Things I learned from Encyclopedia Brown.
I was probably in third grade when my mother bought me a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! by Donald J. Sobol. I had read the earlier books (boy genius solves mysteries, for 25¢ a day, plus expenses) and was totally hooked, but this one was different. All the mysteries had to do with food (starting with a missing birthday cake and a loaf of garlic bread). To celebrate the successful conclusion of each mystery (for when did Encyclopedia ever fail to catch the culprit?), Encyclopedia and his friends would get together and throw a party, cooking up a feast to match the case. There was a Mexican fiesta (stolen piñata), spaghetti with meatballs to commemorate Christopher Columbus Day (a kidnapped and brutally murdered duck named...Christopher Columbus Day) and french fries (a purloined potato autographed by Yankees pitchers). Best of all, there were recipes and helpful hints after every chapter.
By this time, of course, I had been Chief Vegetable Washer in my mother's kitchen (since the age of three). I had numerous pans of Tunnel of Fudge cakes and Duncan Hines brownies under my belt. But Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! taught me so much more. Practical things, common-sense things like how to use potholders, asking grownups for help, turning the handle of a pan away from the edge of the stove so you couldn't knock it over. It taught me words like dice, chop, mince. I learned to first slice a thin piece off a round vegetable so it wouldn't roll around when I tried to cut it, to curl my fingers under so I wouldn't stab myself, that a sharp knife was easier and safer to work with than a dull one.
Above all, I learned to chop an onion, and every time I reach for one now (some twenty years later) I think about Encyclopedia Brown and his friends, and what I learned from them. I learned that cooking was fun, that cooking with your friends could be fun, and some years later my middle school slumber parties would involve more than just takeout pizza and soda (although those still made occasional appearances). We would have crêpe parties that covered the kitchen in a light veil of flour (honestly, that still happens whenever I bake today) and make lasagnes that left dribbles of béchamel all over the stove (my poor mother sighed whenever she looked at the state of the kitchen the next morning. We got better at cleaning up after ourselves. Eventually). This continued on in college, and dorm life, when my Hong-Kong-born roomates and I would make fried rice and teriyaki chicken wings, steam bok choy and bake cookies. Cooking continued to be fun, alone, or even more, with friends. It still is.
In middle school I discovered Gourmet Magazine, and Laurie Colwin, who remains one of my greatest influences. Later came the gently acerbic guidance of Elizabeth David, and then Jeffrey Steingarten, who made me laugh until I cried, and Anthony Bourdain, and countless others, too many to name. That is a story for another time. But it all started with Encyclopedia Brown, and the proper way to chop an onion.