My friends think of me as a good cook...good baker. I see myself as a good learner...a so-so cook and a person who loves baking. Mostly, I see where I have come from as a cook/baker. And I think it is important to encourage other women...especially young wives/mothers to become the cook they want to be. And in addition to that become the hostess you want to be. Now, I know there are those of you who have no interest in becoming a better cook or hostess...it's just not what you care about. So...this may not be for you. But, if you don't fall into that camp and you want to learn from my experience...I will share it with you...HAPPILY!
First, you have to be encouraged by where I came from. I grew up with a grandma who loved laundry and housekeeping but loathed cooking or baking of any kind. Sadly, I think she could have been good at both but by time I was around...she had firmly decided she was a terrible cook and therefore made no effort to be better. I mean, she had her standard things she made...meatloaf, chili, pork chops, and lots of frozen meals but mostly, she just loved eating out. I rarely remember her hosting company. Once a year she had her immediate family in for Christmas Eve dinner and even then she ordered a deli tray from Kroger and made boxed scalloped potaotes to go with it. In fact, the ONLY thing in that meal I remember her making from scratch was a pistachio pudding dessert. I remember being the one who loved hosting the party. I made place cards and set the table and helped clean house. I could barely contain my excitement at the tender age of probably 8 or 10. And I remember my Grammy being so happy to have my help. So I guess looking back I had no role model but I had innate desire to learn.
Fast forward to me being a newlywed. I knew how to make chicken breasts with BBQ sauce on them, stuffing from the box, and corn. We had that a lot if memory serves. But I tried a lot of recipes. Lots of failed recipes. Trouble was, given my background of little knowledge on how to cook and my present circumstances of having little money it was tough row to hoe making all this stuff we didn't like. But I didn't give up. My best avenue for finding good recipes was when I'd eat things I liked at other people's houses I ASKED FOR THE RECIPE. This is my single best piece of advice. Never be shy to ask for other people's help. If you eat something (or better yet, if your man eats something) that you like be sure to ask for a recipe or how to make it!
My second best piece of advice is something that was unheard of when I was a newlywed 17 years ago. Well, unheard of for me. You see, my second piece of advice is find a source (or several sources) online whom you trust for failproof recipes and go there often. When I was first married we didn't own a computer and the internet was still in its early years so blogs and websites were non existent or meager at best. It wasn't even until the last five years that I began really using the internet as a great resource for all kinds of recipes. Now I am a HUGE consumer of online cooking and baking tips and recipes.
So you see, I am a poser. A copycat. A fraud! :) Between asking other great cooks how they do it or looking online for answers...I hardly even create a recipe...tweak it, yes, but create it-not so much! But, perhaps that is a bigger deal than I realize. You DO need to know how to follow a recipe well. How to tweak it for your family. And how to look at a recipe and say this just won't work at all for my family. And I suppose there is an instinct to a good cook that tells her how long to bake something before it burns. Or how much spice is too much for her family. But then again, I think a lot of that instinct is learned. It is burning a few batches of cookies or rolls until you say, "OH...I need to reduce the time on that recipe!" It is making a batch of chili and having your family refuse it because of the chunks until you learn to chop everything finely so they don't see the chunks. It is a lot of failure and a lot of trying again. SO please do not label yourself a bad cook because you fail sometimes. A lot of us didn't grow up with moms who loved to cook. We had no role model. Or we chose not to learn when we had the chance! :)
As for being a better hostess, that is also learning while watching. I mean, how often do you walk into someone's home and feel warmth and welcome? Well, when you walk into that home...take notes. What is making you feel cozy? Is it candles? Is it a smell? Is it decorations or lighting or is it her warmth and charm? We have a friend who hosts parties and frankly, she is wealthier than I am so not ALL of what she is able to do am I able to replicate. But I took away a lot of ideas and made them my own. For instance, in her gorgeous home she lays out beverages in pretty pitchers and she buys the Coke in the vintage bottles and she slices fresh lemons for water. So to make that happen in my home I went to WalMart and purchased three cheap, but nice glass pitchers. No, they are not lovely crystal pitchers but they impart the same sense of hospitality. I fill one with water, one with tea, and one with lemonade. It looks a lot prettier and a lot more intentional than Rubbermaid pitchers on the counter or pointing people to the dispenser on your fridge. I also have an ice bucket and tongs. And I also employed some of those impractical items people gave me when K and I married. Things like a crystal sugar and creamer set on a little crystal tray. I now use the sugar bowl for little packets of sweetener and the tray for slices of lemons. A lemon is not expensive but it seems like you went the extra mile for your guests. I can't afford the Coke bottles but those aren't necessary to create the feeling that you prepared for your guests. Even last minute guests feel welcomed by simple touches. I light a lot little candles. I have tealights on the mantle and those are cheap. I have little glass holders and I keep candles ready to go in them so when guests are coming I can light them. Ialso have candles on my kitchen table and in sconces on my wall in the kitchen. When those are all lit the house feels cozy and warm. I stole that straight from a home where the hostess had lots of light from candles as well as little clear Christmas lights strung on her mantle and the room just glowed. I also love having a cake plate with a dome. A cake on a pedestal looks so pretty. I will even put it out just for my family. I will put muffins or quick breads sliced on it. Surprisingly, cake stands and pitchers and serving pieces can be found cheaply at WalMart or Garden Ridge. Just purchase them a little at a time. And even if none of those things are items you own or can afford to own...you can still put out dishes and clean your home and serve a nice dessert. People just like to feel like you planned for them because they were important. Hospitality is a gift that can be cultivated. Sure, some people come by it more naturally but we can all have our own brand of hospitality!
I just wanted to encourage you that I started without a good role model. My Grams has been gone for 4 years now but before she died she would tell me how amazed and proud she was of my sister and me because we had cultivated these gifts all on our own. And if I can do it...anyone can! :)