Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Good Cook to Bad

I used to be able to cook. I could make bread of every variety, chocolate stout beer, pasta sauce out of any vegetable, baked goods galore, oyster pie, shrimp saut├ęs, elaborate Indian repasts, jam without a recipe, candied pecans, you name it.

I was first taught how to cook in my sophomore year of college by my Haitian and Filipino dorm-mates. I mastered cooking skills quickly, reading cookbooks of all kinds, absorbing the basic rules. The next year, when I lived in Ireland, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner in its entirety, blowing my friends’ minds (as they were only good for cooking Mac and Cheese, basically).

Several years later, I could throw it down with French chefs in the Hamptons, and I actually did (ok--I made sauce. But it was good!). I knew a late master chef’s son. He told me I had talent.

I still do not need to measure anything (I eyeball it, and I am never wrong), but now, seventeen years after I first learned how to cook, just when one would think I’d be near my culinary peak, I have regressed. I am frantic in the kitchen. I make stupid mistakes, like forgetting the eggs or the baking powder. My food turns out bad sometimes, or terribly burned (I have a new convection oven that I still haven't quite gotten the hang of). I really don’t enjoy cooking anymore.

Meal-preparation is a chore now, and I have lost my cooking confidence. It also doesn’t help that my kitchen, for the past four years, was utterly disgusting, the worst kitchen in the world (we bought a very old bungalow; the kitchen suffered a frightful 70s redo, but for some reason, the original 1910 sink was kept, and that was not a good or charming thing. The floor was rotting underneath it, the room was dark, and while big, it had approximately one foot of counter space. Mice sneaked out of the walls at night and the refrigerator that came with the house bloomed--in hidden areas--with thick black mold).

It was, I repeat, the world’s most repulsive kitchen. I couldn’t deal with it. It was the kitchen of nightmares. I wanted to spend as little time in that room as possible.

We ordered a lot of pizza and hoped to get a home loan to renovate. The loan didn’t materialize, because too much of our house was in gutted in anticipation of the renovations, but slowly we saved up some money to rescue our house. Last year, we lived without a kitchen for just about nine months.

My husband (who is the World’s Greatest Carpenter) tore out the room, and built the island, the cabinets, the windowsills, the crown molding. He only had time to work on the room on the weekends (and some nights), and he had no help, so it took forever.

I hired a plumber to help install the new sink. I told him I didn’t have a kitchen. Everything we ate for most of last year was cooked in a toaster oven, which definitely got tiresome, and I dreamed of the day when I’d have a working kitchen again. Our refrigerator was in the living room. The whole no-kitchen-situation was actually too depressing to think about or discuss.

When the plumber came over to price out the job (he let himself in when I wasn’t there), he was shocked to find that my kitchen was just a gutted hole. “You poor girl,” he said later. “How do you live like that?” I didn’t know, and now that it’s over and my kitchen is 90% finished (it might never be completely done), I still can’t believe I survived it.

During the time we were kitchen-less, I bought a lot of prepared food from Trader Joe’s. Now that I have an oven again, and a dishwasher, I still buy the same things. Bad habit? Laziness? Maybe so. But I don’t trust myself to cook much of anything these days.

Some of it is surely my children’s pickiness. My eldest daughter used to eat everything—Mussels Arrabiatta when she was two comes to mind. Now that she is nine years old, she has adopted the eating habits and issues of the average toddler. Nothing mixed together. Nothing touching. No vegetables besides the occasional corn, potato or peas.

The hours between 4:30 and 6 are the worst hours of my day, typically, full of frantic car rides complete with lots of whining from my kids about how hungry they are. Getting in the house is like a race. Putting something on the table that my kids will eat, as fast as possible, is critical to my sanity. Once I get that done, I am usually too tired to cook anything else. Even on the weekend, when I always intend to cook a bunch of nice dishes for the week, I usually just…don’t.

Now it is the holidays, and I am expected to cook some special things (even though I escaped most of the Thanksgiving cooking due to my ankle fracture). I finally have more than enough counter space, and a clean, bright work area. But I still don’t want to cook. I will make some holiday treats for my students, for my children, for the poor of Philadelphia. But God help me, I do not want to make anything that demands rolling out with a rolling pin.

I have always hated that, for some reason. I own a beautiful marble rolling pin that I think someone gave me as a wedding gift. My baking pans are the best you can buy: Martha Stewart would be proud. I almost can’t botch this, no matter how frazzled I might get.

But I remember how long it takes to deal with these sorts of cookies, or with any kind of pastry or piecrusts. It’s messy. You have to wait for the dough to chill. I don’t have hours to spare. I am impatient. I want results for my time—batches of sweets that I actually like. I don’t much care for sugar cookies in the shapes of Santa or reindeer.

Children, though, want this. They want the whimsical shapes you can only get from a cookie cutter. They love the colored sprinkles melting on top, the whole, time-consuming shebang. It’s memory making, for them.

This year, I was actually thinking about dipping pretzels into chocolate (a Philadelphia thing) and calling it a day. My former gourmet-cooking self would be appalled. How could I change so drastically? Will the urge to cook ever come back?

I am making the shopping list for the Christmas cookies now. I still don’t want to roll out any dough. It’s almost a mental block at this point. Aagh, I am telling myself: shut up and cook. I might actually start to like it again—or maybe this is the sort of thing that women are always telling themselves.


  1. hey, if you ever get into printmaking/monoprinting the marble rolling pin comes in handy....I use it as my "press". lol.
    One day I too woke up and quit cooking. I would much rather make art or write. HAPPY NEW YEAR!
    (I am an artist who had the same ankle fracture----yep, got my scars to prove it!)

  2. Hmmm...I used to like printmaking. Good suggestion! Glad you found my blog. Hope your ankle is feeling back-to-normal (or as close to that as is possible). Happy New Year to you, as well. Thanks for writing. EC