The table as the great altar of life – The Denver Post

My parents died 20 years ago, she in April 1999 from complications of Parkinson’s; he, in September 1999 of prostate cancer. That they were only in their mid-70s made it sadder for us all.

Provided by Bill St. John

William E. and Madeleine M. St. John at Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School, County Cork, Ireland.

I tell friends whose parent has just died that I have little help to salve their loss. In the reverse of how we’d hope time would work, I miss my parents more as each year passes.

Perhaps that’s because they have had such an outsized influence on my life, day in and out. My father taught me about wine, beginning when I was 12 years old, and that launched me into 40 years of writing and teaching about wine, in a few million words off my fingertips and out of my voice box.

And it was my mother’s cooking, to make fecund a phrase, that got me cooking.

As my father told me the story, nine months before I was born, and only three weeks after their wedding, he came home and found my mother crying, as she stirred their dinner over the stove. He asked her, of course, what was wrong. “J’ai eu mes règles,” (“I’ve had my period”) said this fretful Belgian-born Catholic bride who had failed to conceive straight away.

“Well,” my father said, “Let’s go do something about that.”

Voilà, moi.

My father and mother were a strange culinary combination. He was raised in Fort Lupton, a small town north of Denver, of a teetotaling Methodist father and a stern Irish Catholic mother. His most vivid childhood memory was watching his mother decapitate a Sunday chicken, tossing it headless to the ground, and letting it run wildly around the backyard.

My mother was a teenager in German-occupied World War II Belgium; rations of butter, flour, and sugar foreclosed on any kitchen education. My father eventually taught her how to make the flaky crust for the pies that he loved.

She blossomed as a cook in this country, self-taught from clipping drawers-full of recipes from food magazines; traveling often to Europe to take masters classes from the likes of Simca Beck in Provence and Darina Allen at Ballymaloe in County Cork; teaching several years at La Bonne Cuisine, a cooking school of her own devising; and authoring a cookbook that brought $150,000 (in 1991) to the Denver coffers of Meals on Wheels for People with AIDS.

She flogged sales of that book, self-published through its third printing, by setting up a card table weekends outside the Tattered Cover, handing out a couple of homemade chocolate truffles (today’s recipe) if you bought a copy.

I’ve learned so much about life as the result of cooking — my mother’s, my own, others’.

What my mother taught me about cooking food wasn’t merely that it was something that you did in order to care for other people. You did it also in order to care about the food that you cooked, and also and perhaps most important, to care about yourself.

You chose the best ingredients; you were meticulous preparing them. To you, recipes were neither tests nor showpieces but stories about food and cooking, stories that told you significant things about living interestingly and nobly and well.

You cooked slowly and carefully because it was a fine craft, and handiwork that a person, any person, could do over their entire life. Cooking focused the mind, slowed the pace of the day, let you attend to the beauty of the material world.