Have I mentioned that I cook?
I didn’t really start cooking in earnest until my early 20s, when I got married, and then I did so regularly for nearly 30 years. My husband is also a competent cook, and we traded kitchen duties occasionally due to schedules and activities that took one of us away from home at mealtime. But when our kids were younger, most of the cooking responsibilities were mine.
Years of cooking for a family, often under great time and budget constraints, made me a lazy cook. During those hectic years when I was rushing myself or my kids to or from work, or dental appointments, cheerleading practices or orchestra rehearsals, it was important to get something on the dinner table that was edible, acceptable to fussy eaters, and with at least a modicum of nutritional value. I didn’t have the time to experiment with new things, so we had a pretty standard rotation of things that fit my criteria.
And that was okay. Nobody went hungry. It just wasn’t particularly exciting.
Now, of course, I have a renewed interest in all that goes on in the kitchen. In fact, since I decided that I wanted to become the Foo Fighters’ Jewish mother, cooking for me is no longer a hobby, or a chore, or a necessity. Now it’s a mission.
Over the last two years, since I got my crazy dream job idea, I’ve begun to look more critically at food, at recipes, at techniques, at equipment, and most importantly, at my own skills and limitations.
I’m good. I know this. But there’s no reason I can’t be better.
What’s the old joke? “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!”
And so I do. As often as possible.
Since choosing this path, I’ve begun to collect recipes at an impressive rate. Fifteen to twenty new recipes a week is not unheard of. I find them on the internet, print them out and file them by category in binders. I pore over cookbooks looking for dishes I’ve not tried before. I ask friends to share their recipes with me.
I don’t have the time to fix them all, but I prepare at least four to six new items each week. And what I haven’t prepared, I file away for the future. I’m building an arsenal. Everything from breakfasts to appetizers to soups to main dishes. And dessert, of course. I have one binder that’s nothing but desserts! It’s like my own Library of Congress for food. When the day comes that my band asks me to step up, I’ll go to work well-armed.
Because I don’t yet know what Foo Fighters eat –well, save for Dave’s fried fucking chicken – selecting recipes is something of a crapshoot. I go with things that sound appealing to me. After thirty-odd years of feeding me and mine, I like to think I have a decent sense of what’s good. But you never really know how a recipe will turn out until you’ve fixed it, so my kitchen is a busy place on the weekends.
Now that cooking has become a passion for me, I have a list of rules that I have promised myself I will follow in pursuit of said passion. One is to use the best ingredients I can find. The second is to use the proper tools to get the job done. And the last is to be as fearless as possible while practicing my craft. And I’ve found that when I follow them, things turn out pretty well. But even if they don’t, I learn something from the experience.
It’s common sense, really. A frozen pie crust is fast and easy, but nothing beats the taste of one that’s freshly made. Dried herbs are more convenient and keep longer, but fresh herbs create better flavor in any dish.
Kitchen tools are important, too. My once very basic kitchen now has an array of gadgets and vessels and accoutrements to allow me to be a better cook. Hand-held juicers and a zester, and a pastry brush, and a dough blender. Three different diameters of springform pans for a variety of cheesecakes. Cookie dough scoops and a melon baller.
I could still cook without all of these items, but they have made a difference in the quality of the food I’m fixing. And that matters to me. Regardless of who I cook for, my skills as a cook are improving daily. Practice, practice, practice.
Then there’s my last rule. The scary one, being fearless in the kitchen. It’s taken some effort.
I fear failure when I cook. And I know exactly where this trepidation originated.
It was 1989 and I was a stay-at-home mom with two toddlers. I decided to fix chicken and dumplings for dinner. Easy enough, right? Except it wasn’t. To this day, I can’t tell you what went wrong. Maybe I misread the directions, or I skipped a step. Maybe I got distracted by one of the kids. But what should have been the perfect “comfort food” meal was instead a charred, smoking disaster. What should have been fluffy dumplings were burnt clumps of doughy goo. The chicken, at least what I could identify as such, was blackened. The vegetables had dissolved.
It was a cooking disaster the likes of which I had never experienced, a science experiment gone terribly wrong. The smell in my kitchen was horrific. As soon as the smoke cleared, everything went in the trash, including the Dutch oven, which was beyond salvation. I’ve not attempted the dish since.
Twenty-four years is a long time to be intimidated by chicken and dumplings. Yet it’s stuck with me, all this time.
But I know now that it wasn’t just about the chicken and dumplings. It was really about motherhood and marriage and wanting to be perfect at both and being terrified that I wouldn’t measure up to somebody’s pie-in-the-sky standards of successful womanhood. And measuring up to someone else’s ideals was important to me then. But I was younger. I didn’t yet know that perfection is impossible. Not to mention highly overrated.
My kitchen is now my safe place. It’s my laboratory, my playground, and my sanctuary. When something goes wrong there, I can usually figure out a way to fix it, and if I can’t fix it, I can toss it out and start over. And what anyone else expects doesn’t matter to me now. I only have to measure up to my own standards, which are pretty fucking high without influence from anyone else.
I’m ready to tackle the chicken and dumplings again. And I shall be fearless.