When I was a sophomore in high school, I enrolled as a day student at Greenbrier Military School in Lewisburg, WV, about a mile from our house. As a day student – a town boy I was called – I did not live at GMS and eat my meals there, but I did everything else – classes, drills, parades, etc. The corps of cadets assembled each morning at 7:30. It took me about ten minutes to walk to school – and I had to go through a pasture field to get there – so my preference was overwhelmingly to hitch a ride with my dad. Though 7:30 was a little early for him to show up at his FBI office, we struck an agreement. If I would fix breakfast and have it ready at precisely 7:10, it would allow time for him to eat breakfast and take me to school.
Therefore, I began my pursuit of chef-dom at the ripe age of 14. Timing, I would learn, is everything.
My alarm clock rang at 6:30 each morning. The first thing I did was zip down the hall to the kitchen and start a pot of coffee. We didn’t have Keurig’s or even electric coffee makers. We had a small, metal 4-cup coffee maker. I learned to fill it to the exact line, add a couple tablespoons of Maxwell House and tear back down the hall for a quick shower. The instant I was dry, I headed back to the kitchen, turned the coffee maker down to low and put 4 slabs of bacon in an old, iron skillet. Then, back to the bathroom for tooth-brushing, hair brushing and the like.
Again, back to the kitchen to flip the bacon, then back to my room to finish dressing – and this included putting brass on starched shirt collars and completing a full Windsor knot on my tie. It usually took 2 or 3 flips of the bacon, then I put a couple slices of bread in the toaster and cracked the first two eggs. Daddy like his fried eggs over easy, with the yellows runny but cooked just enough that the whites were firm. If I overcooked or undercooked the eggs, he let me know about it. He always said that the cook has to eat any broken or mis-fried eggs. That was the price to pay. With that in mind, I became pretty good at frying eggs.
After I gobbled down my breakfast, Daddy scanned the paper as I got my uniform in inspection mode – which meant spit-shined shoes and polished buckles and brass accessories. Then, it was off to school with maybe five minutes to spare.
Daddy later told me that it was a good thing for a young man to learn to cook.
“You might marry a woman who can’t cook and have to teach her how,” he often said.
Though occasionally I flipped a few chicken halves on a charcoal grill, breakfasts were always my specialty. I learned to cook sausage patties to a perfect doneness and not burn the tops. I was able to put a pot of grits on the back burner and have them ready when the eggs came off the pan. I could soft boil eggs, scramble or poach them. I was master at frying country ham and if there was a melon in the fridge, I had it sliced and, in a bowl, when Daddy came down the hall to eat his breakfast.
Some people cook because they have to. I cook because I love to, and it’s especially rewarding to cook for someone you love.