9: Learning to Cook

“Something’s wrong.”

Forty five minutes into my first night-time baby sitting gig and I’m already seeking help from my mom. The cordless phone is cradled between my left ear and the top of my left shoulder and I’m hovering over a suspicious-looking pot of macaroni and cheese.

My simmering concoction is soupier than the version I’ve eaten more than 200 times in my life, signaling me to consult an expert. While we’re talking through it, I pick up the pace of my wooden-spoon stir stroke, trying to blend away the extra liquid. When my wrist fatigues, I wonder what it is about this process that seems easy enough to leave a fourteen year-old babysitter alone to execute. I describe what I see to my mom, and she’s convinced my failure is not for my lack of effort, but “maybe something else.”

She asks me to repeat back to her what I’ve done.

When I get to the part about the four cups of milk, she identifies the root cause of my disaster.

Apparently I have a rare learning disability that presents as mathematical dyslexia, but only when I’m reading recipes, to make food, to feed to starving kids.

Now the kids are hungry and  fresh out of fun things to do without me and my mom is resisting my request to come over. I feel panicky and inadequate and like my whole life has led up to this moment and with the game on the line I fumble in the end zone.

I decide to stop cooking forever.

And for fourteen years, it’s easy to keep my word.

My mom gets hopeful during my last year of high school when I pick up her addiction to Food Network. Back then the programming was mostly “how-tos” performed by young cooks who are now aging stars, with considerably more fame, and just a little extra weight. I learn how to season both sides of a steak and avoid over-mixing brownie batter. I learn about searing and roasting and the balancing flavors. I could whip cream and food process and create a white-wine reduction.

If only I hadn’t vowed I never would.

In college, I didn’t have time for Food Network and lived in such a frenzy of activity, I forgot I ever did. I spent countless days on campus where eight or ten hours would pass with only the consumption of a Wetzel’s pretzel, and a diet coke. I ate strawberry sour straws to stay awake in class and returned home every night to find my area of the refrigerator empty, again.

I stashed sleeves of Oreos in our freezer for nights when I hadn’t eaten anything at all.

When my best friend Alice became my roommate, she insisted on making me plates and plates of potstickers because “if I don’t feed you, I know you’ll only eat M&Ms.”

Post-college life looked essentially the same except I moved back to my home town where my mom could make me dinner, at least once a week.

On my twenty-fifth birthday, I still didn’t own my own set of plates, or a single pot or pan.

I don’t remember how everything shifted, or when it was exactly. But sometime during my third year of law school, I decided to learn to cook. It felt like a new, hip hobby. Something I could talk to people about in public when they looked bored with, or disinterested in yoga. I thought it might be fun and was certain it was a more valuable use of the internet than my current, less-hip hobby: trolling Facebook.

I mostly cooked vegetables and experimented with wholesome baked goodies. Vegetables were tasty but less-than-challenging and wholesome baked goodies never tasted as delicious as the not-wholesome ones. I stayed on it, though, allowing myself to grow in small spurts, if never long strides. I got hooked on food blogs and reunited with my friends from the Food Network. With a ball of knotty anxiety in my stomach, I started to share my food with the friends I’d made in real life.

People were openly accepting and universally supportive, no matter the quality of food I delivered. One afternoon, I poisoned my friend Parker with a faulty batch of questionable deviled eggs, and later that night he requested something else home-made from my kitchen.

There were mediocre outcomes and outright failures. Sometimes the catastrophe was equal to my inaugural episode, and occasionally it was even worse.

Sometimes I’d make something I was so proud of, I’d send my mom pictures, and the recipe, to prove it.

When I’d get really deep in it, I’d call my mom three or four times to clarify tricks and tips and memories I’d internalized over so many years of watching, but not cooking.

For me, learning to cook is a practice of patience, and courage and vulnerability. It is the only thing I’ve ever loved, that I’m not particularly good at. Cooking is where my ego surrenders to my heart, and where I live in the pure joy and spirit of the experience. Cooking is how I tell people I care for them and where I go for meditation.

It is hard, and frustrating and rewarding and changing, and awesome and peaceful, every time I do it.

To My Brother

I took an unusually ambitious study break yesterday. I made Black Bean and Roasted Sweet Potato tacos with avocado and cilantro. Pretty fancy for my single-lady-life.

I felt confident and accomplished. Like a sophisticated grown-up. Not two years ago, the only edible thing to ever come out of my kitchen was a peanut butter sandwich-no jelly.

In a moment of self-congratulatory inattention, I mangled my right-hand pointer finger on my cheese grater. There was blood everywhere. The cutting board, the sink, the pepper-jack. This morning I found blood on the inside of my blender.

I had tortillas on the stovetop, sweet potatoes in a skillet and a half-carved avocado open on the counter. I swiftly wrapped my finger in a bulky papertowel (something I’ve seen my mom do 800 times in my life. It would appear this kitchen-specific clumsiness was inherited).

I spent the next thirty minutes fumbling around the kitchen, more helpless and clueless than the first time I cooked anything. I burned the sweet potatoes. I dropped black beans all over the floor. I got avocado in the tip of my ponytail. It was a total disaster.

Once I’d half assembled my pathetically unsophisticated tacos, I sat down to eat them.

Assuming the blood flow had been contained, and predicting I was going to be challenged by one-handed taco-eating, I unwrapped my finger.

Blood gushed immediately. The paper towel was soaked.

I would have to soldier on, one-handed.

I re-wrapped my finger and sat down to enjoy my tacos. My forehead was sweating, my mind plagued by my inadequacy and the wasted time of this unexpected obstacle. Digging deep in my memory to my wilderness medicine training and in hopes of stopping the bleeding, I held my right hand above my head.

I could barely squeeze the tortilla sufficiently to lift the taco off the plate. Once I had it airborne, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get it into my mouth without releasing the contents into a waterfall-like failure.

The whole debacle was ridiculously frustrating.

When I finally finished, I slumped back into the kitchen to face the mess I’d created. I couldn’t do it. I left all the food out and every dish unwashed. Cleaning was clearly a two-handed job.

Defeated, I sat back down at my desk to keep studying.

In the stillness, I thought about my brother. Five years ago he crashed a motorcycle and paralyzed his right arm. He does everything left handed. He makes it all look effortless. He drives, he cooks, he folds laundry, wraps presents, ties his shoes. I’ve seen him move furniture, hold babies, even clap with one hand. He is remarkable. and resilient. and inspiring.

I felt humble. And a little humiliated. And immediately I was filled with deep love and admiration for him.

I felt like sending him a hand written (with my left hand) note that says: To My brother: It’s harder than it looks.

I picked up a sparkly blue ball-point and failed to even connect pen-tip to paper.

Today, my wounded finger hidden by a mickey mouse band-aid, I write this, with both hands.

To my brother: You are incredible. I love you.