The kitchen used to be enemy territory for me.
I grew up with a mother who cooked out of necessity. I did not see joy in her face while she prepared meals.
My father, on the other hand, saw cooking as one of the highest creative pursuits. He could cobble a spread from whatever happened to be in the refrigerator, making up the recipe as he went along. But the “right” creative way was his creative way—so helping him in the kitchen meant criticism, not freedom to experiment.
Add to this scenario my general ineptness at all things domestic—ironing, sewing, frosting a cake—and you have a gal who learned to work hard and smart at her career, ordering takeout. My early kitchens were somewhat desolate places. My refrigerator was a great place to store champagne and milk for my morning bowl of cereal.
In my twenties, living in Chicago, having friends over for dinner meant recreating some sense of home. I realized that I needed to master at least a dish or two to make this happen. My old friends still joke about how many renditions of Chicken Acapulco they were forced to endure. It was good, solid, edible food and the one dish I could make without error. I’d pair it with Pillsbury crescent rolls and green beans—and call it a feast. I can hear all you foodies howling with laughter.
It’s not that I did not try. It’s that my tries resulted in colossal failures friends and family laugh about to this day. The beef stroganoff that called for a cup of bullion. I did not realize that meant a cup of liquid. I added a cup of cubes. I believe we ended up ordering Kentucky Fried Chicken that evening.
The lemon squares that contained a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon (At 17, I did not realize T meant tablespoon. But, I could write you a mean essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Alas, I could not take essays to the family potluck.).
The spaghetti sauce to which I added raw meat, thinking it would cook in the sauce.
I could go on but I’ll spare us both the horror.
You know this story has a happy ending because of its beginning.
When I got married, I had someone I loved very much for whom to cook. Someone who loved to eat—and also enjoyed cooking. Someone who came from a culture where meals could take hours and day-long prep was not unusual. A culture where recipes were more often than not based on a touch of this and a sprinkle of that—handed down by word of mouth. Cooking was an art, yes. But a messy art. A less than perfect art. An experimental art.
Ah, I had come home.
It took years, but I learned. I practiced. I threw some things out and ordered Chinese. We ate some less than lovely Valentine’s Day cakes (the heart-shaped cake that wasn’t quite heart-shaped–more like a lovingly baked amoeba).
But, mixed into my repertoire was a damn good arroz con pollo. And later, a flourless chocolate cake shaped like–well–a cake. Even competent cooks have their limits; I’ve sworn off heart-shaped anything.
The list grew. Stuffed portabellas. Coq a vin. Pumpkin pancakes.
I found myself feeling competent in the kitchen. Calm. Soothed, even.
When I came to a rough patch in life over the past several years, I was surprised to find myself heading to the kitchen. Cooking has become a creative, but fairly predictable, art for me.
When you’re navigating a divorce in which your ex’s attorney seems to have made it his life mission to bankrupt you, life is out of control.
But dinner is not.
Carrots do not talk back. They do not sue you. They do not scream obscenities at you. They, instead, make a nice crunching sound as you cut them into symmetrical rounds. They line up neatly on the cutting board and sizzle appreciatively when they hit the warm olive oil in the sauté pan.
When your loved ones are sick and dying, and the curveballs just keep coming, you find yourself wanting to make the perfect meringue. Because chemo can fail. Mothers and fathers will die. Physical and emotional pain will come. Sometimes out of nowhere. But a meringue does what it is told. Egg whites and sugar mix together to form predictable, solid peaks. Biting into it, you know what to expect. A crunchy exterior and heavenly sweet interior, both of which melt in your mouth. A meringue does not disappoint.
What I’ve learned is that, in the kitchen, if you learn the basic rules, you can master the art of cooking.
Not so in life.
You can learn all the edicts you want. Rules change. People are fickle. The master plan is not yours to make.
So it is no surprise that when I found out my mother had died, I was in the kitchen cooking chicken. When my sister shared she had advanced stage cancer, I was chopping vegetables. And the first night alone after my divorce was final, I made myself flank steak, potato and parsnip puree, and green beans, topping it off with a phenom sparkling rosé.
I have found solace. In the crisp chop, the soothing sizzle, the effervescent fizz I am able to create in the kitchen.
Funny that the girl who used to fear the kitchen has learned to retreat from worldly woes there.
I wonder if we’d be a step closer to world peace if our “fearless” leaders made soufflé now and then.