by Peggy Touchtone Sholly
Many people paint, or write, or whittle things. I cook and I love it! Cooking is my passion after my husband and children. I have always felt like there was something more I needed to do but couldn’t put my finger on it. There was this emptiness that needed filling even though I led a very busy life. Now I know that writing this book is the destiny I had not yet identified and I have derived much satisfaction in preparing it of your use.
Cooking has many faces and places in my life. Some days cooking provides a healing touch; in my kitchen that includes varieties of homemade chicken soup, lasagna, or oatmeal cookies. At times, cooking is therapeutic; chopping, stirring, and blending whatever is in the pantry and refrigerator, it releases pent-up emotions in a productive manner, the process and product soothing the wounded soul. When I am bored I work on creating a new recipe or a new version of an old one. Always satisfying, cooking takes me back to my roots as I make a large pot of Suga (slow cooked Italian tomato gravy). Or throw together and Ultimate Chocolate Indulgence cake or chocolate dipped strawberries to delight my husband. If I’m really in “the zone” I may prepare a dish of lasagna for neighbors or guests, or cook “special request” jambalaya or étouffée.
Some of my most precious childhood memories are of my grandmother serving simple, steaming platters of pasta to my Aunts, Uncles and the children. She made beautiful loaves of Italian bread from scratch, without a recipe, and baked marvelous, memory making Italian goodies like biscotti and Italian fig cookies by the hundreds. I was fortunate to get the fig cookie and biscotti recipes which I have shared in this book. I didn’t really realize at the time what an impact the customs in my life were having on me.
As a child in an Italian American family, meals were social events, and cooking a source of joy and pride. I enjoyed a wide variety of Italian American foods, simple and delicious. Good memories abound of those meals shared in my grandparents home over heaping plates of slow cooked suga and pasta with meatballs, a Sunday regular. Growing up in this environment contributed to the nurturing of my personal creative streak and was the foundation for my experimentation and development of recipes.
At age 11, my love affair with food and a flair for developing my own recipes began. Because I had no recipes to follow, I saw cooking as a creative outlet to gift others through the work of my hands. It was a source of satisfaction and joy for me as it was for others and greatly contributed to my feelings of self worth. My first culinary creation, a humble beginning, was a no-recipe homemade vegetable soup. Along with fresh vegetables available in our refrigerator, it included dried prunes and a pillage ear of corn from my neighbor’s garden. A visiting uncle was the proud recipient of this first effort and he graciously ate it with great gusto. I still remember his joyful laughing. At the time I thought it was because I had prepared the dish especially for him. Now I think it was probably the prunes – at the time I had no idea they were inappropriate for soup.
My creative fascination with food and the confidence to develop my own recipes began with that homemade vegetable soup. But that was as far as it went at the time. Satisfied I could accomplish that feat successfully, I turned my attention to singing, sewing and school activities, where again I had much success. Like with the cooking, I taught myself to sew and made all my own clothes, mixing patterns to make new designs. The creative bent was still there, just in a different direction. I also sang at functions throughout Baton Rouge, on radio, stage and television. I loved to ballroom dance and spent many hours dancing whenever I could. I was involved in many leadership activities and busy all the time. While attending LSU in Baton Rouge I decided to give up performing, and married.
As an adult responsible for family meals the memories floated up from my psyche and colored my food experiences and expectations. My cooking went into overdrive, the performing energy now being directed to producing delicious foods for my family and friends. As my confidence grew, I added tastes that I loved. From the beginning I never feared to jump in and try something new. Recipe didn’t work? Try it again another day. As time went on, I developed my own personal cooking style, an art form that bubbles up from my Italian heritage; an expression of live rife with creativity and tradition, now made richer by the ethnic influences of Louisiana and Texas.
My husband’s job moved us from Louisiana to Texas to Michigan to Kentucky to California. Eventually we settled in Texas where I have lived for the last 30 years. During my adult life on the flavor trail, from New Orleans to West Texas, peppered with jaunts to California and Europe, I journeyed from housewife and cook, to mother, business woman, and now author. I experienced friendships with phenomenal cooks and chefs that added richly to my life and my love of food and its preparation. I am grateful to all these wonderful individuals.
I enjoyed much success to the detriment of my husband’s waistline while my love of cooking bloomed. Over the years my recipes have been taste tested across the country with rave reviews as I entertained family, friends and business associates. Many requested I share my private recipes or teach them to cook.
As I mentioned, I began my culinary journey in Baton Rouge, where families and friends bond during meals and various celebrations. Most everyone I knew was a cook-without-recipes cook and all were comfortable adding their own personal touch to recipes. At home we indulged ourselves with pasta in many forms, plus fresh fried fish, hush puppies, tartar sauce, seafood étouffée, gumbo, Jambalaya, boiled crayfish and much more. As an adult in Texas, Tex-Mex favorites like enchiladas, salsa, guacamole, Mexican rice, Caldo de Res and others were added to our table.
To my knowledge, no one in my family owned a cookbook and there was seldom a spoiled dish or bland meal. The secret? The same secret that produced culinary legends like Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, and Justin Wilson, it’s what we do in Louisiana and on the coast of Texas. We cook and feed people. Life in Louisiana revolves around food, not just good food but Great food everyday, every meal. Everyone cooks in Louisiana, men, women and children. My Dad taught my Mom to cook basic American classics like cornbread and biscuits, stew, greens and more. We boil, stir, fry or barbecue everything from gumbo to fried catfish fresh from the stream, river or lake and prepare fried chicken accompanied by cast iron pots of steaming hot red beans and steamed rice. We cook what we like with the ingredients we like and sure enough, we eventually master it and the food is as good as it comes. One lesson I learned early on, fast is not always best. The best flavors often take a little longer. Don’t shorten the time, steps, or seasonings if you want a truly delicious dish.
I have also learned that when it comes to romance, a delicious meal well prepared, can establish a romantic environment. Throughout the ages man has wined and dined his prospective love interest and she, him. My personal experience has proved the old saying “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I must admit I have used my cooking talent to dine the socks off my husband. When he walks in the door and smells the wonderful aromas of his favorite foods wafting through the house his eyes begin to sparkle. He full well knows I’m romancing him and loves every moment of it. My children also respond to the scent of their favorites. They recognize the love it conveys and it makes them feel special. With my efforts being so well received, I get many hugs and kisses and continue to scout for new favorites and great tastes I can add to my collection.
Although my voice is no longer entertaining, I still love to dance, garden, and travel in addition to cooking. I am family centered and very happily married to the man who continued to push me to make this book a reality. Cooking is still a passion of mine and I believe always will be.