On May 29, my one and only child will walk across the stage at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in a surprisingly chintzy cap and gown. As with most parents of high school graduates-to-be, my mind is crowded. On the one hand, what to do with the looming free time? (Marathoning? Rug-hooking? Puppies!) And on the other, my thoughts drift back to my own departure from home, my own parents' efforts to ready me for life's next steps.
There was the laundry bag on which my mother had embroidered instructions ("cold for colors" — wish I'd heeded that one); the tiny hammer with a screwdriver-filled handle and my father's solves-everything roll of duct tape; and a crisp stack of recipe fundamentals on note cards that read "From my kitchen with love."
At the start of the year I began my own version of the last of these. I would make my daughter a college survival cookbook, an assemblage of advice about navigating cafeteria food, how to throw a first dinner party, and more generally how to feed oneself three meals a day, seven days a week for the very first time.
I researched book-publishing websites and software and chose one that seemed especially easy for cookbooks (BookSmart). I took the tutorial, chose my fonts and layout and got to work.
It involved sleuthing. I found her kindergarten teacher, still teaching at a public school in Palo Alto, Calif., and solicited a recipe: a chicken adobo dish that is a tribute to the Philippine and Mexican cultures of Mrs. Dungan's adoptive son. There was her third-grade teacher, her soccer coach (sambal chicken skewers) and friends from my own college days who knew my high school senior mostly as a wobbly toddler.
Some of those recipes focused on the price-to-calories ratio: "1 small bag lentils, 1 can or jar cheapest spaghetti sauce, 1 lb cheapest pasta (spend 15 minutes calculating if several small boxes are cheaper per oz. than one big box)." And some came with serious advice: "I know that many people use food to satisfy other cravings and needs, so my advice is to eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel full."
I tried to give her basic tools and to re-create the dishes and meals she has loved at home: On Fridays we have "Asian potpourri night" standing around the kitchen island, chopsticks flying from Japanese goma-ae to Chinese chili-garlic tofu. The book contains step-by-step instructions to conduct her own APN. There are Teresa Reiley's famous icebox oatmeal cookies, her paternal grandmother's much-loved chocolate mousse and a great-grandmother's deeply terrifying Jell-O mold just so my college-bound girl remembers her roots.
When I finished the book, I realized the back cover was blank. I decided to fill it with a manifesto of sorts, the things I hope she has learned from eating in my home for 18 years. Some of the things are practical: Work smart; double recipes; use your freezer. Better to have one sharp knife than five dull ones. Good ingredients and simplicity usually trump fancypants-ness.
But some of them are among my deepest held beliefs:
• There will be cooking failures, but they almost never ruin an evening: Regroup and laugh about it.
• Bringing food to people who are sad or in need will give you great pleasure in life.
• The dinner table is where some of the most important things get said. So pay attention.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.