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home : opinions : columns   May 24, 2016

8/7/2013 9:29:00 AM
Column: Cooking up memories and disasters

Shannon Crawley-Serpette
Putnam-Marshall Bureau Chief

As a child, I never had the opportunity to do any baking or cooking, except the year I received a small baking set filled with tiny brownie and cake mixes and pans for Christmas.
That set was my only introduction to cooking until college when I would use a hot pot to cook up a variety of noodles. Although, technically, I don’t think what I did at Illinois Wesleyan University could be considered cooking — it was more like boiling and then stirring.
My mom is a good cook and a great baker. But when I lived under her roof, she was too busy with work and child rearing to teach me any tricks of the trade. When I got my first apartment, I tried to experiment with cooking, with varied results.
One of my memorable failures is when I made something as seemingly innocuous as boxed mashed potatoes. Channeling my inner Paula Deen, I thought the boxed recipe would be much better with a lot of extra butter. Knowing how much my sister loved mashed potatoes, I proudly invited her over to sample what I’d made.
She wondered aloud why the mashed potatoes were bright yellow, and I told her I’d added extra butter for flavor. The potatoes, as it turns out, tasted pretty gross. She ridiculed me by saying it was the first time she’d never had to swallow her mashed potatoes — they’d simply slide right down her throat because of all the butter.
That wouldn’t be my last disaster by any means. Many more have followed — fudge that wouldn’t set, biscuits that could double as hockey pucks, runny cookie dough and a gelatin dessert that had the consistency of punch. I used to feel horrible after these mishaps, but when I began writing food features and interviewing Illinois Valley cooks I learned failures happen to everyone at some point.
More often than not, my recipes and my original creations are a success. I cling to those successes when I have my worst moments in the kitchen, like the time I searched every orifice of a raw turkey trying to find the alleged giblets.
After a desperate 10-minute search, I washed my hands repeatedly and used Google to find out where the mysterious giblet pack was supposedly hiding. I eventually won that challenging game of hide-and-seek.
Although I haven’t mastered my mother’s method of making all her pie crusts look like they came straight out of a photo from a cookbook, I still manage to get the thumbs-up from my family for most of my dishes. Nothing makes me happier than when my children eagerly grab for the cookies I’ve made or tell my how tasty something is.
My young children are now eager to learn how to cook. Not wanting them to learn by muddling through like I did well into adulthood, I’m happy to teach them.
They like to look through two junior cookbooks, picking out recipes that look tasty. We’ll look at the difficulty level of the recipe and decide if it is something they can handle. I take care of any business involving a sharp knife, a burner or a hot oven, just to be safe.
So far, they’ve learned how to make items such as scrambled eggs, grilled cheese and a meat and tortilla roll-up.
I love seeing how proud they are of themselves when they make something on their own. With time, they’ll learn, as I did, to vary from the written recipe and do a little experimenting.
When they get older I’ll do what my mother did for me — I’ll give them a binder full of copies of our favorite family recipes.

Shannon Crawley-Serpette may be reached at (309)364-2268 or

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