Cooking should be done with Verve and Dash. At least that’s how I cook. My family believes I should do a better job of sticking to the recipe. But I see recipes as starting points. Good guidelines for where to start, but not necessarily the road map for the entire trip.

Growing up my dad used to enjoy going off-road too. If he spotted a dirt trail inevitably he would drive down it. We would drive around for hours on these trails. Bumping through potholes, getting stuck in mud bogs, winding past farms and over mountains. It didn’t matter where in the U.S. we lived, Dad wanted to explore it and explore we did.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times we had to go cut brush down to put under our tires, or set up the winch to haul ourselves out of some hole. I’ve been up to my armpits in mud and seawater, had clay, sand, and snow spewed into my face by rear tires on more vehicles than I can count. And learned a great deal about perseverance and resiliency in the process.

My dad was a mechanic so we weren’t always in cars when we had these adventures. Over the 17 years that he was in my life we owned snowmachines, sandrails, dune buggies, motorcycles, three-wheelers, bumpercars, and every conceivable kind of truck and what are now known as SUV’s. I learned to drive sitting on his lap from a very young age out on those trails. I learned to parallel park in an old square box of a Land Cruiser with a board on top of two concrete blocks.

My first truck – which Dad got from a buddy on the boat – used more oil than gas and I had to clean the spark plugs with a torch twice a week. I also wasn’t allowed to buy it from him and drive it until I could change the spark plugs and tires, and do a complete inspection and oil change – including filters! – by myself.

Dad expected a lot.

Mom did too. She’s the one who taught me to cook.

By the age of 8 I could make mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, chocolate chip cookies, and similar bullet-proof dishes completely by myself.

At age 12, Mom got injured playing softball and was on the couch for the next three months completely unable to stand up. She played first base and an opposing player had slid right into her knee. Knowing Mom, I’m sure she tagged them out before limping off the field. She was like that. The base corpsman said it was just a strain and to ice it. She went and got a second opinion because her kneecap was floating all over the place and she couldn’t put any weight on her leg.

The civilian surgeon put her in the hospital and operated that afternoon. Every ligament and tendon in her knee was torn. Yeah. I learned a lot that summer. How to debone a chicken. Do the entire family’s laundry. Hold a pan under my mom so she could do her business. It was a learning curve. Cooking dominated though.

Mom almost never cooked from recipes. She had most of it in her head. So, I had to learn what she knew. Most of it was pretty much the same  => 350 degrees for x minutes. I’m smart and can memorize lines for a whole play when I have to. The number of minutes for a roast versus pork chops was easy. I also got to learn fried chicken and numerous fish dishes. (I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my dad was an AVID fisherman.) And Mom didn’t use a huge variation in spices which meant that I didn’t have to learn huge recipes.

Back then it was Shake and Bake for chicken and pork, Zatarain’s crab boil for crab, shrimp or crawfish, and salt and pepper for steaks. Worcestershire was added afterwards. Fish got lemon, salt and pepper. We did have some Italian Seasoning for spaghetti but I didn’t know what went in it. And there were the spices that went into cookies and pies. We used Rice-A-Roni a lot and salads. I already knew mashed potatoes. Baked potatoes turned out to be really easy with roasts. That pretty much covered it – which took me several attempts to get right.

When I got older I learned about herbs and spices. I went to a bachelorette party that included games such as “guess which spice is in the little baggie” to win a prize. I was totally lost. Other than cinnamon and nutmeg – which I still to this day mix up in blind smell tests (I know color and taste though!) – I didn’t know any spices by smell, taste or sight except pepper and salt. I decided to rectify that.

I started by checking cookbooks out at the library.

It’s amazing what you can learn if you start comparing recipes! I started to discern patterns. What types of herbs and spices were common with which meats. What fruits, vegetables, proteins and starches were commonly put together. Every week I tried one or two new recipes. I stopped buying spice blends and started buying individual spices. For awhile, I followed recipes very, very closely.

Somewhere during this time period I joined a historical organization that studied the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I learned about historical uses of herbs and spices. How they differed from and were similar to modern usage. What my husband and children would and would not accept with their modern palates. Cauliflower in cream sauce tastes like candy. Dang near anyone will eat it. Most people will accept pork, and occasionally chicken, with fruit (for some reason duck and other game birds is fine too); but find it strange with beef and venison.

At some point, in my children’s early elementary years, I started going off on experimental trails. Sometimes I had grand successes. At others, I had epic failures. We ate a lot of pizza. My family has declared pizza the World’s Most Perfect Food. My husband also cooks and he is an Amazing Cook. Everyone says so. Because he follows the recipe correctly every time. But I get bored following the recipe. I look at it and go. Hmm. This would be better with flour instead of cornstarch. There are no vegetables or fruits in this. I should add something to make it more well-rounded and healthier. They are only using salt and pepper; what can I use to make this more interesting?

Mom and Dad didn’t also find success at the things they chose to attempt either. But they kept doing them. They worked hard at them, they experimented, tried things out, improved upon them and kept going. Mom didn’t give up playing sports. Dad didn’t give up going down odd paths that led to nowhere. I’m going to keep persevering as well. Whether it is cooking or some other area of my life, they left me a good legacy.

Today I’m trying out a Bourbon Chicken recipe on a group of friends that one of them gave me to try. I hope they like it. It smells amazing.