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The one secret ingredient guaranteed to make all your cooking taste better

Posted August 16

The other day, my newly married daughter asked me a question: “Mom, how did you get to be such a good cook?” I think she’s seeing that part of her future coming into view, and may be panicking just a little.

“It started right after we got married and moved to Los Angeles,” I told her. “I was crazy in love with your dad, and thought he deserved to eat like a king, so I was determined to feed him like one.” She laughed. “At the time I only knew how to make three or four good meals, but that was about it. Those wouldn’t last me long without endless repetition. I needed to learn how to cook, and fast!" My daughter was pretty entertained at that point. I continued my story.

I signed up for the Cookbook-of-the-Month club, and when Jeff was working late at school, I’d stay up and read cookbooks at night. I got so I could almost read them like a novel, envisioning what each combination of flavors might taste like. I kept asking myself…what would he enjoy?

I walked to the little grocery store by our house and hand-picked fresh produce that would keep us under budget. And I practiced. A LOT. We started hosting what Jeff liked to call “production dinners” at our house every Sunday, with a different set of guests each time, and spent most Saturday nights cooking together in our small kitchen, prepping for the next day’s big meal.

Have you figured out my secret ingredient? Keep reading….

Back when I was in college I had a roommate who would make the simplest food, but it always tasted so good. One day I asked her the same question my daughter asked me: “What makes you such a good cook? How does everything you make taste so good?” She was from Venezuela, and I have to admit I expected her to reveal some secret spice she brought from home. The answer surprised me. And has stayed with me ever since.

“Ya sabes,” she explained in her native Spanish. “Es que siempre cocino con amor!” Translation: “You already know. It’s because I always cook with love.”

I realized it was the same answer my grandma gave me when I asked her to teach me how to cook. She gave me a beautiful little wooden roll-top recipe file, where she had carefully handwritten many of my favorite foods on decorated 3 x 5 cards for me to save. But then she told me that the most important ingredient to each recipe was love.

After 28 years of marriage, I’ve spent well over 10,000 hours in the kitchen…enough to qualify me as an expert by now. And I can attest that the answer is still true. The most important ingredient in any meal is the love with which you prepare it. It holds a kind of magic that transforms the simplest of foods into the most satisfying meals. It is powerful.

Just the other day I stopped in at my mother-in-law’s house after teaching a class, and she offered to make me a chicken sandwich. How could I say no to that? In minutes she had pulled together a simple open-face sandwich on whole wheat bread, topped with mayo, rotisserie chicken and avocado (plus a few turns of the grinder of salt and pepper). It tasted amazing! (See a version of the recipe here).

That weekend I wrote to my daughter, “How is it that food always tastes the best at Grandmother’s house?” And then I caught myself, and smiled, because I already knew the answer. That secret ingredient, which grandmothers have perfected over a lifetime, is simply LOVE.

Jana Winters Parkin is an artist, writer, and adjunct faculty at UVU. She co-hosts a popular podcast for women: "The Living Room" (bit.ly/TLRSHowiTunes) and spends every day possible exploring mountain trails. Contact her at write2jana.p@gmail.com

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