Food & Drink

Much of what I know about cooking, I learned from basketball

What does UNC coach Roy Williams know about cooking? Sometimes, you just need a solid score.
What does UNC coach Roy Williams know about cooking? Sometimes, you just need a solid score. TIM COWIE/

Many food writers pen soft-focus memories of childhoods spent at their mother’s apron strings, with tales of bonding over making muffins or pot roast. They credit their love of Greek food, canning or baking – indeed, their very calling as writers – to what they learned from their sainted mothers.

Watching my mother open Swanson’s boxes and slide frozen chicken pot pies into the oven didn’t offer much in the way of cooking inspiration, except the lesson to always use an oven mitt.

My lasting childhood memories involve sitting at my father’s knee learning the differences between man-to-man and zone defenses, the advantages of a good fast break and the proper uses of timeouts.

That’s why a lot of what I know about cooking I learned from watching basketball.

And it’s more than “Never eat the arena’s nacho cheese dip, which looks like radioactive silicone.”

Because it’s that most wonderful time of the year again, March Madness, I will share five basketball axioms that have inspired my cooking.

I make no apologies for the light blue tint of these observations. I was indoctrinated from birth by a man who was unable to attend college but felt for UNC the way an entire campus of starry-eyed freshmen might, who was convinced that he blended in with the “youngsters” on Franklin Street, wore blue while watching TV from his recliner and called to dissect each game (if I didn’t call him first). He died in the fall of the year, but I miss him most in March.

▪ “The only thing you can do is practice … you try to work on it, not talk about it,” said the late UNC coach Dean Smith on free throws (from “The World According to Dean” by Barry Jacobs).

That means just get in the kitchen and do it. Chicken, breading, hot oil. Flour, water, yeast. If there’s a miss – greasy fried chicken or rock-hard biscuits – you adjust and go at it again. Eventually the skill will become automatic, as with my neighbor, the Queen of Pie, who has been cooking since childhood and could make beautiful pie crust in the dark, I am convinced.

Once the basics are no-brainers, you can advance to more complex skills, like spun-sugar cake decorating, the levitating turnaround jump shot of baking.

▪ Play within your game, because if you try to play the other guy’s game, you’ve already lost. Numerous coaches make variations of this statement because it means stick to what you know. Don’t try to be someone else.

Let’s say you agreed to cook Easter dinner for your extended family of 20. No matter how much you’d like to impress your snooty cousin’s rich fiance, it’s probably not a good time to crack open the copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” that you haven’t touched since you received it for Christmas. If you can make a great roast turkey, roast the turkey and be proud of it.

▪ Few things are more beautiful than the soaring arc of a three-point shot that falls through the net like a perfect drop of rain. Unlike driving inside for a dunk, which is an act of pure power, a three-pointer is a rainbow that combines both skill and hope.

Some meals mean more because of the occasion, guests or state of the world, and cooking them feels more significant than usual. At those times, technique and ability are not enough; the heart must be involved.

▪ “Things go a lot better when the ball goes in the basket,” according to UNC coach Roy Williams (and others).

Sometimes you just want a recipe that will work, a dish that’s easy to get on the table and will make everyone happy. These days, when you might be cooking for a bunch of vegan, gluten-free and Paleo eaters, finding that particular meal is an accomplishment. Embrace the good and simple.

▪ The lucky socks, UNC deviled egg plate, charmed sausage balls and the tradition of rubbing The Hub’s head for luck during a tight game. Where that started I don’t know, but I’m not about to abandon it – also because he gets so amusingly piqued.

In short: If you can’t have fun, what’s the point? To crib from the humorist Erma Bombeck: When humor goes, there goes culinary civilization.

Now, get ready for the tipoff.

Debbie Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at