I ONCE WORKED as a copywriter for Bon Appetit, a magazine devoted to upscale food and entertaining. The publication is part of a publishing empire located in the heart of New York City, and the job immersed me in the world of hot restaurants, chic entertaining, fancy recipes, and chefs with foreign accents. I was in over my head—the only thing I knew about food was how to aim it toward my mouth. When I called my mother with the good news that I’d ï¬nally found a job in New York, she responded gravely, “But Mary Jo, you can barely operate a microwave.”
To me, cooking is practically sorcery. I grew up on Tater Tots and frozen pizza. For a long time, I thought that making a cake “from scratch” meant it came from a box mix, rather than SuperAmerica—the special “homemade” part was that you yourself took the trouble to add the eggs and water. But my lack of experience with haute cuisine never came up during my interview for the copywriting post, and so I began proofreading exotic recipes (none of which called for Velveeta), and writing advertising spreads about spatulas that required financing and kitchen appliances that cost more than my college education. I kept mum about my preference for Swanson’s TV dinners and Hostess products, but nevertheless I sensed my coworkers knew something was amiss. My unfashionable attire—sensible Midwestern wear like turtlenecks and jumpers—drew surreptitious glances from tight-lipped office mates in pointy shoes. One editor insisted on calling me Patsy no matter how many times I corrected her—and she seemed to think that indeed it could be my name if only I’d try harder. Once, when I told a coworker I was from Minnesota, he replied, with a look of confusion and pity, “Oh, that’s in Maryland, right?”
My colleagues, after all, were people who air-kissed celebrity chefs. These people did not eat off ordinary plates: their food was served on charger plates. These people knew the difference between a compote and compost, whereas I regularly asked the waitstaff for a mixture of decayed organic material with my cheesecake. Still, the longer I worked at the magazine, the more I became aware of my ignorance in all matters foodish. What was this cooking thing that people seemed so obsessed with? I wanted to know, yet I confess I was ashamed: I couldn’t boil water. I mean, I knew how, but I didn’t even have a stove in my apartment. I’d come from Minnesota with just two suitcases, and had sublet a fourth-floor walkup the size of a handicap bathroom stall. The range had gone on the fritz years ago, and the landlord had never repaired it. In one of my frequent long-distance calls to my mother, I mentioned that it’d be nice to try cooking, were it not for the stove situation. Eager to dispense advice, she asked if I had ever heard of the George Foreman Grill. One of her best friends had one, and she adored it. “You know,” my mother confided, “Carol Johnson does everything on the George Foreman Grill.”
I remained skeptical. I was sure that this food-preparation device was just another thing that people bought that they didn’t need, like hair-styling products or eyeglasses. But for almost a year, in phone calls and during visits, my mother persisted, making impassioned pitches for the small broiling appliance invented by a former boxer. She always concluded with “And Carol Johnson does everything on it.” I began to wonder what exactly “everything” was—my head quickly filling with images of late-night, kitchen-appliance-assisted debauchery, yet I steadfastly resisted buying one. I didn’t want to associate myself with anything that might imperil what little status I had managed to accumulate at the magazine—and really, to be honest, I didn’t want to cook that much.
Eventually, I returned home for the holidays, and on Christmas Eve, a square, sturdy package was placed on my lap. I’d barely begun to peel away the wrapping when my mother cried out, “Yes! It’s a George Foreman Grill! Carol Johnson does everything on it!” I imagined Carol pressing sheets and candle-making.
A few days later, back at work, a colleague asked if I’d gotten anything special for Christmas. I mumbled something about the appliance that dare not speak its name, and she narrowed her eyes, puzzled and suspicious. “That’s like the Tickle Me Elmo for Midwesterners, right?” she said. But my mother was correct: I do do everything on the George Foreman Grill. And the results are pretty decent. Saffron chicken with English pea puree and mint leaves, anyone?
Mary Jo Pehl, a Minneapolis writer, still can’t distinguish rocket from arugula.