I never met any of my grandparents. But, every time my mom was about to have a baby – which was a lot – her mother would buy her dresses for a little girl. My mom proceeded to have six boys. Then, finally, my mother had me on June 16, 1967. My grandmother, Mary Fitzpatrick, died exactly one month before I was born: May 16, 1967. Many people assumed that I would be named Mary after my grandmother, but really Amy was a name my mother had long decided on. It was based on the book, Little Women. She stuck to her guns and here I am, Amy Elizabeth Langrehr. I come from a long line of strong women.
Growing up, I’d hear these stories about my grandmother’s cooking. She didn’t use recipes – she was a “little of this, little of that” kind of cook. It took me a really long time (like, 20 years…) but that is how I cook now. I so wish we could’ve cooked together. From the stories I’ve been told, I know we would be close. I get a little teary thinking about that.
My grandparents were tenant farmers at their home, which was referred to as The County Home on Tollgate Road in Bel Air, Maryland. People would come to the farm from everywhere from the county jail to trains rolling through town and they’d stay on the farm, working to earn food and shelter from my grandparents. My mom’s childhood was definitely different and it gave her an easy way with people, all kinds of people. She grew up eating what her mother prepared from what the fields and pastures on the farm. Mary fed the farmhands, County Home residents and really, anyone who needed a good meal. She also made butter and cured bacon, butchered animals as needed, gathered eggs – all of it. And it was just the way they lived, it wasn’t really deliberate like it is now. It was just a completely different time (1930s-40s), of course.
My grandmother was known for big, unending meals, serving simple food. Fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, pies, cakes. She used a lot of butter, cream, lard, etc. Good old fashioned farm supper. And, life on a farm fact: the midday meal is called dinner. At the day’s end, you have supper. I learned that from my mother very early on.
The way my mom tells it, the cooking gene skipped a generation between my her mother and me. But honestly, as I worked on this project, it became clear that my Mom was – and is – is a very good cook. She had seven children (my brother Mark died at two) and then years later, right after I was born, my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So not only did she have to take care of my wheelchair-bound dad rather suddenly, my mom had to cook for six kids every day. She didn’t really enjoy cooking, I mean, a lot of parents can relate – it can be so different when you have to do it every day, several times per day. But that said, she always made really satisfying meals. We ate together as a family every night and there was pretty much always a protein, a starch and a vegetable on your plate. And a side salad, usually with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and the old faithful, Good Seasons Italian dressing – I can still see the glass carafe that you shook it up in. And, Corelle plates and bowls, so practical. Unbreakable!
I have a couple of old favorite dishes from my mom that I still think of her when I eat them. Like cream cheese and olive sandwiches on soft white bread and radishes dipped in salt. Fried potatoes, chipped beef gravy. When I have those foods, I am literally sitting at the kitchen table of my childhood home in Kingsville.
I bought my first home when I was 32 years old. I immediately got Ina Garten’s first cookbook. It wasn’t the first cookbook that I ever bought, but it was the first one that I completely dove into head first. Up until then, much like that famous Julia Child quote, I just ate. I’d get sushi to go, pints of soup and other prepared foods at Eddie’s in Roland Park, among other places. I mean, I mostly ate well but didn’t really cook. I opened containers. It was long before food delivery services and meal kits. (p.s. Those home meal kits don’t teach you how to cook…) I started watching Ina’s show, Barefoot Contessa, on The Food Network. That’s really when I decided to start to try cooking. She made it look so easy, like “Oh, I can do that.” And, I did. Roast chicken for the first time was honestly the scariest thing I’d ever done cooking-wise. Wait, the whole thing? And, it was easy. I practiced my knife skills a lot, made soups and salads, pizzas, roasts and fish and more. I was on my way.
Then later, in 2007, I went to visit my best friend Lia in Paris for my 40th birthday. I was in London for a day or two and while there, Lia emailed to say that “Oh, we might have lunch with Ina and Jeffrey Garten while you’re here.” WIDE EYED EMOJI. Lia is an architect in Paris and designed the Gartens’ apartment and it was now finished and they were in town. My friend Kathleen and I took the Chunnel from London to Paris and soon after, were headed to the St. Germain des Pres to Ina and Jeffrey’s. I have absolutely no idea what we ate at lunch but I do remember chilled red wine. It was so nice to look at her across the table and tell her that she literally inspired me to learn to cook – and she seemed genuinely touched. She signed my newest book, gave me a hug and told me to keep cooking. I came home from that trip a changed person, ready for more.
In 2010, I started Charm City Cook, a cooking blog which documented some of my kitchen adventures. I did everything from canning to rolling pasta, making salad dressings, mayonnaise and goat cheese, beef tenderloin, tomato confit and tons more. Then, I joined Facebook and later, Instagram and things sort of took off. My blog shifted to focus more on dining out in Baltimore, mainly because so many restaurants opened in a short amount of time in the mid 2000s. Then in a few years time, I had developed a following on Instagram and became known as an “influencer” – an online phenomenon that was just getting going. Then, I decided to shift gears again and go out less and get into the kitchen more. Turned out, the influencer thing was not for me AND I still had so much to learn – and I still do now. But I have to say that being a better cook has made me a better diner. It makes eating out more fun for sure.
Other than the first Barefoot Contessa cookbook, others in my collection that are the most dogeared, stained and loved are Mark Bittmann’s How to Cook Everything, an old edition of America’s Test Kitchen 10 years of Recipes and Culinary Artistry, which is the precursor to hugely popular, The Flavor Bible. Culinary Artistry is the book that has inspired me the most and made me a more adventurous cook. My friend Sarah Sherman told me about it back in 2003 and I am forever grateful for that. I refer to it at least once a week.
Of course, I find websites to be hugely helpful, as well. When I first started cooking, my go-to sites were Martha Stewart and The Kitchn. As I became more confident, Epicurious, Serious Eats and Cooks’ Illustrated. I still reference all of them when I need a little guidance. The online membership to Cooks’ Illustrated is worth every penny. Later, Instagram became a fantastic resource and I learned so much from folks like Lucinda Scala Quinn of Mad Hungry (her IG stories are mesmerizing and informative) and among many others.
Joining a CSA was probably the best thing I could have done to expand my cooking repertoire. Cooking through the seasons is easy and feels completely natural once you get into a rhythm with it. Also, I love how working with ingredients that are new to you makes you get creative. I love helping my followers see their CSA share as exciting vs. intimidating.
Over the last few years I kept thinking, I wish I’d had ONE resource to teach me everything I’ve learned over the last 20 years – what I needed really, when I moved into my own place. So, I am creating something for my younger self and also for my nieces and nephews as they head into their first places and independence. They will often text me questions like, “what kinds of knives do I need? That stock you make…can you walk me through it? Hey, I want to cook a steak. Where do I start?”
I want to create a cookbook two main reasons. First, to help people become more confident in the kitchen. I firmly believe that once you master a small number of classics, you take off. I literally said out loud (to myself, I do that a lot) “I can do this,” as I stood over a whole chicken for the first time. And the other reason? My mom. I want to hand her a book that she helped to create.