at the “table of sin.”

You may recall my heralding those prize-winning cousins of mine whose kitchen walls could be covered with championship ribbons from the county and state fairs.

They were both students and contributors to Mammaw’s legacy. She was so proud of their effort, and some of their best work lives on in that cookbook of hers.

So, with all that pantry pride in my family, you would have considered that cooking might have come as another chain in my DNA. But think again.

My cooking has seen plenty of trial and way too much error. If ever I were on the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsey’s extensive and colorful vocabulary would be exhausted quickly.

My dining offerings now include various items that are none too original, none too exacting and none too dangerous.

Until today.

As I type this, I stop frequently and dash from the couch to the stove, watching over my first foray into that somewhat difficult and delicate dish known as gumbo. My recipe is not stolen but is a fenced item from a cookbook written by my favorite novelist, Pat Conroy.

I have thus far made what appears a passable roué and am creating what smells like decent chicken and stock.

So what happens next, when those items come together with others, is a puzzle I find as challenging as a mystery, a map in a flavorful rally along a winding, precipice-edged byway.

When my family sits down to eat it, ladling the gumbo over rice and soaking it up with baked bread, they likely will be complimentary of my efforts. They seem to like what I attempt.

They won’t admit it, but their expectations are wonderfully fair, a bar I typically find a way to reach without bringing along poisonous aftereffects or intestinal insomnia.

And I am buoyed by both the possibility that they truly will like my creation and by the one inalienable truth that is the salvation of every man-turned-chef:

There are several cans of Campbell’s in the cupboard.