A Weekly Column

By Joseph Walker



Mom was a good cook. No, I take that back. She was a great cook. She could take a little hamburger, a few potatoes and some canned tomatoes and whip up a feast worthy of the International Olympic Committee. And the things she could do with a chicken . . . well, it makes my mouth water to think about it. Her homemade chili sauce was second to none. Her bottled peaches were better than candy. And I once offered to make my sister Kathy's bed for a week if she would give me the last slice of toast made with Mom's homemade bread and slathered in Mom's homemade apricot jam.

Kathy wouldn't go for the deal. She preferred to eat the toast -- slowly -- in front of me, watching me suffer with each exquisite bite. If memory serves, that was the same day I tried to kill Kathy with a crutch. If I had succeeded, all we would have had to do was give the judge a taste of Mom's homemade bread and jam, and he would have ruled it justifiable homicide.

No doubt about it, Mom was a great cook -- 99.9 percent of the time. But put a beef steak in her skillet, and she turned into the anti-cook. She could take the finest cut of prime T-bone and turn it into shoe leather. She tried awfully hard, bless her. The night before I was married she thought she was treating me to an extra-thick cut of top sirloin. Instead, she treated me -- and, through me, my bride -- to a case of gastric distress that lasted throughout most of our honeymoon.

Several months later my big brother Bud took me out for lunch and ordered steaks for both of us. I wasn't thrilled, but since he was paying I figured I could choke down a few bites. When the waitress served our steaks, I was surprised at how good they smelled. Mom's steaks never smelled like that. The first bite was a char-broiled epiphany, a revelation of sizzling flavor. Suddenly I understood why others spoke of steak fondly. I devoured my steak greedily, and stole a bite of Bud's when he wasn't looking. I was a born-again beef-eater, and that steak was my first communion.

"You know," I said to Bud, patting my stomach contentedly. "I used to think Mom was a good cook. But it's hard to believe her steaks come from the same animal as these steaks."

"Mom's a great cook," Bud said. "But think about it. She grew up during the Great Depression. That's when she learned to cook. How often do you think they had steak?"

"Probably not very often," I guessed.

"Probably never," Bud said. "And when I was little and Dad was in the service, I don't remember ever having steak. It's only been recently that they could afford to buy steak. So it isn't that she isn't a good cook. It's just that she hasn't had a lot of experience cooking steak."

So Mom had a weakness in the kitchen. It was difficult to imagine -- especially after we enjoyed one of Mom's incredible fried chicken dinners the next Sunday. So she couldn't cook steak very well. So what? Who said Mom had to be perfect -- in the kitchen or elsewhere?

I've been thinking about that lately as my older children have become more aware of some of their father's imperfections. The fact is, I'm still learning and growing as a person, not just as a parent. I've got a long way to go before I'm as good at anything as my Mom was at cooking. I'm trying, but I fall humanly short of perfection more often than not. Still, I think I have a lot to offer my kids. Even though I haven't reached the end of the trail, I'm a heck of a lot further down the road than they are. At the very least, they can learn from my mistakes and avoid some of the bad turns I've taken. If they can do that, I can still be of value to them -- weaknesses and all.

And if they can't . . . well, let 'em eat steak!

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--- (c) Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and