I learned to cook watching my grandmother and mother in the kitchen. I learned from seeing how they did what they did, and from tasting the end products of their genius. In middle and high schools, I learned by tasting alongside them, as they cooked.

“Here, taste this, tell me what you think.”

“It tastes good, Nana!”

“Hm, I think it needs more sage.” And she’d add a pinch, or a dash, and stir it in: “Taste again.”

“Wow! You were right!”

My grandmother could tell what a sauce or roast or any dish needed by smelling it as she walked past. She could lift the lid on any simmering pot, and tell you what to add to make it just a little bit better. And she knew when to stop meddling, when perfection had been attained. She could deconstruct dishes in restaurants from the taste, and tell you what went into them (and what they could have done differently to make it better.)

Every meal she cooked, she would sit and tell us all the things she’d done wrong. “But, Nana, it tastes amazing!” She’d smile, and shake her head, and tell us it could have been better. She cooked in pursuit of the perfect dish, and while in her eyes she never quite got there, in mine, she achieved it in every dish.

My grandmother was born in 1914, and reached adulthood in WW1. She would tell us stories of the Depression, about food rationing, and having a garden. About her dad going hunting so they could have some meat. About going fishing herself, so the family could have some variety. All her life, no matter where she lived, she had a garden. She ingrained the need for a garden so deep, my mom has one in Arizona, and the one we’ve got planned for here would have made her smile and nod her head in deep contentment.

I remember coming home from school to a hot house. My grandmother and mother would have been cooking so long, and so much all day, that the air conditioning unit couldn’t keep up. There would be week long marathons of canning, trying to get the garden put away for the winter. Quarts and pints and Mason jars upon Mason jars, all full of my grandmother’s passed down recipes. There were dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, Christmas rings, strawberry and peach jelly, and peach preserves, too. There were jars upon jars, millions it seemed, of spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes, and home made tomato paste. They’d make hot sauce, and bbq sauce, and pear mince meat for pies in the cold months.

We lived further north then, and the climate still hadn’t changed as much, so the winters would be full of sleet and hail, cold miserable months where the garden sat in the backyard, covered over in mulch, waiting. I remember my grandmother would start to consult her Old Farmer’s Almanac, for when to plant, when to start to till the soil over. There’d be a conversation over dinner in the spring, and the next weekend, my dad would get out the tiller, and till the mulch into the soil. I’d be out there ‘helping’, pointing out where he’d missed a spot (not that he’d miss anything. I loved the smell of it, the way the dirt smelled like spring, and just had to be right there to experience it.)

Today, I made bbq sauce. I’d never made my own bbq sauce before, but I remembered Nana doing it. From old memories of her hands moving deftly over a steaming pot, I made up a recipe. Diced tomatoes, tomato paste, sauted onion and garlic. Mustard and Worchestershire sauce, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Cayenne powder and a dash of powdered ginger too. Sweet and tangy, rich and full, it tastes nothing at all like what my grandmother used to make, and yet it is the same as what she would make. Hers was tangier, more vinegary (she’d spent time up North, with the Yankees, and so could be excused the temptation to add vinegar to bbq sauce.) But they were made the same way, none the less. A dash of this, a drab of that, and taste. What flavor is missing? Add more, taste again.

I learned the arcane chemistry of cooking from my grandmother, and from my mother. When I cook, it is always with her in mind; my grandmother is the metric by which I measure success in the kitchen. And when I succeed, I smile, because I know she would smile, and nod, and tell me “Not bad, but it could have used some…” She always sought perfection. So do I.

(I think next time I make bbq sauce, I may add just a little bit of apple cider vinegar; it was a bit too sweetish, and could have used a bit more tang…)