Monday, November 26, 2007


Cooking is like magic.

There are those who do it very well. These are the big name magicians that usually appear on TV. You ooh and ahh, and are just amazed by what they can do.

There are those who do it fairly well. These are the guys at the state fairs and such that work the local crowd.

And then there are people like Uncle Barry, who really sucks at performing magic tricks, but people are too polite to tell him, so he continues to annoy you at family gatherings with the coin behind your ear trick, or the fake thumb trick, or any number of poorly performed bits.

For the longest time, I was deathly afraid of becoming a Uncle Barry, so I never cooked. Cooking was just like the field of magic. I know it's something anybody could do, and do well with practice, but I didn't want to figure it out. Trying to figure out the intricacies of cooking is like deconstructing how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear and tricked Claudia Schiffer into dating him. Something that could be done with time and patience, but something I didn't feel like actually doing myself. I was more than happy just watching other people do it and enjoy what they could do.

I watched cooking shows with the same interest as I watched Penn and Teller. They explained how everything was done, and being of an engineering background, that was greatly satisfying to know the answers. But I didn't think I myself could replicate what they were showing on TV. Just because someone explained how to swing a golf club doesn't mean you'll be replicating Tiger Woods anytime soon. Titanium clubs or not.

Making biscuits from scratch would be the equivalent of asking me to build a spaceship from various gadgets around the house. What am I, ET? I scoffed at the notion. But one day, a friend of mine walked me through making pancakes from scratch, and it was ridiculously easy. Not only that, what I made was edible.

I couldn't believe it. It was crazy. It was easy! It was no disappearing Statue of Liberty, but it was better than anything Uncle Barry was doing. And fueled by this initial success, I starting cooking. But even now, many years later, I'm still amazed at how easy it is to make something delicious from scratch.

But for the longest time, pecan pie has been my Moby Dick. Yes, I know, the simple pecan pie. No, actually, cooking fish is my Moby Dick. Even my best fish dish would be turned away by even Andrew Zimmern. Pecan pie is more like... well, just a good magic trick. One that borders on supernatural. One that just can't be figured out.

It's because pecan pie was something my mom made extraordinarily well. Not even the best pecan pie baked by a true Southern woman could measure up to my mom's pie. An amazing feat considering my mother was a Korean immigrant and had never even seen a pecan until she moved here. Knowing this, I didn't even want to attempt making one of my own because I knew I would only be disappointed with the result.

But it's been nearly 10 years since I last tasted my mother's pecan pie, and I've been aching for it forever, so this past holiday weekend I tried my hand at baking a pecan pie. ...and it wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. Just good enough to get me to try again and get it closer to perfect.

I wish I knew what my mom used to do. But there's no way of getting her to reveal that trick now. My quest for the pecan pie has turned into the plot of The Prestige. I'll play the role of Hugh Jackman, my mother the role of Christian Bale, and her pecan pie will be that magic trick I just can't seem to figure out.

Except I won't go all evil trying to get her secrets.