I am twenty-seven years old, and I just recently started learning to cook. I grew up surrounded by good cooks. Good Southern cooks – even better. I paid attention; I watched; I helped. But when I grew up and moved out, I found myself wanting NaNa’s cornbread and not really remembering how she did it. Did she use an egg or not? How did she get the crunchy crust around the edges that made beans and vegetables and soups tastes so much better? And some days, I’d think of Granny’s turkey dressing, and the only thing I could remember was that she threw some stuff in a bowl, she put it in the oven, and a little while later, the oven opened like clouds parting to make way for sunshine, and something truly heavenly came forth. In winter, I’d start craving Mama’s chili and stare at my barely-used slow cooker, willing the stuff to blend and cook with the Force. Why couldn’t I do this? Why did it seem like such a foreign concept? Unless I could master my Jedi mind tricks (or slow-cooker tricks?), I was doomed to a life of frozen pizzas and dehydrated noodles and dry toast. And I didn’t like that thought.
So one cold afternoon, after one microwave dinner too many, I texted Mama and asked her how she made her chili. It wasn’t too hard. Put the stuff in the slow cooker and leave it. So I tried. And when I got home from work, it was as if the good Lord had said, “Let there be chili.” Maybe this wasn’t so bad. So I asked her about her homemade biscuits. I followed her directions and messed up the first batch (or two or ten). But with trial and error, I got better. And I figured out it was fun. I started a “cooking” board, which has become rather extensive, on Pinterest; and I started making easy meals for my best friend and myself. And he remarked one day that I was improving. Maybe there’s hope for a non-Jedi cook after all.
This recently developed enjoyment in cooking is what prompted me to pick up Jam Today Too by Tod Davies. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book is not so much a cook book as it is an amalgam of life and cooking experiences. Each chapter provides recipes for different contexts and occasions, along with what inspired those recipes in the author’s own life. Davies gives us readers not only good cooking ideas and instructions, but also the joys and sorrows and triumphs and mistakes that go along with them for her, encouraging us to dive into the recipes and discover our own joys and sorrows and triumphs and mistakes. In her narratives that illuminate each recipe, Davies serves up, in diction that reveals her genuine passion, a delicious second course of her Jam Today series with Jam Today Too.
While the entire work resonated to some degree or other with me, two chapters particularly struck me, the first of which is chapter one: Food for Disasters. Davies begins Jam Today Too with suggestions of practical meals for times when cooking is difficult. For Davies, one of those difficult times came after a flood sent her and her “Beloved Vegetarian Husband” to an RV while repairs took place. For someone who loved to cook, being stuck in what the Beloved Husband called a “reverse TARDIS” (Dr. Who fans are smiling…) with a very limited kitchen was a challenge. Davies became frustrated and resigned herself to less than she was capable of: “I was willing to settle for ‘not awful.’ This is a terrible thing, this settling for ‘not awful,’ and we do it all the time.” Davies realized how horrible this notion was, but she simply focused on getting herself and her husband fed for the evening. And that simple focus on one little moment – grabbing what happened to look good and was reasonably priced at the market, quickly, then imagining what to do with it in the tiny kitchen – provided her with one of her most memorable and delicious recipes, referred to as, “a medium-sized disaster and calamari steaks.”
Admittedly, I’m not a big seafood fan. I probably won’t be trying this recipe. (Forgive me, dear Authoress!) Or maybe I will. Who knows? But this particular story – and the “moral of the story,” if you will – have validated and strengthened my own beliefs about myself and my own (cooking and non-cooking) experiences. Settling for “not awful” – now there’s something I know about. Even sometimes settling for plain ole “awful.” Working my way out of a quite negative relationship, pushing through a career choice that turned unbearable, and feeling buried by self-doubt and uselessness, all at once, well, it was a tough few years. I grew tired of settling. I grew weary of being less than I was capable of. I found my solace and healing in focus on simple, small moments, the little aspects of life. Like Davies focused on one meal for one night and discovered a truly special and delicious recipe, I focused on one whim on one night and discovered a beautiful little miracle that has brought me as much happiness, I daresay, as calamari steaks have brought Davies. And that miracle is running. I’d heard how endorphins make everything better, how active people are happier, and so on. And I wanted a piece of that. So I went to the track one night, following that little whim after a tough day. And I ran. And I’ve kept running. That’s been nearly a year ago.
The flood, the repairs, the long time spent away from a decent kitchen – these were trials to test even the most patient of dedicated, talented cooks like Davies. It frayed the nerves, it agitated the spirits, it drained the enjoyment from mealtimes. But, “To look on the bright side: it took that medium-sized disaster to teach me how to really cook calamari,” she says. And I understand. Our struggles make us who we are. They mold and shape us; they teach us. They make us better, if we’ll heed their lessons and focus on what we can control – things like one night’s supper or one night’s run at the track. And happiness will come.
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”
“It must come sometime to jam today,” Alice objected.
“No it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day. Today isn’t any other day, you know.”
– From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A second chapter that reinforced my own newly-discovered ideas and lessons about life is nearer the end: Food for Oneself. Before I even started reading the chapter, I wrote a big, “YES!” at the top of the page. As I said above, I am twenty-seven. And single. My mother might call it “chronically single,” and I’d agree, but for the very negative connotation. (There are positives to singlehood… Raise your hand if you get it!) “Somehow, love is always easier once you know you can enjoy yourself alone,” Davies says. And I believe she is correct. I said all that to say this: happy as I am on my own, for a very long time, I’ve always found it difficult to cook for just myself. So I was excited to find this chapter. But even more than the recipes, I found that someone else understood the value of going solo sometimes.
Davies begins the chapter by describing the importance of being alone and learning about oneself – and as a great big introvert, I (forgive me) ate this up. Davies takes the words right out of my mouth when she says, “[Being alone is] a kind of recharge for me, after which I can cheerfully, even enthusiastically, plunge into the maelstrom of Other People.” Davies not only explains the importance of knowing oneself, but she also challenges us readers to dine alone from time to time and asserts that it is not the taboo our loud, extraverted culture would have us believe.
Speaking of knowing oneself, I found that Davies says it best herself later in the book when she tells readers why she wrote the original Jam Today:
…to join together sides of life that artificially get separated: as if what you eat every day doesn’t have to do with who you are and where you fit in your world. I really wrote it to support the idea that everyone should be looking at what they’re doing (not at what everyone else is doing), and use that as a tool to understand more fully who they are and who they want to be. Because I really think that’s the only way the individual can be effective in the world, in helping move the world out of its present dead end. It’s the only way I can be effective.
Davies has been inspired with several recipes from her going-solo time, and one that sounds particularly yummy to me is her mushroom duck soup. Davies describes a lovely night in alone while her Beloved Vegetarian Husband was traveling: while watching television for a while, and reading for a while, she prepared herself a heaping serving of duck wings and then made a broth with the bones. And the perfect use for this broth is, of course, mushroom duck soup. This is a challenge I present myself. No, I’ve never prepared duck myself; but it’s not terribly difficult to get it – and fresh, too. (This is Mississippi, y’all… Folks still hunt here.) I challenge myself to prepare said to-be-acquired duck, and then to prepare the soup as she describes. Just like I got pretty good at homemade biscuits and easy dinners with practice, I believe I can get better at the dishes that are more difficult for me too. But I have to dive in. I have to challenge myself. I’ll get comfortable with it, just like I got comfortable in my own skin – as a single (ok, Mama, chronically single…) introvert, after getting to know myself by trying things, as well as doing things I already knew I loved: running, watching sci-fi, reading, and cooking too. So I accept my own challenge.
While I’m not some great, experienced cook, I appreciate Jam Today Too for its recipes. But more than that, I appreciate it for what it is at its core: a collection of stories and feelings and ideas that revolve around those recipes in the life of the author – the things that have made her who she is. Davies engages readers with her passion for cooking, which is evident from the first page; but I love that she gives her recipes with anecdotes. Sure, those great, big moments in life, the great losses, the milestones, the grand experiences – they make us who and what we are. But those anecdotes, the little things, the extraordinary memories of ordinary days – these make us, too, just as much.
Most of all, I appreciate what Davies reiterates with every story and every recipe: happiness. I find that through all my struggles, all my trials, all the lessons, the one thing I’ve learned is that I should do what I need to do in order to be happy and to make my loved ones happy. Even in times of trouble, we comfort ourselves and each other (See Food for Grief…) I am a happy runner, a happy single twenty-something, a happy wanna-be cook, a happy introvert, a happy reader, a happy customer service rep, a happy sister, a happy daughter, a happy former English teacher… All these aspects of my life are one whole. And I, as a whole person, am happy, even with the certain things that aren’t perfectly how I want them to be, because I know that I am doing my best to make my life and my loved ones’ lives full and good. I’m working hard, and I’m taking the author’s advice, as she said in an interview: “Everything would be better if people would just chill out and think seriously about what is actually important to them. What actually makes their lives better, what actually makes them happy. I have to say that again, it’s so important: think about what actually makes you happy.”
So if cooking makes you happy, cook. Both Davies – the experienced and knowledgeable cook – and myself – the less experienced wanna-be, advocate cooking… Like me, you don’t have to be a kitchen-Jedi. Just try it. Or if it’s running, if it’s coin collecting, if it’s writing, if it’s painting, if it’s meditating, if it’s watching grass grow, any combination of these… Do it. Think about it, and do it. Try new things – new experiences, new recipes, new books. And do it today; don’t put it off till tomorrow, and don’t wish you’d done it yesterday. True, today isn’t just any other day; and don’t you want your Jam Today?
Total pages: 253