I’ve always been encouraged by late bloomers, since I long harbored the secret, desperate hope I might be one of them. I read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” in a seventh-grade English class, at an age when I could already feel the potential endings of my own story narrowing down to a handful of plots. Others seemed to have already found their own talents by then: had spent years on the soccer field or in the art studio, drafting a rough outline of their futures. I still remember a classmate telling me I should forget about being a journalist, since I hadn’t written a single article for the school paper yet. For aspiring late bloomers, middle school is the absolute worst.
Cooking seemed like yet another talent you had to discover young to possess. Kincaid’s “Girl” only added to that idea. It’s full of kitchen wisdom, passed down early: “Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil,” “soak salt fish overnight before you cook it.” Considering the main things I learned about cooking as a kid were 1) knives are sharp and 2) stirring is fun, I didn’t think I had the detailed instructions that made a fledgling chef. But, as it turns out, they worked just fine—even for Jamaica Kincaid herself.
Unlike the character in her story, Kincaid didn’t master the techniques to cook fritters or salt fish. Her job at family dinner time was the same one I had growing up: setting the table, the lamest of all kitchen tasks (besides “making placecards,” the other chore that inevitably got assigned to me). It wasn’t until Kincaid became a mother herself that she started to take an interest in food, first exploring her garden and then returning to the kitchen, this time in a more active role.
“My husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, and some flower seeds,” she writes in My Garden, an entire book detailing her midlife conversion to domesticity. A neighbor taught her “what the new shoots of peonies look like,” she writes: “That was how I came to recognize a maple, but not that its Latin name is Acer; Latin names came later, with resistance.” She discovered Edna Lewis’ seminal cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, and began devouring the recipes, passing on favorites like corn pudding and fried chicken to her own children.
Latin, I’m afraid, isn’t a talent that I’ve also picked up in adulthood. Yet as a relative latecomer to cooking, I’ve realized we have more control over how our stories unfold than we might think. Whenever people tell me they’re “not a chef” or even (perish the thought) “not a reader,” I remember how our talents are interconnected, our abilities and our confidence in them reinforcing one another, until we believe we truly can do anything. “Gardening is a form of reading,” Kincaid writes. “So is actually cooking.”
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“Girl” isn’t the only place in Kincaid’s fiction where cooking makes an appearance. The name Edna Lewis also pops up in her most recent novel, See Now Then, where a recipe for cornbread gets passed along, from character to character, a little bit of cooking wisdom waiting to find a fertile place to sprout.
Corn pudding is not one of Lewis’ most attractive dishes, but it’s an ideal introduction for those who worry they’ve missed their calling in the kitchen. Not only is it simple to put together, but it’s also infinitely adaptable; the quiche-like base is a slate for testing out new flavor combinations of your own devising. Throw in scallions, onions or wild mushrooms instead of leeks. Try pairing them with feta or gruyère, not cheddar. Tasting the results is perfect for late bloomers to make their own way in the kitchen, discovering a talent that’s hidden, latent, like a bulb underground waiting for the spring.
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 leek, washed, white and light green parts thinly sliced
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk
2 cups corn, cut from the cob
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a microwave and set aside.
2. In a skillet over medium heat, warm remaining 1 tablespoon butter until foaming. Add leek and sauté until soft and starting to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. In a large bowl, combine corn, sugar and salt. Add egg mixture and melted butter, stirring until just combined. Fold in leek, cheddar and cayenne. Pour into prepared casserole dish.
4. Place casserole in a large roasting pan filled with hot water and transfer to the oven. Bake 35 to 45 minutes, until top is golden brown and center has set. Remove casserole from water bath and let cool 5 minutes, then serve warm.