Guest Essay: Marketing Impresario Sheila Kenny Tells How She Learned To Cook

 Blue Moon Garlic

Blue Moon Garlic

Note: Today we publish the second of six finalists’ essays from our 2012 writing competition, “How did you learn to cook?” Sheila Kenny cooks beautiful food when she is not wrangling major events and celebrities in her job as Marketing Director at Lexington Center (think Rupp Arena, Lexington Opera House, Lexington Convention Center, and all those shops at Lexington Center). She has an entrepreneurial bent, too, which she brings to The Incredible Food Show, an annual Kentucky-based food extravaganza she co-invented. Enjoy her global-to-local story about learning to cook.

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How I Learned To Cook

By Sheila Kenny

I had almost no interest in cooking until I had the good fortune to spend a semester in Florence, Italy, during my junior year in college.

It was there I discovered the magic and power of cooking with the first dish I was able to fully master: Pasta d’ Aglio e Olio.

So simple, so delectable.

You could (and I did) stumble home after a night on the town and within minutes, combine a few choice ingredients—fresh chopped garlic, lots of it; red pepper flakes, good olive oil, and decent boxed spaghetti #8—and whip up a batch of sheer garlicky heaven.

It made me feel powerful, to be able to produce something so utterly addictive (and legal!) that would inspire people to call weeks, or even months, later and ask, “What-was-that-dish-that-you-made-that-one time-you-know-the-one-with-the-funny-name?”

Ah, yes, like a first lover, the seductive power of Aglio e Olio would leave you longing for more.

Several years later, I discovered the writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote about cooking in her books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, in a way that stirred my soul and appealed to my emotional side. Colwin introduced me to the intellectual concept of food preparation as a way to nurture and comfort.

After reading her books, I set my sights on mastering one of my favorite dishes, guacamole. The recipe I developed became known in my family as “The Michael Douglas Guacamole.” It earned this nickname when I attended a potluck party in Santa Barbara, at which the movie star-mogul was a fellow guest. I watched, with amusement and satisfaction as he demonstrated a certain fatal attraction, consuming practically the entire bowl that I had made and brought to share. Then I heard him ask, in a very loud and distinctively Michael Douglas voice, “Who made the guacamole?!?” Needless to say, I was quick to take credit where it was due.

But beyond the bragging rights that such episodes afford, what really elevated my growing interest in cooking into a true passion was what might at first seem an odd coincidence: the summer when I became a member of the Elmwood Stock Farm CSA, and when my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Each week I was faced with a brown box brimming with mysterious vegetables that I had no earthly idea how to prepare. Like that classic episode of I Love Lucy in the chocolate factory with its endless conveyer, it was a weekly deluge of vegetables and more vegetables.

Luckily, the weekly supply from Elmwood also came with a newsletter featuring great recipes from other CSA members and tips on how to transform the bounty into wonderful meals.

Just around this time, my husband and I decided to host a weekly Sunday Supper for my mother and father and my two teenage children. My parents had recently moved to an assisted living residence that did not serve dinner on Sunday. Watching their faces light up when they saw and tasted the Sunday feast I had created almost entirely from the contents of the CSA box was thrilling, like giving the ultimate gift back to the people who had given me so very much. It was comforting to my soul to know that I was nourishing my mother’s failing body with vegetables grown without any chemicals or preservatives. I took great relish in preparing each of those Sunday Suppers as if it might be the last meal she would ever experience.

With the quantity of vegetables that kept coming each week, I challenged myself to keep trying new recipes that would use up the entire contents of the box, not letting anything go to waste. There were some mighty failures along the way, but most of the dishes were a great success.

I am so grateful that the challenge of the weekly box from the Elmwood CSA inspired me to transform cooking from a source of power and pride Into something so much more important: giving back comfort and love...and a healthy serving of joy.

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