There’s a kind of rhythm, at least around here, to the stories of how people learned to cook. They often grew up in kitchens beside their grandmothers or mothers, watching or helping as they prepped meals for their families. Then, when they reached a certain age, they continued the tradition. It came as naturally as eye color. That’s not the way it went for Fulton’s Baleigh Tanner.
“Oh, my mom does not cook,” she said. It was a flat statement of fact.
How about her grandmother, then? Nope, she said. Her dad can grill, but he’s strictly a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Not exactly the type to rifle through a kitchen cabinet and, in a burst of inspiration, whip up a dish to wow friends and neighbors.
No, when Tanner decided she wanted to cook, she basically had two teachers: herself and Google.
And maybe “decided she wanted” is too strong a phrase. The 20-year-old mostly learned out of necessity. That and a desire to help her mother. Wednesday nights at her church, Fulton Church of Christ, feature potluck dinners. Normally, Tanner’s mom would toss together a quick casserole after work. But the timing of that was a challenge.
So, in her senior year of high school, Tanner decided she’d be the cook in a family where there weren’t any.
“My mom doesn’t get off work until 5 o’clock. Church eating starts at 6. There was no way for her to get off work, get home, and have something ready in time for church,” she said.
But in her senior year of high school, Tanner was back home at 1 p.m. Plenty of time to toss together something edible.
“So I’d come home, hang out a bit and then figure out what I was going to cook for supper,” she said. “Every Wednesday night, when my mom would need to cook something, I’d just cook it.”
It didn’t take her long to realize how much she enjoyed spending time in her kitchen. She’d research new recipes online, try them and make her own personal tweaks. It was fun and relaxing.
“Any time I wanted to try something new, I’d just fix it for church,” she said. “I knew they wouldn’t tell me, ‘This is bad.’”
And they didn’t. She got the opposite, in fact. Members of her church family … there’s about 15 of them who eat each Wednesday night … would tell her how much they enjoyed her cooking, ask her to repeat the dish or change it.
Mostly, she made and still makes casseroles. Tanner loves both the simplicity of fixing them and the sheer amount of people they will feed. If there were tiers for potluck dishes, casseroles would have to be near the top.
“I’d rather make a casserole dish than just about any other dish,” she said. “You can have one casserole and have it be every single dish. Versus, ‘Oh, I need some chicken. I need a vegetable. I need another starch. I need bread. I need salad.’ I like how you can literally put anything into a casserole and make it into one meal.”
Tanner makes a breakfast casserole of which she’s very proud. It’s packed with all kinds of early morning staples. Eggs. Cream cheese. Sausage. Rolls. It’s like a Cracker Barrel menu shoved into a dish and, in her inexpert opinion, it’s delicious.
As with any new skill, Tanner has suffered the occasional culinary disaster. For instance …
“When I first started cooking, I thought olive oil and cooking oil were about the same thing,” she said. “I put some olive oil in brownies one time.”
“I now know the difference,” she said. “Because they do not taste the same.”
Even her mom knew that one.
Still, Tanner said she’s had more successes than failures, more good meals than bad. Now in her final year as a nursing student, and with the insane schedule that results from juggling school, an internship at the hospital, family and church, Tanner loves the time she’s able to spend in the kitchen, preparing food for her friends and family to enjoy.
“It’s a calmer time,” she said of cooking. “I’m not trying so hard to get things done. It gives me a break from school and a break from working.”