I spent the first week of my life at the Mississippi Children’s Home, waiting to be adopted. My name then was Melanie. The word means dark in Greek, and referred to my brown hair, my deep brown eyes.
My birth mother was sixteen when she got pregnant with me. It was 1967. Whatever free-love thing was happening in other parts of the country in the late sixties, it was not happening in Greenwood, Mississippi. A girl who got knocked up there brought shame upon herself and her family.
When she began to show, my birth mother was sent to a home for unwed mothers on the outskirts of New Orleans, where the girls scrubbed the floors and toilets with toothbrushes, penance for believing boys who said it would be okay. She was the youngest mother-to-be in the home, and on the weekends she was thrilled to be invited to go into town with her older friends, young women in their early twenties, also inconveniently pregnant. They would leave her at a cafe with their purses while they went out and turned a few tricks.
The day she went into labor, my birth mother was sent to the hospital. All the rooms were full, so she was left on a gurney in the hallway. A midwife happened past and took pity on her and wrapped her in a blanket, the tradition at the time. First babies are notoriously slow to make an appearance—not me. Less than a minute later my birth mother hollered, “The baby! The baby’s on the bed.” The nurse, a soft-spoken African American woman, cried, “Holy shit, that baby done flown out.” Or so the story goes. But sure enough, there I was, between my mother’s knees, still tied by my umbilical cord, screaming my head off. I wasn’t waiting until my birth mother had been settled in her room, wasn’t waiting for the doctor to arrive, wasn’t waiting to be invited.
Two hours away, in Jackson, the state capital, Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora received a phone call from an adoption agency where they’d filed papers to adopt another child. They were an upstanding middle-class couple—she a nurse, he a teacher—who had already adopted a son, Michael, and were hoping for a daughter. “We have a baby girl for you,” said the woman from the adoption agency.
A week later, the people who would become my parents picked me up at the Children’s Home and changed my name to Catherine Anne.
My childhood was as perfect as could be.
We lived on Swan Lake Drive in Jackson, in a development of low-slung, single-story homes built around finger-shaped Swan Lake. Our little house was across the street from the waterfront homes; our backyard gave out into what seemed to be endless fairy-tale piney woods—a true wilderness. There my brothers and I built forts and cut down a Charlie Brown tree every Christmas, then dragged it through the backyard and into the living room. Mike was three years older than me, and Chris, born not long after my adoption was finalized, was only thirteen months younger.
I had my first kiss in these woods at the age of eight. She was a small blond girl with a pixie haircut who was visiting her grandparents for the summer. One of us thought it would be a rad idea to experiment with kissing. Her soft mouth tasted of Aim toothpaste with a hint of Orange Crush soda and the Green Apple Jolly Rancher candies we’d sucked on earlier. It was definitely better than kissing second-grader Johnny Purvis.
My mom and dad both worked full-time, but if there were better-loved latchkey kids, I’d like to meet them. At 6:00 a.m., Mom would flip on my bedroom light and say, “Time to get up!” Despite her own hectic morning schedule, she always packed our lunches. Hot school lunches were too expensive, yet my parents made too much to qualify for assistance. Peanut butter and jelly, egg salad, and bologna were the sandwiches in rotation. Sometimes if she ran out of peanut butter and payday was too far away, she substituted mayonnaise and jelly, the thought of which grosses me out even now. In those days, no one in the Deep South—even a trained nurse—thought keeping a sandwich made with mayonnaise in a metal school locker for six hours was a bad idea. But my brothers and I were well acquainted with the stink it caused, and would toss those sandwiches into the garbage next to the bus stop. (It was six houses down, a distance my mom felt confident we could negotiate by ourselves.) Unless we were lucky enough to have a PB&J sandwich that day, we made do with a bag of Fritos, a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Sandwich, and an apple.
Our dad taught world history at Wingfield High School, and he came home every day around four thirty. This gave us a good ninety minutes every afternoon to get into trouble, because once he got home, he would keep an eye on us by planting himself in his La-Z-Boy recliner, in his undershirt and slacks, reheating a cup of morning coffee and reading the paper until Mom got home. He didn’t believe in interfering, but he wouldn’t let us think we were unsupervised.
First thing after we got home, we’d dump our book bags onto the floor by the door. We either made ourselves a redneck grilled cheese—white bread topped with “green can” Parmesan melted in the toaster oven—or else we’d turn on the FryDaddy and make ourselves some french fries. I can’t imagine letting unsupervised grade-school kids loose around hot cooking oil, but back then in Mississippi, kids were raised to take care of themselves.
Mike always had a dumb stunt or two up his sleeve. I displayed my adoration for him by being his willing partner in crime. Once he showed me the art of smoking grocery bags. We sat on the porch, and he ripped a brown paper grocery bag into neat strips, then rolled them into perfect, tight little “cigarettes.” We lit up and I sucked on mine until I barfed all over the front porch.
A few years later, when I was about ten, he convinced me to try dipping snuff. He was already a confirmed Skoal dipper, and his suggestion tapped right into that part of my personality that believes if it’s wrong, there’s got to be a part of it that feels really right. I took his challenge and shoved some dip between my cheek and gums. I thought I was a tough titty until the trees started spinning. That was my first genuine buzz. It sure wouldn’t be my last.
If the weather was fine, we often enjoyed a little water-skiing on the lake, off the back of Mike’s flat-bottomed jon boat. The vessel was built for fishing and poking around the shallows, but we were undeterred. We were eager to perfect our stunts.
If we saw some mom standing on her back porch with her hands cupped around her mouth shouting some version of “You Cora kids, get out of that boat and go on home,” we knew her next step would be calling our mom and telling her, “Your damn kids were out there skiing and left a wake that washed up and soaked my backyard.” So Mike would cut the engine immediately and we would float over and apologize—yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am—hoping the mom wouldn’t make that call. Even though Mike went on to become a minor criminal and confidence man, he was polite as pie when it came to accepting a dressing-down from the neighbors.
Even though we were allowed to fend for ourselves for a few hours after school, in the summer my mom didn’t feel comfortable leaving us alone for an entire day. In addition to her nursing job, she sometimes worked as a home aide, and she would drag us around on her rounds. We were told to stay in the car while she went in and checked on her patient. It was as hot as Hades in Mississippi in the summer. We rolled down all the windows and waited dutifully, but thought it would serve our mom right if while she was nursing someone else her children died of heatstroke.
Our favorite stop was Mr. George, a sweet old Greek guy who always offered us cookies. He made his own apricot wine, thick enough to stand a spoon up in, which our mom graciously accepted as her payment. When we came over, he invited us to pick figs as big as baseballs off the tree in his backyard. One of us would climb up, pick them, and gently toss them into the waiting hands of the two on the ground so as not to split or bruise them. We ate until we had stomachaches, the juice pouring out of the fleshy red center onto our chins.
I don’t think I’d lose a bet that my parents were among the most liberal in all of Jackson. In the 1960s, while they were still footloose young marrieds, they rented a ground-floor apartment on a steep little street close to the stadium. My dad was pursuing his degree in history at Mississippi College, while my mom worked at Mississippi State Hospital, nursing supervisor of the Colored Male Service, dedicated to caring for the black male mental patients. Like all southerners, they enjoyed their get-togethers, and were among the only people in their set to invite African American friends to their parties. This was still intensely frowned upon in Mississippi; they had to sneak their black friends into the house in the dark of night, which itself was dangerous. To welcome them into their home was to risk having their house burned to the ground, or worse.
Thus, they got along with all our neighbors on Swan Lake Drive: the Southern Baptist evangelical family, the Yankee family, the black family, and across the street, the bachelors—Dalton and Millard—the gay family.
My mom was terribly fond of Dalton and Millard. She knew they were a gay couple, although she never said so outright. When Millard would try to offer her the occasional decorating tip—no one was less interested in decorating than Virginia Lee—he would beg her to listen, saying, “I’m the queen.” She would scoff and say, “You most certainly are not. I’m the queen.” Then he’d say, “No, honey, you really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I am the true queen of Swan Lake Drive.”
In her capacity as psychiatric nurse who also taught and also picked up extra work as a home health nurse, my mom knew a number of people who had nowhere to go during the holidays, and come November 1 she’d roll up her sleeves and start issuing invitations. On Thanksgiving Day, every type of human you can imagine appeared on our doorstep. Taxis brought people who arrived in their Sunday best, their wheelchairs stowed in the trunk. Some folks came on foot, having been dropped off on the corner of Lakeshore Drive by a driver going in the same direction. We had every color, creed, and sexual orientation, in addition to a lot of garden-variety lunatics. “They all bleed red,” my mother would say.
My dad was a smidge less tolerant. He was welcoming, but a traditionalist at heart. He had his limits. One year, our friend George, a schizophrenic with some other mental issues that required some delicate alchemy of medicating, lined all the kids up on the couch and entertained us with his impersonation of Erica Kane from the soap opera All My Children. I was completely transfixed. My dad was less enthused and the following year he kept a careful eye on George and his theatrics.
One of my best friends in the neighborhood was Helene Gregorich, three doors down. Her family came from the North, Ohio or somewhere, and was of some sort of Eastern European extraction. Her mom, Mrs. Gregorich, made the most excellent Hungarian goulash, and I used to hang around moon-eyed, hoping she would ask me to dinner. This was not an easy task, since she worked the graveyard shift at the GMC plant on the line assembling car parts. We had to tiptoe around after school until she woke up and started dinner.
The Gregoriches had an in-ground swimming pool, which made them seem incredibly glamorous and rich. In the merciless heat of summer, hanging around for Mrs. Gregorich’s goulash would be replaced by hanging around hoping to be invited to go swimming. Their impressive affluence knew no bounds: Helene had the best Easter candy on the block. My mom splurged for hollow chocolate bunnies from Walgreens for my brothers and me, but the Gregorich children received enormous packages of rich chocolate from their European relatives.
Mr. Gregorich was the coach for the softball club I joined in fifth grade. I went on to play for seven years. Catcher and center field were my positions. I had good hand-eye coordination and an ability to hurl the ball at the perfect moment to make an out. I was tapped for the all-star team year after year. The trophies still sit on top of my dresser on Swan Lake Drive, gathering dust. But damn if I don’t love showing them off to my kids when we come to visit.
Come the end of May every year, my dad would hook up his boat—a snazzy Larson Shark—to the back of the station wagon and we’d take off for the Pearl River. His favorite spot was Ratliff Ferry, off the Natchez Trace. We camped on Flag Island, a sandbar, actually, with beaches as beautiful and white as any you’d find in the Caribbean. We slept in a canvas tent big enough to fit the five of us and all our gear. In the mornings my parents would percolate some coffee over the campfire, and we’d sit and watch the alligators cruise past, the heat already thick and approaching unbearable. No kitchen I’ve ever slaved in was as hot as summer in Mississippi. After coffee, my parents would hop into the boat, and my dad would drive my mom back to her car so she could go to work; in the evenings he’d pick her up and bring her back to camp.
We kids spent the day swimming and water-skiing. I was as brown as a nut. My dad would sit in his lawn chair and read his Louis L’Amour and Jean Auel. For lunch, he would make us bologna sandwiches, served with a handful of Lay’s chips. Some years the cicadas would have emerged earlier in the season, and we would entertain ourselves picking their skeletons out of low-hanging branches.
At night, like dummies, my brothers and I would grab a flashlight, hop into Mike’s old jon boat, and cruise across the river to what we called “alligator swamp.” Summer is alligator mating season, and our goal was to catch them in the act. We never got far; two sets of red eyes glaring at us in the dark were enough to send us scuttling back to our camp.
My childhood was as perfect as could be, but for one thing, and that one thing was monstrous. It would divide my life neatly into before and after, assuring the life I knew would never be the same again.
I cannot bear to say his name, and think of him to this day as Asshole. AH was nine years older than me. He lived not far from Texarkana, and my parents would visit his parents for a week once or twice every year. It was a five-hour drive, east across the top of the boot of Louisiana. The high point of the trip was always a stop at KFC. My parents, who forbade fast food at home, swooned upon opening those little red-and-white-striped boxes holding the hot, crispy chicken, warm container of mashed potatoes, buttered corn on the cob, and fluffy biscuit. I tried to appreciate the feast along with the rest of my family, but dreaded what might be coming once we reached our destination. I dabbed at the mashed potatoes with the end of my spoon, licked the butter off the corn on the cob, but couldn’t bring myself to bite into it. I was too busy trying to hold back tears. I couldn’t eat, hadn’t slept the night before, and was terrified about what I knew was to come.
It began when AH was fifteen and I was six. It might not happen on the first day of our visit, nor the second. He would watch and wait, and when I went to the bathroom, or back into one of the bedrooms to change into my swimsuit, he would follow me and close the door behind us. I was small for my age; he was practically a grown man. He was in ROTC at school and liked people to think he was smart.
He would make me sit on his lap, groping and fondling me, touching me where I did not want to be touched, forcing me to touch him. All the rest of it is too horrible to put into words, even now, all these years later.
After AH finished, he would threaten me. “If you tell your parents, they’re going to hate you. They’re going to stop loving you and think you’re cheap trash.” I believed him. I didn’t have anyone to talk to or anyone to help me stop it.
One afternoon, when I was perhaps ten or eleven and he was already out of high school, he cornered me in the bathroom and pushed me into the shower, one of those stall types, slightly bigger than an old-fashioned phone booth. He undid his pants and then unzipped mine. I felt the cold tile against my back through my OshKosh B’Gosh outfit, closed my eyes, willing myself to be in another place, when suddenly I heard the bathroom door open. There stood my father.
My father was a gentle man who rarely raised his voice. Still, he was six feet tall, and he was my father. I expected him to march in, pull AH out of that shower by his collar, drag him out into the living room, and beat the living shit out of him. Instead, he stood there with his hand on the knob, looking stunned, and to my horror . . . disgusted. It was just a moment, but it dragged on for an eternity. I’ll never forget it. And then he turned and left me alone in the room with AH.
I’d always been Daddy’s girl. The pain of being abused was nothing compared to seeing the look in my father’s eyes that day. It would haunt me for years.
I knew instantly and intuitively that even though my father had broken my heart by failing to protect me, it was over; AH had been found out. His dad was a tough and sometimes mean man, and when my dad told his dad what he’d seen, AH would get the beating of his life.
I blasted out of that shower, out of that bathroom, and ran down the hall to the back bedroom. My little suitcase was lying on the floor, and my first thought was that I should put on my swimsuit and run down the street to the home of a friend I’d made in the neighborhood, Scott. His family had a swimming pool. It was ruinously hot in the summer in east Texas, and I hadn’t stopped to put on my shoes. My feet burned on the pavement. I could hear the cries and splashing of kids in the pool before I let myself in through the back gate. After a while AH had the audacity to show up and join the swim party, acting as if nothing had happened. I didn’t speak to him, I didn’t look at him, I didn’t talk to him.
Eventually the sun slid behind the trees and all the kids were called in to dinner. Scott let me borrow a towel. I wrapped it around myself and scampered back to AH’s house. My mom waited for me on the front porch. She had probably been standing there for a good hour. As I ran up, she knelt down and opened her arms, which pitched me into immediate and full-blown hysteria. I sobbed until I thought I would throw up. My father obviously had told my mother what he’d witnessed and asked her to deal with it, and as a nurse practitioner specializing in psychiatric disorders she was not unfamiliar with this kind of thing. She was calm and nurturing. She rubbed my back and kept asking what happened. To save myself, to protect myself and my sanity, I said, “It only happened once, Mommy. This was the only time.”
Which was a lie. It had happened many times.
The truth would come out, but not for thirty-five years, six months before my dad passed away. As betrayed as I felt that day, I could never be truly angry at him. He was and would always be my hero. Decades later I would find out what a part of me had always suspected, that he simply couldn’t handle what he had seen. He wasn’t disgusted by me, as I had always thought, but rather shocked, confused, and embarrassed. Perhaps AH and I were playing doctor or experimenting. It was the seventies. Who knew what kids were up to then? Parents weren’t involved in their kids’ lives the way we are now. They lacked information. They lacked the tools of communication. But finally I would hear the words that gave me the strength to begin to heal: “Cathy, I wish I had protected you. I’m so sorry, baby.”
But that day, I felt utterly alone. After my mom tried to soothe it away, I walked through the screen door, through the living room, in my bathing suit, clutching the towel around me, the soles of my feet burned. As I passed, the adults just said, “Hey,” as if it were any lazy summer afternoon.
When I examine what drives me, this childhood trauma floats to the surface. I’ve learned that while I’m blessed with people in my life whom I love and who love me, I walk through this world alone, that I’m the only one responsible for taking care of myself. On that day so long ago, this thought began to take form: my parents can’t protect me, my brothers can’t protect me, and my friends can’t, either. I put on my own armor.
I refuse to give AH any credit for the good things in my life. But one of the reasons I am able to be fearless, to work hard and stay determined over weeks, months, and years, is my refusal to be done in by shame and guilt. After it was behind me, in the weeks and months that followed the day my dad stumbled into that room and stopped it, an attitude rose up in me: “Just watch what I’m going to do now.”
A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness
Cooking as Fast as I Can
A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness
Before she became a celebrated chef, Cathy Cora was just a girl from Jackson, Mississippi, where days were slow and every meal was made from scratch. Her passion for the kitchen started in her home, where she spent her days internalizing the dishes that would form the cornerstone of her cooking philosophy incorporating her Greek heritage and Southern upbringing—from crispy fried chicken and honey-drenched biscuits to spanakopita. But outside the kitchen, Cat’s life was volatile.
In Cooking as Fast as I Can, Cat Cora reveals, for the first time, coming-of-age experiences from early childhood sexual abuse to the realities of life as a lesbian in the deep South. She shares how she found her passion in the kitchen and went on to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and apprentice under Michelin star chefs in France. After her big break as a co-host on the Food Network’s Melting Pot, Cat broke barriers by becoming the first-ever female Iron Chef.
Cooking as Fast as I Can chronicles the difficulties and triumphs Cora experienced on the path to becoming a chef. She writes movingly about how she found courage and redemption in the dark truths of her past and about how she found solace in the kitchen and work, how her passion for cooking helped her to overcome hardships and ultimately find happiness at home and became a wife and a mother to four boys. Above all, this is an utterly engrossing story about the grit and grace it takes to achieve your dreams.
- Scribner |
- 256 pages |
- ISBN 9781476766140 |
- September 2015
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Cooking as Fast as I Can is the poignant, intimate portrait of celebrity chef Cat Cora’s rise to culinary fame. Cora’s story is one of passion and resilience. Petite in her tall adopted family, gay in the closeted South, an American in Michelin-starred French restaurants, a southerner in New York City kitchens, a woman in the cutthroat, macho culinary world, and the first female Iron Chef, Cora refused to be defined as an outsider. She forged her career through struggle and hard work. She writes with tenderness about the meals that shaped her memories and about finding courage and redemption in the dark truths of her past—and learning how to forgive. Ultimately, Cora found solace in the kitchen and in work, and her passion for cooking has helped her find happiness as a chef, a wife, and a mother of four boys.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the opening quote from Mark Twain: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” How is this a fitting epigraph for the book? How does Cora grapple with forgiveness as an adult? Does the violence of the word “crus see more