(Published March 3, 2009)
I am terrified of cooking. And yet, I have one of the most well-stocked kitchens of anyone I know. This includes those of a gourmet baker and a former sous-chef. Sea-salt from Provence? Check. Red enameled Dutch oven? Check. Citrus reamer? Check. What is a citrus reamer? I have no idea. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Some people feel rich when they buy a pair of designer shoes. Or drive an expensive, hard-to-import car. I feel the most wealthy when I spend an afternoon comparing the merits of microplanes at a Sur la Table. I get this close to the promise that one day, I will wake up and intuitively know how to make a coq au vin perfectly. Instead, I settle for a silicone oven mitt and throw it in the backseat on my way to grab some takeout.
My fear of cooking started young. My parents weren’t very handy in the kitchen. My father made dry chicken, an underdone baked potato, and limp, flavorless broccoli once a week. My mother attempted to broaden our horizons with a series of epically bad meals, one of which included a ceramic dish full of eviscerated bread, white wine, and raw shrimp. The recipe she was following, culled from God knows what salmonella cookbook, promised great results and in a bowl of half cooked crustaceans drowning in a lukewarm bath of swill.
It is unsurprising then that the only food I would enthusiastically eat until the age of 15 was buttered spaghetti.
Like most things that you aren’t permitted in your childhood, food became a kind of dream for me. But not the attainable kind. Hence the minestrone where I cooked the noodles along with the soup, inadvertently inventing a kind of semolina sponge that absorbed all of the liquid until the pot was a solid mass of starch and tomato residue.
Restaurants are what make me happy. I love the intricate process of becoming a regular. I look forward to the moment where a waiter will stop bringing me the menu and just arrive at my table with a mild papaya salad and deep fried tofu. Even as a waitress, I never got sick of being surrounded by edibles. I looked forward to the moment when one of my customers would say, “What do you recommend this evening?”
And yet, when I’m feeling down, nothing makes me feel better than cracking open a cookbook and assembling my collection of very fine tools and beautiful ingredients. The worry doesn’t kick in until I’ve turned on the gas and realized that my stove mimics the slope of the floor, sending all of the cooking oil to the far left of the pan, leaving the ingredients stranded on the right with no protective coating. Or that it will be impossible to successfully coordinate the seared chicken and mushroom stir fry without seriously neglecting one of them. And that risotto is a pipe dream invented by women with kankles who were raised chained to a stove.
I feel like I can identify this as an addiction because no matter how badly I screw up, I’m back for more a week later, seemingly having learned nothing about my inability to properly braise a chicken.