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First Cookbook
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Orr Spices

 

“My Cookbook’
AKA Cub Scout Cookbook
Pack 131 Columbus, Indiana
By Daniel Orr
First printing 1973
Numbers of copies 1

One day, while living in Manhattan, a manila envelope arrived for me. Enclosed was a letter from my mother telling me she had been cleaning her office. Included was a strangely covered pamphlet, in late “60’s” colors, enrobed in a waxy material looking and feeling like those old plastic tablecloths. The book was a Proustian Madeleine which allowed childhood memories to flood in and provided some reasoning as to whom I was and who I’ve become.

I wrote “My Cookbook” in 1973 as a project for Cub Scouts and had completely forgotten about it, but upon rereading I could see a deep connection and passionate interest in food even at that very early age. I also got a sense of how much my mother had influenced my interests and could feel her direction in those yellowing pages as I turned. After all, she was the “Den Mother” and had arranged the many foraging hikes and cooking demonstrations for the “Pack.” The books recipes, you see, weren’t the usual wantings of young boys. No cheese whiz on Ritz or BBJ’s in my tome. There were recipes for acorn bread eaten by the local Native Americans, muffins made from cattail pollen, and a cool sumac “Kool Aid” that I could almost taste even after a quarter century.

I had written sections for Bread, Butter, Seeds, Meats, Beverages and Sweets. It almost sounds like one of those minimalist menus popular at famous Manhattan restaurants these days. There were recipes for jerky, pemmican (balls of jerky, suet, dried fruit and nuts eaten by the local tribes) Persimmon pudding. We had wild persimmon trees growing in the wood, maple syrup, and magic window cookies. We had just made it through the 60’s, after all!

Yes, the memories came tumbling back. “Breakfasts in bed” that I had surprised my parents with on Mother’s and Father’s Day; fishing trips with my Dad where he and I had done most of the cooking; my first job in the restaurant business when my brother David and I worked and fought together in the kitchen for a summer at the old Walnut Room Restaurant in the basement of the Elk’s Club. All great memories. But there was also sadness. When my oldest brother, Tommy, died, it sent the whole family in a tailspin. I felt left to fend for myself. David had changed and seemed like he had to grow up and wanted to be my protector and not my buddy; Mom and Dad, in their grief, turned inward... unable to cope with their pain, or trying to protect us from it, I’m not sure. It was probably a combination of the two.

Time is said to heal all wounds, but first there is a scab that dries, protects and hangs on... softening and hardening and occasionally getting scraped, seeming to cause even more pain than the original cut. And what you are left with is not the beautifully smooth skin you started with, but a thickened, numbed and toughened patch that never fully returns to normal. That and a deep dull pain, like the beginning of arthritis on a chilly damp day.

So what is a kid to do but do what he does best? For me it was cooking and so I jumped into the deep-end. Cooking with a neighbor who was a professional chef, reading my mother’s cooking magazines, and watching the old Julia Child's black and whites were good things to do. I took a summer restaurant job as soon as I could, not just to earn spending money, but to get away from the sadness that invaded my heart. It is amazing how working as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant can make the hours fly by. Scrape, rinse, rack and push 'em through. Repetition can be a cure. You just work on your speed and set new goals and never let the plates pile high. I was happy in that job and I remember that the waiters and waitresses were happy with me too. I was told I was the fastest dishwasher they had ever seen. They never had to wait for anything when I was on the machine. Not like Jerry who had worked it before me. I felt admired, needed and loved.

I was quickly promoted to “chef’s assistant.” You see, the chef had been caught stealing a case of beef tenderloin out the backdoor, so the owner, Christine, took over the stove. She was the eccentric “Grande Dame” for a small midwestern town and I loved her for every one of her differences. Her big hats, bright make-up and European clothing were all so exciting and new for me. She was a woman who had been places and had a past. She inspired me to see more, feel more and want more. She also shared her passions with me and taught me that careers in food, art, and music were as important as any of the other professions that kids my age were considering. At the stove she spoke of France and she planted in me a seed of desire to go there, to live large, to be happy. That was the start of my culinary career and in many ways, the start of my life.

There have been times when I’ve felt so tied to the long, lonely hours in the kitchen. So much it feels like I’m in a strangle hold. Sometimes I feel that I’ve put all my eggs in one basket. And I’m tired of making omelettes! But when I think back to the little boy who wrote that book all those years ago, it all starts to make sense. When you are confused, you gravitate to the things you are good at in life elipse... the things that make you feel comforted, cared for and loved. Those few awkward pages of carbon paper typed recipes from 1973 may seem to have little to do with the man I’ve become, but in many ways, they have everything to do with who I am.

 

 

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